Features | Security | South Asia

Kashmir Tensions Mount

Continuing attacks and intensifying rhetoric are placing India-Pakistan relations under growing pressure.

Kashmir Tensions Mount
Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is under pressure on multiple fronts. A string of militant attacks in the Kashmir Valley in recent months accompanied by incessant shelling across the Line of Control (LoC) separating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir over the last fortnight has set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. To add to the tension, the Jammu region was convulsed in Hindu-Muslim violence last week.

Indian security analysts are warning that the recent violence in the Valley – the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan – could presage the start of another phase of armed violence in J&K.

On March 13 this year, militants attacked a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, killing five CRPF personnel and injuring ten others. Another encounter between security forces and militants less than a fortnight later left three Indian soldiers critically wounded. Two major attacks followed in June, one of them on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Srinagar. Heavily armed militants opened fire on a military convoy killing eight soldiers and wounding 14 others. The attack, widely described as “audacious” given the fact that Srinagar was in a tight ring of security ahead of the prime minister’s visit, is the deadliest in Kashmir in five years.

Things were looking up somewhat in strife-torn J&K in recent years. A Ministry of Home Affairs’ Annual Report, 2012-13 released in April this year drew attention to “the signs of considerable improvement” in 2012 over previous years. “The level of infiltration from across the border [with Pakistan] and the resultant terrorist activities in the valley of Kashmir showed a significant decline,” the report observed, going on to provide figures of falling fatalities among civilians, security forces and since 2009.

That has now changed. In the wake of the recent surge, respected journalist Praveen Swami observed that for the first time since 2001-2002, when India almost went to war with Pakistan over an attack on India’s parliament building by a Pakistan-backed militant group, fatalities among Indian security forces have increased. “In the first six months of 2013,” he pointed out, “India has already lost more police and military personnel than it did in all of 2012, and more than it did in 2011.”

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Why are militant attacks increasing?

Indian intelligence officials who spoke to The Diplomat blame Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the anti-India terror groups it backs. “Outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have in recent months stepped up mobilizing against India,” an official of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s internal intelligence agency, said. NATO’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is being interpreted by jihadi groups as a defeat for the U.S. “It is  encouraging them to rally their followers to fight Indian troops in Kashmir,” he said.

Indeed, at a rally in February in Lahore, LeT founder and Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed demanded that India “leave Kashmir,” else it would face defeat like the Americans in Afghanistan. “No one could defeat the Muslims,” Saeed thundered amid chants of “al-jihad, al-jihad” from his supporters. “If America had to run away [from Afghanistan], then India, you will have to leave Kashmir as well,” he warned.

Security analyst Maroof Raza, a former major in the Indian Army, told The Diplomat that following NATO’s pullout, Afghanistan “would become the next strategic battleground with India and Pakistan jockeying for influence along with others neighbours of Afghanistan.”

There is a “high possibility” of the ISI stepping up violence in Kashmir “to divert India’s attention away from Afghanistan,” the IB official warned, adding that this scenario could be unfolding already.

In the past, points out the IB official, “Pakistan would push militants into India under cover of artillery fire. This reduced with a ceasefire taking effect in 2003.” The recent shelling, he says, that Pakistan is “back to its old tricks.”

Indeed, India’s Defense Minister A K Antony told Parliament recently that the number of infiltration attempts since January this year was double that reported in the same period last year.

While some blame the violent incidents to increasing infiltration of terrorists by Pakistan, others link it to continuing Kashmiri anger with the Indian state, which peaked early this year with the execution in February of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament.

Guru’s trial and conviction, and the unseemly haste and secrecy with which he was hanged triggered angry protests in Kashmir.

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Parallels have been drawn between Guru and Maqbool Butt, the founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who was hanged in 1984 for the assassination of an Indian diplomat in London. Both Butt and Guru were hanged in Delhi’s Tihar jail and buried there and Guru has now joined Butt as a martyr to the “Kashmir cause.”

