Elaborate plans to restore some normality vs a developing political vacuum on the ground
More than a month after India ended the special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, it is preparing to restore a high degree of normality by mid-October. This means that the curbs on people’s communication and movement in force since August 5 are likely to continue for another month, highly placed Indian government sources have told Asia Times.
“We believe that by mid- or end-October we will have snowfall in the mountain passes that link the state to Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” a senior official said. “Once the passes are closed, attempts by armed militants to infiltrate into the Indian side will diminish rapidly. That seems to be the ideal time to restore normalcy in the region.” Indian intelligence officials claim that nearly 230 armed militants from the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen are waiting to cross over into Indian Kashmir. Reports of the Lashkar threatening apple farmers from carrying out their business have also emerged.
On August 5, India removed Article 370, a Constitutional provision that gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir a high degree of autonomy. While the degree of autonomy had been progressively whittled down since it was first passed, it had remained a major talking point since an armed insurgency broke out in the state in 1990. The Bharatiya Janta Party, which has been in power since 2014, promised in its election manifesto to abrogate Article 370.
Violence on temporary hold
Officials in the federal government are aware that the abrogation will lead to considerable violence in the coming months. In anticipation the government airlifted nearly 30,000 additional federal police personnel to the state a week before the decision was announced. All forms of communication were cut off in the state after midnight on August 5, and restrictions placed on movement.
Government officials agree that there will be considerable unrest when communications are restored. “We have seen how they use WhatsApp to arrange protests. Once the internet and mobile phone communications are restored, we are likely to see a major outbreak of protests,” a security official said.
The federal government has cancelled the Moharram procession, an annual event among the Shias. The Shias are a minority in the state and are generally known to be pro-India. The majority of them live in the Kargil district, which is now part of the newly-constituted Ladakh union territory. Indian authorities say that the annual procession was canceled to avoid any protests in the region.
The major reference point for Indian security officials worried about the fallout in Kashmir is the killing of Kashmiri militant commander Burhan Wani three years ago. He was killed on July 8, 2016, and as news of his death spread, protests broke out across the Kashmir Valley.
Since then, on hid death anniversary each year a communications shutdown is ordered across the valley. Wani was a local who joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, a group that has traditionally been staffed by locals, unlike other armed militant groups that have drawn on Pakistanis. Wani was active on social media and was seen as a major hero to youngsters, who saw him as a symbol of Kashmir’s separatist aspirations. His killing by a Indian Army unit led to furious clashes between protestors and security forces.
At that time, the use of WhatsApp and mobile phones had allowed groups to coordinate large protests. Therefore, keeping all forms of communications closed was an imperative before India abrogated Article 370.
However, most of the senior officials in the state as well as federal officials posted there were unaware about the government’s intent to abrogate Article 370. Several senior officials who spoke to Asia Times confirmed that very few people were in the loop before the federal government announced the decision in Parliament. While everyone was told that a major decision was coming, most assumed that it would be the revocation of a sub-clause of Article 370 that prevents outsiders from buying land in the state.
India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a former career intelligence officer with extensive experience in Kashmir, said that Pakistan’s reactions would determine how quickly India can restore normality in the state. “We would like all restrictions to go but it depends on how Pakistan behaves. It is a stimulant-and-response situation with the stimulant coming from Pakistan to create provocations, unrest – intimidate and threaten,” he said.
Basic rights curtailed
It’s highly unusual for a senior Indian government official to acknowledge, Pakistan’s moves on Kashmir as a factor to India. New Delhi has steadfastly maintained that Kashmir is an “internal issue” and therefore, it is free to take decisions as it sees fit.
The Narendra Modi-led federal government has been arguing that the abrogation of Article 370 will facilitate greater investments and quicker development in the state. However, this is a view that is increasingly being challenged based on the little evidence that has emerged from the state since the unprecedented lock down was imposed.
“The biggest worry for us is the erosion of the middle ground in Kashmir,” a veteran federal official who spent years in the state told Asia Times. “The government decided to detain all the prominent elected leaders since August 5 to prevent any uprising. Many of them were supportive of India’s policies in the state. They have now been put in an extremely difficult position.”
The state’s politics were dominated by two local political parties for decades. The National Conference, first led by Sheikh Abdullah, the state’s first prime minister under the special constitutional status, was the dominant party. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was formed much later. It managed to run a coalition government with the BJP for four years until the latter withdrew support. The federal government promptly placed the state under its direct rule.
Now leaders from both parties are under “preventive detention,” resulting in a major vacuum in the state’s politics. Worryingly, the government’s assessment is that the state’s political landscape is being replaced by banned groups that advocate a more fundamentalist version of Islam. “This is likely to increase radicalization among the youth and will lead to a major rise in violence,” a security official said.
The fact that the state has curtailed the internet for over a month has also caused irreparable harm to the local economy. “The internet is pretty much basic to most banking and financial transactions now,” that security official said. “The lack of the internet and mobile telephony has made it impossible to carry out large financial transactions. This has hurt the economy of the region quite a lot and will be a major deterrence to any investments in the state. We are likely to see tough days ahead as the local economy comes to a standstill.”
Journalists who have managed to report from the state say that the information clampdown is leading to reports of human rights abuses being suppressed. On September 9 reports of journalists being hurt by pellet guns used by the police to control crowds emerged for the first time. While India has won considerable international support for its move on Kashmir, this could be waning as the lockdown continues.
For India, the immediate endgame in Kashmir is to keep the protests and violence down. But the longer the lockdown remains, the harder it will become for authorities to suppress the coming uprising.