Stimson in the News

Interview with Sameer Lalwani on Developments in Kashmir

in Program

Interview by Ankit Panda of The Diplomat Magazine

The Kashmir Valley, ever a sore point situated between India, Pakistan, and China, saw a resurgence of instability over the last year, following the death of a local militant leader. Burhan Wani’s death touched off protests across the Valley and drew a heavy-handed response by the Indian government. As Sameer Lalwani,  a senior associate and deputy director for Stimson’s South Asia program, discussed with The Diplomat recently, the Indian state’s legitimacy has worsened since last summer, with increasing instances of non-violent or quasi-violent acts of resistance and low voter turnout as clear indicators of public sentiment. While the infiltration of militants from outside the region has slowed, homegrown militancy and local recruitment have been on the rise.

The most recent bout of civic instability and protest in India-administered Kashmir – particularly in the Kashmir Valley – is largely seen as being born of last summer’s killing of Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, by Indian forces. What changed between the previous bout of popular unrest in India-administered Kashmir and last summer’s eruption?

Most analysts would identify the summer 2010 protests – which lasted for 100 days across the Valley and resulted in over 100 killed – as the last “eruption.” After these fierce protests, insurgent violence reached its lowest ebb in 2012 because of a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency campaign combined with a ceasefire agreement and composite dialogue with Pakistan, which allowed the fencing of the LOC [Line of Control] to limit insurgent infiltration.

But the decline in violence did not produce a peace dividend for the majority in the Kashmir Valley, whether in terms of redressing political grievances or economic concerns. Public attitudes of resentment toward the Indian government and state political elites remained high, state economic growth rates were the lowest in the country between 2005-15, and electoral participation remained low in the Valley. Public anger was channeled into novel non-violent or quasi-violent acts of resistance such as stone-pelting, public turnout for militants’ funerals, and large-scale public interdiction of military and police counter-militancy operations.

So, it might be more accurate to view the 2016 eruptions within the context of what hasn’t changed in Kashmir, considering unfulfilled political promises and triumphalist claims of normalcy. Instead, the recent protests seem to mirror previous protests with similar underlying causes.

As far as Kashmiris are concerned, how far has the legitimacy of the Indian state and central government fallen in the latest bout of unrest?

In general, I think the Kashmir Valley’s perceptions of the Indian state’s legitimacy have worsened during the 2016 unrest, although they were already low to begin with. If state authority has ever enjoyed periods of legitimacy in the Valley, it has been through the charismatic personality of Mufti Sayeed or the traditional authority of the Abdullah family, not confidence in the rule of law in India.

Today, legitimacy in Kashmir might be measured through a variety of instruments ranging from public opinion surveys to observed public behavior. The last time public opinion surveys were conducted in a systematic manner in Kashmir was a fall 2009 Chatham House survey, which found that residents of the Kashmir Valley overwhelmingly supported independence above the status quo. Although there have been no systematic surveys since 2009, analysts who study the region will tell you public opinion has likely only worsened.

Low voter turnout also indicates high disenfranchisement and low Indian government legitimacy. Indian democracy is maturing but the military suppression of organized militancy in the Kashmir Valley has not restored voter turnout to pre-insurgency levels.

The growing level of non-violent or quasi-violent resistance further signals the poor state of the Indian government’s legitimacy. Interestingly, a colleague and I recently observed a strong negative correlation between voter participation and stone pelting. For example, the four districts with the lowest average voter turnout in the 2014 state and national elections – Srinagar, Shopian, Pulwama, and Baramulla – had the highest number of stone-pelting incidents just two years later. Where populations are not participating in democratic political institutions, civil unrest tends to escalate.

Reports by former government officials indicate some worrisome new trends, as well. Antipathy for the state, previously dismissed as an urban elite phenomenon, has become more palpable in rural areas of Kashmir. Furthermore, resentment has spread to a younger generation of men from the educated, middle classes. This is what made Burhan so dangerous to the Indian state. If someone with his economic status, education, and prospects felt so alienated as to join a militant organization and recruit his peers, it portends a troubling trend for Indian authorities.

Do you see the Indian Army’s well-documented use of heavy-handed tactics in Kashmir in 2016 as contributing to an overall erosion of political legitimacy?

