City City Bang Bang, Columns

Kashmir: What Now?

The abrogation of Article 370, whatever one’s position on the subject, is now a done deal. Barring an intervention from the Supreme Court, a decisive step has been taken and there is no going back. Given the volatile nature of the Kashmir issue and the sudden unilateral decision by the government, it is difficult to predict as to what might happen next. 

Those within the government and supporting this move would argue that this move ends the uncertainty that has lingered for decades in Kashmir and clarifies the situation, and gives hope that the state can finally be integrated with the rest of the country. While initially there might be some protests, eventually the people in the state will find it to their advantage to belong to the Indian mainstream and will come to welcome this move. Rather than being suspended in the purgatorial state between token autonomy and forceful state control, and retaining the false hope of gaining independence one day, the state will be able to move ahead and cement its place as a legitimate participant in the Indian growth story. The belief is that economic self-interest will come to override other more intangible motivations and lead to some sort of resolution of this long-festering problem.

The other possibility paints pictures of a very different kind. It argues that there is every reason to believe that deep disaffection exists within the state towards the Centre, and avers that once the oppressive restrictions that have placed on the people of the state are relaxed, massive protests are likely to break out. Militant violence is likely to explode in frequency and intensity, and the state is all set to become a site of endemic violence from both sides. State repression would further incite newer generations towards militancy, and the state would slide into a pattern that we have seen often around the world, where violence becomes the governing rhythm of life. Incidents of terrorism would inevitably rise, not only within the state but in the Indian mainland.

This scenario gets complicated by the possible role that Pakistan can play. While it is currently on the backfoot given its economic condition and its general lack of respectability internationally, Kashmir is an issue that can push it to act in disproportionate ways. Many have argued that it would be wise for Pakistan not to escalate this conflict given its internal constraints, but it is far from certain that given its own political compulsions it can afford to take this view. Engaging in a low-intensity conflict is an option that suits it, but the problem is that this Indian government has communicated quite clearly that is willing to take the conflict to the next level in case of such an eventuality. On the other hand, the Taliban’s return to political legitimacy makes it more difficult for India to contain cross-border transgressions given the enhanced supply of willing militants. While so far, the Taliban has been careful to distance itself from any desire to connect Afghanistan with Kashmir, what its position will evolve to in the future is unknown given its past record. Overall, the combination of an inflamed Kashmiri populace, a cornered Pakistan and a rejuvenated Taliban make for a volatile and uncertain mix which could make Kashmir spiral out of control quite dramatically.

Does the more optimistic scenario have a real chance of coming about? Could it be that the first step towards the integration of a people is to snuff out all hope and then proceed to make things better? The PM’s speech emphasised that the government’s intention was to accelerate economic development in the state and thereby make the abrogation of 370 worth its while for the people of the state. Will the people of Kashmir be willing to a trade a futile but energising dream for a distant if uninspiring hope? Given the history of the state, it doesn’t look likely, but in theory, it is certainly a possibility. 

The problem is that the declaration of the desire to improve the lot of the Kashmiris would need a very different approach to the state than what this government’s instincts have so far allowed for. Currently, the overwhelming narrative created by the government and its supporters is one of conquest and subjugation. The exultation about righting a wrong, buying property and worse, leaders in the party talking in terms of being able to ‘get their women’ paints a lurid picture of the motivations that animate this move. Kashmiris cannot be bullied into welcoming this move; they must genuinely trust the intentions of the government, a possibility which looks highly unlikely given the triumphalist tenor of the current mainstream Indian discourse. 

In the short run, the state can, given the grip it has on national media and its fearsome social media network, continue to broadcast its current ‘all is well’ narrative, but in the long run, given the nature of today’s technology and the global interest in the issue, there is no way in which the situation on the ground can be kept hidden from public view. If things go well, it will show up in terms of commerce and tourism, and in the reduction of violence and the reduced need for strong troop presence and if things don’t, in terms of heightened military deployment, rising acts of terrorism and violence and continued control over media and the people of the state. 

On the flip side, however, things turn out, chances are the government will gain politically. If it succeeds in pulling off a more stable atmosphere in the state, then obviously its action will be hailed as a masterstroke. But even if things become much worse, and violence runs wild in the state and beyond, it will only serve to fan the flames of nationalist sentiment. Either way, the government wins. For Kashmir, it might be a very different story.

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