Democratise J&K

Democratise J&K

For peace

On February 14, a Kashmiri suicide bomber trained by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) detonated a bomb in the middle of a convoy of Indian security personnel, leaving 40 dead.  In the aftermath of this heinous attack, the government blamed Pakistan, arguing that the JeM suicide bombing constituted part of a sustained effort by it to destabilise Indian control over Kashmir. 

India would not go quietly into the night after this attack, especially in a national election year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered air strikes against a purported JeM terrorist camp in Balakot. The Pakistani military retaliated by ordering offensive air manoeuvres over Indian airspace, shooting down a MiG-21 and capturing an Indian Air Force pilot. Facing mounting international pressure, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan returned this air force pilot to India to de-escalate the situation.

Whatever the resolution of the ongoing military standoff between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, it is important to keep in mind that the relationship between India and Pakistan is only one dimension of the violence in Kashmir. The other dimension, which is far more important to peace and stability in the region, is the Kashmiri Muslim movement for self-determination.

Since 1989, Kashmir Valley has witnessed ebbs and flows in a violent struggle for self-determination, led by guerrilla fighters based in the Valley. Kashmiris, Indian citizens themselves, have taken up arms against the Indian State. Pakistan has little, if anything, to say about this self-determination movement, other than its willingness to provide safe harbour to terrorist groups and exploiting Kashmiri discontent by providing weapons training to disenchanted Kashmiri youth.

Thirteen years ago, I lived in Srinagar, studying the Kashmiri Muslim self-determination movement through interviews with people in the Valley. I met merchants, politicians, rickshaw drivers, former militants, and students at Kashmir University. Through these interactions, I discovered that Kashmiris had no desire to unify their state with Pakistan. Kashmiris were in search of a nebulous concept of Azadi, the Urdu and Kashmiri word for freedom. I came to understand that Kashmiris sought, most of all, freedom from Indian oppression.

There was simmering discontent because of decades of mis-governance by New Delhi. Although India brags about being the world’s largest democracy, Jammu and Kashmir has rarely been part of this democracy. Instead, India’s long history of declaring President’s rule in the state had for most of the time brought J&K under the direct control of New Delhi.

This ultimately led to popular support for Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and JeM. Pakistan was foreign to Kashmiris, but Pakistani terrorist groups provided a way to fight back against the Indian State. At the very least, Kashmiri people were unwilling to cooperate with Indian security forces in their efforts to root out insurgent fighters in Kashmir. At the most extreme, Kashmiri people willingly accepted the training and arms offered by LeT and JeM.

The fundamental lesson that India and Modi can take from this is as applicable today as it was when I first visited Srinagar: the most significant step in the effort to bring peace to Kashmir is winning public support from the people of Kashmir, especially those in the Kashmir Valley. When militants and terrorist forces lose the grassroots support that they enjoy now, India will be successful in its counterterrorist efforts.

This is far easier said than done. India must start with taking a long, hard look at its track record in J&K. Since 1947, Delhi has encouraged the creation of a quasi-oligarchy that dominates the state government. India’s continuous military presence in the region has become the face of India to the Valley’s residents.

Stop intimidation

The first step towards changing this history must be a concerted effort by India to allow democratic politics to flourish in the state. People should be allowed to vote for the party and candidate of their choosing without fear of repercussions or the illegitimate imposition of President’s rule.

Military and security forces should not intimidate voters at the ballot booth, nor should the government ban political parties. Instead, India should confidently embrace its identity as the world’s largest democracy. Repressing certain parties India accuses of sympathising with Pakistan will not bring peace to Kashmir. It will contribute to the parties’ popularity.

The government should also bring Swachh Bharat to J&K and fight hard to remove corruption from the ranks of the state’s governing politicians. These politicians have increasingly become self-interested stooges who compete to curry favour with Delhi. As a result, the state government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of most people in the Valley.

Delhi must also address the issue of military presence in Kashmir. It must treat the people of Kashmir as citizens, rather than colonial subjects. Soldiers operate with impunity under the banner of national security. To address this, the government must transfer law enforcement duties from the military to the local civilian police force. Though some troops may be maintained to safeguard the Line of Control, India should limit the number of forces in the interior of Kashmir.

Stymying terrorism and bringing peace to Kashmir will not be easy. The BJP has premised its rise to power on a muscular nationalism that benefits electorally from instability in J&K, India’s only Muslim-majority state. Asking Modi to take peaceful steps to decrease the grassroots support that militants enjoy in J&K may be too much. But Modi was elected as a different sort of leader, one who would lead India to a glorious future. Perhaps, he can fulfill that mandate now — by taking steps to democratise the state of Jammu and Kashmir, so that India can enjoy lasting peace.

(The writer is a lawyer in public service in Los Angeles, USA)