They might contribute to the overall erosion of political legitimacy, but the underlying resentment and anger precede the clashes of 2016 or 2010. They stem from the disempowerment of much of the population in daily life due to centralized (and excessively militarized) control, corrupt patronage politics, the reduction of Kashmir to an economic problem, and an increasingly strident Hindu nationalist political agenda that is particularly threatening to the only Muslim majority region in India.

In some ways, today’s tactics are less heavy-handed than the more ruthless tactics of the Indian state’s attrition strategy in the 1990s, which included torture, the collective punishment of villages, and the forced disappearances of people into mass graves. Nonetheless, the new tactics of pellet-guns and mass arrests bring their own new problems. For example, mass incarceration may disrupt large gatherings of protesters, but Kashmiri jails are now a major venue for growing radicalization. Mass curfews constrict the space for civic society to channel non-violent political activism. And very visible coercive measures generate greater scrutiny in an era of robust investigative journalism and social media.

Setting aside the question of cross-border infiltration by militants from Pakistan, what is the state of the homegrown insurgency now in Kashmir?

A number of public and state intelligence assessments indicate that while infiltration has been reduced to a trickle since 2001, homegrown militancy and local recruitment has been on the rise for a number of years now. For example, although it seemed that Hizbul Mujahideen, the local insurgent organization,  had been overtaken by foreign militant groups in the late 1990s, it has now seen a regeneration by the likes of Burhan Wani and a swell of new local recruits.

Some have chalked up the rising local recruitment phenomenon to growing radicalization, social media penetration and mobilization, and resentment spreading to the educated, middle class, suggesting that India is losing the battle for the minds of upwardly mobile youth. Most likely, all of these variables are impacting recruitment.

While organizations in Pakistan undoubtedly seek to exploit these fissures in the Kashmir Valley, their reach is limited. In fact, one senior police officer I interviewed not long ago stated that in terms of militancy in the Valley, the local Hizbul Mujahideen and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had, in effect, operationally merged. Today, many LeT commanders in the Valley are actually locals, specifically from South Kashmir. It is much more difficult for the Indian state to attribute the internal uprisings to external forces when locals lead the way.

What is more striking than the rise of homegrown militants is the much larger number of average Kashmiris who participated in civil resistance activities, especially during the 2016 uprising. It is this broad public resentment that affords local and foreign militants plenty of space to swim.

What lies ahead for the Valley and what should interested observers watch for with regard to the Indian government’s approach? Do you see the needle shifting in terms of the domestic political debate in the rest of India about the region?

If anything, recent events suggest the Modi-led BJP government will be even less inclined to seriously address political discontent in the Valley. Part of this could be a focus on nationwide economic concerns like job creation, but it could also be an appeal to Modi’s Hindu nationalist base.

The first problem for any government has been what another BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha, recently termed the “crisis of acknowledgement.” Even if the Modi government comes to terms with the fact that it has a deeply-rooted political problem in Kashmir – not simply one of cross-border terrorism or development – that is repeatedly a source of inter-state crisis, it may not have the motivation to do anything about it.

There’s been a debate about whether a stronger or weaker Modi will be more inclined toward pragmatism both internally and externally, which could allow for a serious redress of grievances and dialogue with Pakistan not only over terrorism but also the status of the Kashmir conflict.

Some have argued a politically weaker Modi would have less capacity to push through economic reforms to propel Indian economic growth and job creation, which would mean a turn to red meat politics for his Hindu nationalist base, such as the revocation of Article 370. However, in contrast to this expectation, others have pointed out that after an electoral loss in the Bihar state elections in November 2015, a chastened Modi government seemed to signal a new willingness to engage on Kashmir and Pakistan. Unfortunately, this seemed to dissipate after the Pathankot attack and the 2016 post-Burhan unrest.

Recently, Modi’s party won the politically significant Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly elections in a major landslide on the basis of a populist and perhaps sectarian nationalist appeal. After this victory, Modi appointed Yogi Adityanath, an unabashedly hardline Hindu political leader, as chief minister of UP. Thus, for now, it seems that a stronger Modi would be unlikely to take a more conciliatory approach toward Kashmir.

Then again, [former BJP Prime Minister] Vajpayee flexed his nationalist bonafides with the 1998 nuclear tests and soon after made a serious effort toward a comprehensive political settlement on Kashmir and Pakistan.



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