Monday, 29 April 2019

India Quarterly 65, 3 (2009): 329–343.
Praveen Swami, India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947–2004 (New York: Routledge, 2007) in India Quarterly 65, 3 (2009): 329–343.
Praveen Swami has established his journalistic credentials in reporting and analysing, among other things, the Kashmir situation, for the reputed periodical, Frontline, and for the well regarded paper, The Hindu. Recourse to his in depth reporting is virtually a necessity for gaining a handle on the complex situation. This owes to his range of sources, particularly in the intelligence and police, but also his self-imposed requirement of getting a feel of the ground through visits to the remote and relevant locales as necessary. The insights gained have been packaged with balance and sensitivity over the years. That said, the book falls short of his own standards in terms of being unidimensional in its focus on ‘Jihad’ at the expense of the several factors that have underpinned the India-Pakistan six decade long tangle and the two decade old insurgency in Kashmir. Jihad has of late acquired a notoriety that sells. Any linkage with Jihad these days instinctively leads to delegitimisation so strong is the dominant, largely western media led, discourse. Unfortunately, insertion of the term, Jihad, in the title serves to misrepresent the Kashmiri situation and in doing so does a disservice to the very people Swami has so sensitively written about for over a decade.

At the outset, it is conceded that the author has brought to fore a relatively lesser known dimension of the vexed Kashmir question – that of the covert war between the two states and by non-state actors. This is a signal and original contribution to the otherwise over-crowded Kashmir book shelf. Since other dimensions such as the foreign policy and military, have already been brought out by other perceptive authors earlier, there was little remaining to be told. Swami, in accessing the intelligence trove that is usually off limits, has been able to shed fresh light on the conflict. His work therefore is a necessary supplement to known aspects. It is with good reason that Swami writes: ‘No one book of course can tell the tale of all these and all the other struggles which together constitute the Jammu and Kashmir conflict…This book traces just one thread of a complex weave. It is however a thread that few have paid attention to…’ Nevertheless, the catchy manner it is titled, its narrow focus on Pakistani directed Jihadi terror and his reading a historical continuity into it distracts from the other, equally salient, dimensions absent from his book. This shortcoming can however be overcome with the discerning reader keeping in mind the context, parallel happenings and competing narratives in other facets of the conflict.

Swami’s book is a product of his Senior Fellowship at the United States Institute of Peace in 2004-05. This is perhaps the cause for the over-emphasis on ‘Jihad’, since during the period the topic had reached a crescendo in the US. He covers his ground with great detail, even delving into hitherto fore classified intelligence files. He traces the Jihadist journey in Kashmir to the original schism between the fundamentalists and secularists in the anti-feudal politics in Kashmir prior to Accession. Thereafter the political project of the Muslim Conference was taken up by the Pakistani state for identity and other, more secular reasons grounded in realpolitik. The despatch of the tribal lashkars and later a like invasion under Operation Gibraltar in 1965 are examples. The untold story revealed by Swami is in how the Jihadist enterprise was kept alive through the quieter period of the seventies and eighties. He attributes the explosion over the turn of the last decade to the ability of the infrastructure already available in Pakistan to exploit and hijack the civil unrest in Kashmir. He thus sees continuity in Kashmir’s troubles in Jamaati politics and its linkage to the other side of the border.

In actuality, the religious motivation aspect, while not absent, does not impel the most grave challenge the Indian state has ever faced from any of its constituent minorities or ethnic groups. Among the prominent competing factors is the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan based on secular, historical and resource related claims. The covert war is a result also of this tussle between the two states. Then is the aspect of the uprising since 1990. This was occasioned by a constellation of factors to include the culpability of the Indian state. This was not a jihad to begin with, though Jihadi forces did play a role and have since acquired prominence. Lastly, on the aspect of power asymmetry between the two states, some analysts deem as most consequential to the relationship. Addressing this through realist logic meant that Pakistan tie down Indian military power in manpower intensive counter insurgency operations. This strategy explains ‘K2’ (Khalistan and Kashmir) referred to by Swami. This implies jihad has been more a strategic tool rather than having any autonomous reason to exist. It is for this reason that Pakistan continues to hedge in curbing terror originating from its soil, despite the ‘blowback’ it is currently experiencing.

Take for instance the numbers of Jihadis. The number of foreign terrorists has seldom touched 60 percent. The largest outfit is the Hizb ul Mujahedeen that is recognised to be of Kashmiris, all of whom are not necessarily Islamists. Kashmir’s story is as much about militant youth, as about hardened terrorists. Motivations among foreigners range from mercenary to youth escaping anonymity and ennui in the stratified Pakistani society. Witness the origins of Kasab. Even their handlers, though espousing Islam for self interested reasons, are not oblivious to money, power and proximity to power centres in Pakistan. Swami’s neglect in bringing out a more variegated picture indicates his scholarly instinct has been subordinated to his intelligence sources. The requirement of bringing new sources to light is important. Drawing sustainable conclusions is more so. To Swami’s credit, he acknowledges a limited purpose: ‘Social, economic, political and ideological forces far larger than the jihad itself indisputably contributed to that cataclysmic event (1989-90): my effort here is to highlight an ignored narrative thread in the history of those events. Given his breadth of engagement with the subject, he would have done better to stitch this thread into the wider Kashmir story, if only in the introduction or conclusion. Not doing so lends his work to manipulative use by interested political forces, not only in Kashmir but outside it in India.

