Kashmir: When domestic politics hurts national security
The recent spike in targeted killings of Hindus and Sikhs in Kashmir marks a turning point in the political situation in the Valley, with implications for India’s national security and regional geopolitics.
India has tried hard to demonstrate a return to normalcy since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s special status as per Article 370 on August 5, 2019. But these developments, in conjunction with recent cross-border infiltration attempts, indicate a well-thought-out counter-attack that is sustainable despite India’s powerful counter-insurgency grid in Kashmir.
Often executed in broad daylight in urban and semi-urban areas using small firearms, these killings focus on soft targets such as members of local minority communities, non-local economic migrants, police officers, “pro-India” journalists, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers. They are designed to inflame public opinion, further strain India’s communal fault lines, and invite an even stronger security response from New Delhi.
The other feature is the anonymity of the attackers. To be sure, relatively new militant groups such as The Resistance Front and the United Liberation Front, connected to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and, by corollary, Pakistani intelligence, have been disseminating propaganda to attract recruits over the last two years and have claimed responsibility of these killings. But there is little clarity about the identities of the planners and assassins, broader trends notwithstanding. Unlike the mid-2010s, when Burhan Wani became the face of anti-India sentiment in the Valley, and was killed by the security forces in 2016, there are no centralising militant figures at this point in time.
Such decentralisation of now routine targeted killings, which require little planning and organisational support, makes them difficult to counter militarily. This is especially true if such activities have wider societal sympathy or support. Instead of being high-profile and spectacular, it is the seeming mundaneness of these targeted killings that offers them an operational and political edge. Virender Paswan, a street vendor from Bihar, was selling bhelpuri at Madina chowk in Lalbazar, when he was shot dead.
For New Delhi to stem such killings, which could target tourists next, it will need to deepen and broaden its counter-insurgency presence in the Valley. But that’s precisely what the assailants and New Delhi’s regional adversaries want.
At a moment, when India is dealing with an expensive and escalating military stand-off with China; has failed to stabilise relations with Pakistan; has lost out in Afghanistan; is struggling to recover from a slowing economy; is barely managing the migrant crises in the Northeast since the coup in Myanmar; and is running out of ideas to resolve the farm agitation, these killings are a classic trap.
An Indian response that puts a premium on forceful, punitive action to deter future targeted killings would mean sleepwalking into this trap. Faceless and operating in the open, these assassins are aware that a forceful response by Indian agencies runs the risk of killing innocents. Such loss of Kashmiri lives will not only undermine the mirage of peace, but also increase militant recruitment that remains limited due to operational restraint by the armed forces.
Such risks have increased due to the reduction in human intelligence since August 2019, wherein most senior police officers are non-Kashmiris (though with previous experience in the Valley) and enjoy limited, if not negligible, trust among informants. There is no doubt that the J&K police had a serious corruption problem and often compromised operations. But the marginalisation of Kashmiri officers sidestepped that issue at most. Harassment of senior mainstream political leaders dried up another critical intelligence pipeline that informally operated in parallel to that of the police, Army, and security agencies.
In such circumstances, even if a two-front war scenario doesn’t materialise, an erratic and aggravated Indian response will ensure that the country’s limited resources are bogged down on multiple fronts. Apart from the short-term hike in multi-sited violence and derailment of democratic politics, this can set India’s growth story back in time by at least three decades in the medium- to-long term. Of course, India will still remain a regional power to reckon with, but, perhaps, with much less than its potential.
But India can’t not respond either. It is indeed the State’s responsibility to protect local minorities and non-local migrants from such attacks. This cannot be done by alienating Kashmiri Muslims and creating a communally charged atmosphere where suggestions of political engagement with mainstream Kashmiri leaders are either shot down as being “pro-Islamist” and/or “pro-Pakistan” or, when it’s done, fails to yield meaningful results.
India needs allies on the ground who could help blunt the underlying political causes that feed Islamist and cross-border violence, including these killings. Forced district development council elections, as is apparent, are not an answer. Instead, New Delhi needs to restart the process of long-term engagement with legitimate, democratically minded, Kashmiri leaders. No doubt, some such leaders have a history of political doublespeak, financial corruption, and intra-party dynasticism. But the fact is, they are still India’s least bad option, maybe the only option, to bring the Valley back from the brink — and even they can’t guarantee that.
India today is at a strategic crossroads. The decisive shift in its domestic politics to the Hindu Right and a perennial, partisan, electioneering-mode that allows the ruling party to remain in power have begun to generate serious national security and geopolitical costs. Beijing and Islamabad understand this, and so do India’s allies such as the United States. Unless this contradiction between India’s limiting domestic politics and expanding global aspirations is addressed, and soon, the country risks failing on both counts.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS, University of London, and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal
The views expressed are personal