Butt’s hanging was among several reasons for the deepening of Kashmiri alienation from the Indian state in the 1980s, which culminated in a ferocious armed uprising that erupted in 1989. A powerful anti-India insurgency, armed and supported by neighbouring Pakistan, raged for over a decade thereafter.

With the insurgency burning itself out more or less, a semblance of ‘peace and normalcy’ returned to the Valley. Is this now in jeopardy? Has Guru’s hanging spurred militancy again in the Valley?

Kashmiris point out that the period of so-called “normalcy” was hardly peaceful, riddled as it was with violence.  Encounters between militants and security forces in the Valley’s separatist hotbeds have continued as did the killing of unarmed civilians by both sides. To many Kashmiris, the present upsurge is simply an extension of the violence of the past.

Srinagar-based political analysts rule out the return of insurgency. Unlike in 1989, observes Gull Mohammad Wani, director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies in Srinagar, “Kashmiri youth today have little enthusiasm or inclination to pick up arms.” Besides, in 1989-90, the uprising took India by surprise. It was unprepared to take on the challenge to its sovereignty. That is not the case today, Wani pointed out.

More than militant attacks, “it is civilian protests that are widespread,” says Noor Ahmad Baba, professor and head of the Department of Political Science at University of Kashmir, pointing to the mass demonstrations and stone pelting that erupt frequently in the Valley.

The security forces’ use of excessive force to quell these protests is creating a dangerous situation. Indeed, as Baba points out, India’s counterinsurgency approach has only deepened Kashmiri alienation from the state.

Wani observes that the Indian state “is arrogant and muscular,” with “no other language to communicate with the people, except the language of power.”

Adding fuel to the simmering tension in Kashmir was the outbreak of communal violence in Kishtwar in the Jammu region. “This could be an attempt by Pakistan to force a partition of J&K along religious lines,” the IB official said.

While India is opposed to any redrawing of boundaries along religious/communal lines, there are parties and politicians in India too who seek electoral gain through sectarian polarization of society. With elections to the J&K state assembly and the Indian parliament due next year, they can be expected to stir trouble.

It is hard to imagine that only a few weeks ago, despite the militant attacks, optimism was in the air in Kashmir.

Nawaz Sharif’s return to power in Pakistan and his expression of support for good relations with India together with Indian government’s willingness to revive the suspended dialogue with Pakistan raised hopes in the Valley, even as it was met with some scepticism in Delhi.

Although Sharif has long favoured stronger trade ties with India, his cosy relations with Pakistan’s religious fundamentalists and backing of terror groups in the past are still of concern to India. “The Indian establishment should be wary of Sharif,” warned Raza.

Recent reports in the Indian media have drawn attention to “Sharif’s secret K-plan,” which envisages “a fresh push [from Pakistan] on Kashmir.”

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While some in India believe there is no alternative to dialogue with Pakistan, others argue that this is pointless, instead calling for a fitting response to Islamabad’s aggression. The sharp surge in bilateral tension following the killing of five Indian soldiers at the LoC, and the rise in militant attacks in recent months will strengthen the hardliners.

The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers were to meet in New York next month. That may not happen. Even foreign secretary-level talks scheduled for later this month could be postponed.

Meanwhile, an India-Pakistan “war of resolutions” has broken out.  Last Tuesday, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution accusing India of “unprovoked” firing across the LoC and reiterating its long-held position of extending “diplomatic, political and moral support for the just and legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people for the realisation of their right to self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Security Council resolutions.” A day later India’s lower house of Parliament responded with a counter resolution that rejected Pakistani allegations and asserted that “the entire state of Jammu and Kashmirincluding the territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan is and shall always be an integral part of India.”

As the Indian Express observed in an editorial, the tit-for-tat resolutions “reflect the rapidly deteriorating security dynamic between the two nations.”

As the rattle of gunfire reverberates in the hills along the LoC and hostile rhetoric dominates the discourse in both countries, voices calling for moderation, talks and peace are being drowned out. This will only deepen the despair in Kashmir.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected]