Prepare for the worst: The Indian State is in retreat in Kashmir
In case anyone hasn’t cottoned on yet, let us say up front: This is not a reprise of 2010. The daring attack at Uri on Sunday should make that clear. Sadly, one reason it happened is that those in authority have cussedly refused to accept the seriousness of the situation in Kashmir; internal and external factors are not mutually exclusive. We have stumbled, blinkered if not blindfolded, into the fog of war. The demonstrations across Kashmir since July 8 were only one strain of a complex development that is still in its early stages.
Sadly, top functionaries of the state, the Army, home ministry, the intelligence setup and the Opposition have viewed the events as no more than a repeat of 2010. In fact, what we have witnessed in Kashmir is the overture to a dark opera that will unveil scenes from hell as it progresses from act to frightening act. I hope this prediction is wrong, but it is time to examine the worst-case scenario: A repeat of what happened from 1962 to 1965, compressed into a crushing punch. During those years, Chinese troops advanced into Indian territory in 1962, the Valley erupted in uproar a year later, Pakistan intensely shelled the Ceasefire Line (now the Line of Control) from July 1964, and launched Operation Gibraltar a year later.
That operation was an attempt to take over Kashmir through coordinated action by infiltrators, war manoeuvres by the Pakistan Army and by ordinary Kashmiris who Pakistani strategists hoped would rise in revolt. It did not work. But there are at least three reasons why current Pakistani strategists might want to try again. One, China is backing them now; Bhutto’s wooing of the dragon from 1963 on has paid off richly. Two, the past two months must have convinced them that the Kashmiris will revolt this time — indeed, already have. Three, they may think that the West is on board, based on recent noises from the US media and the UN.
Upping the ante through Balochistan is an ambitious gambit, but the finest strategic thinkers in history have recommended preparing for the worst. What could be the worst imaginable? How about if Kashmiri militants, along with Pakistani infiltrators, are joined by mobile columns of stone and catapult-wielding boys, while the Pakistan army undertakes manoeuvres and the Chinese Army advances into Ladakh? Smart military minds view the demonstrations of the past couple of months as the half in a potential two-and-a-half front challenge — but sadly, this view has not been shared by the top brass in the field.
Could the dark prognosis prove right? Well, here are some pretty well-known facts. One, Chinese troops have repeatedly entered since 2008. Two, China has made clear that it not only considers the state disputed, but that it is party to the dispute. Three, Pakistan demonstrated in Kargil that its manoeuvres can be real wild cards. Four, infiltrators are pouring in across the LoC. Five, stone-wielding mobile columns have demonstrated their effectiveness during encounters. A sixth fact might be less known, given the sorry state of intelligence: Hundreds of Kashmiri boys have gone underground in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the Indian State has demonstrated ineffectiveness. Over the past two months, they have either been nonplussed or have allowed the situation to slip in the hope that it will recover without their having to show their hand. So, two and a half months after militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing, hartals continue. Knots of boys remain on the roads and highways, enforcing their will with stones and machismo. They get support from some of their neighbours.
Forget the 5% that has been bandied about, even 2% of the Valley’s population is close to 150,000 boys — a veritable army. In tandem with the new battalions of Kashmiri militants, and the sort of highly trained, armed and motivated terrorists who attacked Uri (and Mumbai eight years ago), they could turn Kashmir into a quagmire of death and destruction. The government and opposition, at the Centre and in Kashmir, must haul their heads out of the sand. When the Centre should have reached out to the Kashmiri people with sensitivity, it presided over beef vigilantism and anti-Muslim hubris. Instead of girding urgently for war, they have been bandying about autonomy options. Post-Uri, they seem to think shaking a fist westward will cover their eastern flank too. The country cannot afford such flailing nearsightedness.
The state is in retreat in Kashmir. It remained on the back foot for far too long, hoping the demonstrations would die down. Now it has no idea how to regain control. Police statistics show that the number of clashes has decreased significantly in south Kashmir since July — but that there is an uptrend in central and north Kashmir. The truth is the numbers on the streets have decreased, but agents provocateurs control enough numbers in enough places to keep things shut down.
The very least our rulers must do is wake to the possibility that all this might be only the opening act of a much bigger horror story. They must prepare for the worst. Now.
David Devadas, a geopolitics expert, has written books on Kashmir
The views expressed are personal.