The important point that emerges indirectly from Swami’s work is that the Indian state has been responding primarily to the element of jihad that is only one among the multiplicity of factors and not necessarily the most significant. This is evident from the importance intelligence experts have had over the years in formulating India’s policy with respect to Kashmir. Many are listed in Swami’s sources and some remain unnamed. Swami has elsewhere informed us of the interface the ISI has had with RAW over Kashmir that did not lead anywhere in the early nineties.  Such contacts are in the air as of the writing of this review, and in light of the competition between the two state agencies, are bound to lead nowhere.  This calls for a political approach and political control. That such a strategy will not be forthcoming owes to policy space conceded to the intelligence community, strengthened in wake of Kargil with addition of new structures. While the pathology is well understood in case of Pakistan as has been amply brought out by Swami; that intelligence input has queered India’s policy response awaits a book length treatment. It is perhaps one reason why India has not been able to bring the problem to a closure through political means. Having misinterpreted the Kashmir problem as Jihadi covert war alone, it has understandably not wanted to appease such forces. The political working group established as a result of the Prime Minister’s Round Tables exercise of mid this decade did not even submit a report. The governance initiatives that have been taken are arguably not enough.

An accurate interpretation of the Kashmir problem has been held hostage by many factors including intelligence analysis fed by institutional bias. Others include the zero-sum contestation with Pakistan. Since acceding to legitimate grievances in Kashmir would be taken as a Pakistani ‘victory’, India stays its hand in turning rhetoric of ‘sky is the limit’ and ‘hand of friendship’ to reality. The ascendance of the conservative end of the spectrum and cultural nationalism in India over the nineties has also influenced the government’s position. The hard line is therefore inescapable. Analysis such as this book from the otherwise credible author only serves to further undercut necessary initiatives. Thus Kashmir remains on the boil. This serves Pakistani interests. Indian interests are not served since Kashmiris are Indian citizens and secondly continuing instability gives Pakistan a handle. Lastly, it energises forces that Swami describes as Jihadi. Other factors that excite Kashmiri alienation such as ethnicity, historical grievance and a distaste of counter insurgent pressures, that are amenable to policy ministration, are marginalised.

The corresponding covert war from the Indian side not only in Kashmir but also in Pakistan, not being covered, Indian intransigence is only superficially understandable. In case these are to be factored in, what emerges is a duet between two contending intelligence agencies, virtually autonomous of political control. While in Pakistan the ISI can be expected to be granted a blank cheque by the military, in India there appears to be a deficit of political and parliamentary control. Swami’s narrative begins with a shadowy spymaster, Colonel Hassan Walia, making his entry into Kashmir on a ‘brutal winder evening’. Thereafter ‘the book is a history of a secret storm that swirled around the house on the hill: the long jihad fought in Jammu and Kashmir from 1947-48 to the present day’. The ‘House on the Hill’ has since been inhabited by the Assistant Director, Intelligence Bureau. Swami informs that on the same hillside are the office cum residences of the Research and Analysis Wing and Kashmir’s premier interrogation centre, Parimahal; notorious in the Valley among people and security practitioners as ‘Papa One’. The crucial question is who exercised control over what goes on at that Hill? Intelligence men from BN Mullick in the early period to former RAW chiefs, ‘Gary’ Saxena and Dulat, in the later period have been key players. This is a telling comment on India’s democratic good health in which accountability over actors is to be exercised by people’s representatives in legislatures and the parliament. Swami unintentionally opens up a ‘Pandora’s box’ that it would behove political decision makers to introspectively address in the North Block and 7, Race Course Road.

A storm has greeted the joint statement issued pursuant to the meeting of the two prime ministers in Sharm el Sheikh. This is over the allusion to the disturbances in Baluchistan. That Baluchistan figures in the news is evidence of an ongoing covert war, brought to notice in its avatar in Kashmir by Swami. That it extends to Baluchistan indicates that Jihad is not at the root. Instead this is a manifestation of state contestation explicable in the realist paradigm over eminently secular definitions of national interest – territory and balance power. Power play requires to be called by the right name and political control exercised accordingly. This requires a holistic view to preserve policy from appropriation by the lead agency and contamination by its institutional interest. A broad front political reengagement with the Kashmir issue is called for to realign Indian policy.