No Endgame is the Endgame for India in Kashmir

Shashank Shekhar Rai


Kashmir. A hangover problem for Pakistan, an ego issue for India, and an unceasing existential crisis for the Kashmiris. If one were to track Kashmir’s history from 1947 onwards, one might track war, great political gambits, spineless leadership, deceit, more war, human rights violations, constant conflict, and small windows of opportunity to arrive at a solution for the oldest unresolved political conflict in the world. But a lack of political will has prevented any discussion to go anywhere close to resolving a dispute which continues to be mired in historical baggage.

In the summer of 2016, the killing of Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old Kashmiri militant, reignited a political issue that continues to feed off political rhetoric more than a reasonable, logical pursuit of peace. The commentary that has followed Wani’s death has focused either on repeating the same political rhetoric or lamenting the loss of lives of innocent citizens. The social media, like on most issues, has seen the worst of it — from singeing criticism of Indian state and army to ridiculing Kashmiris and their cause. But this commentary and such reactions are no different from what we saw in 2010 or any of the crises before that.

That said, it would be wrong to assume that the political landscape in Kashmir has not evolved. For the longest time, we in India, have considered Kashmir to be a security concern. Any threat to Kashmir is treated as the worst imaginable threat to its sovereignty, which is ironical considering how the Indian state has dealt with Kashmiris, their welfare, and their aspirations. An extension of this worldview has helped Indian polity at large, and Indian diplomats in particular, to sweep under the rug the political underpinnings of the state — a tact that we continue to practice even today.

However, total fatalities in Kashmir due to Terrorism have gone down from 1116 to 174 in the last ten years — an 84 percent fall in casualties. In fact, while in 2006, 54 percent of all deaths were of terrorists, in 2015, the terrorist deaths accounted for 65 percent of all deaths. These are just small statistics on the terrorism debate in Kashmir but nevertheless signify a reduced foreign threat in the area, for which the Indian army can and should take credit. But a repercussion of this progress has not led to effective reduction in militancy in the state and even though very few Kashmiris today escape to Pakistan to be trained to fight for freedom (as was largely the case in the 90s), today’s youth is more than willing to take up arms to continue that struggle. This has been on the back of a realization among Kashmiri political activists that reliance on Pakistan for their freedom only weakens their case. Pakistan’s support for the separatists has not dissipated, but the problem definitely has adopted a more domestic hue than before.

In this lies the biggest failure of the Indian state as in the last decade, for all the progress that has been made in keeping Pakistan at bay in Kashmir, the government has failed to see the change in trend of the militancy and to follow up that change with appeasing the Kashmiris. Even today, Kashmiris continue to call for a seat on the negotiation table to resolve the issue. We did see some progress under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as through active diplomacy with Pakistan, we had a ‘Kashmir Formula’ which had the consent of everyone besides Syed Ali Shah Geelani. But soon after, domestic politics in both the countries ensured that the proposed solution never saw the light of the day.

India’s response, in the meanwhile, has left a lot to be desired. Despite having extensive debates on Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the government has time and again ceded to the demands of the Ministry of Defence to avoid any changes to the act. It has also ignored the various verdicts of the Supreme Court of India that has condemned AFSPA and has declared extrajudicial killings, even in special circumstances, illegal. In doing so, the government has further distanced the Kashmiri youth, which has resulted in a revival of violence and gun culture in the state. The fake encounters in 2010 only fed into the anti-India narrative and further narrowed the space for political maneuvering.

Burhan Wani’s killing is a case in point of the above phenomenon but to think of the violence that has engulfed the state since his killing, as a standalone reaction will be missing the point. But from the domestic politics of India, it would appear, that missing the point is the point. Any effort at resolving the Kashmir issue would involve India beginning a process to normalize circumstances in the state, beginning with the removal of AFSPA. Another way is to accept the separatists as legitimate stakeholders internationally, but that would imply an acceptance of the internationally accepted fact that Kashmir is disputed territory. Any such acceptance is likely to have a strong reaction within the country and will guarantee voting the ruling party out of power in the next election. While conducting the long awaited plebiscite is one option, that would contradict India’s argument (rejected by the United Nations) that participation in democratically conducted elections is tantamount to conducting a plebiscite. Furthermore, any plebiscite will involve Pakistan to backtrack as a stakeholder in the issue, which is just about as likely as Prime Minister Modi not seeking a re-election in 2019.

There are no winners in this conflict. Only losers. But India stands to lose the least if things stay the way they are. There are economic costs, but they have been accounted for. There is risk to human lives, but that has never been a genuine concern in this country. However, there is a lot of political capital at stake and for a country whose foreign policy has historically begun and ended with Pakistan, any real progress on Kashmir is a losing cause. So no government in India is likely to pursue real change. That is also why we never saw any progress on the much touted Agenda of Alliance. It never was meant to be anything more than a political gimmick to maintain the status quo. But as we have seen in the last decade, things have changed in Kashmir. What has not changed is India’s reaction. We can take the risk of continuing to hold this stance or we can be more proactive. But if the past is anything to go by, proactive diplomacy is only likely to be another gambit that returns us to the dormant politics of hollow claims, shambolic policy-making, and disenfranchised Kashmiris.

The author is a student at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the Editor for India Ink, Georgetown University’s student run forum for analysis of India specific issues.