KASHMIR TIMES Op-ed 6 July 2019
Kashmir: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
While complimenting the governor and the representative of the Union for sticking their necks out prior to the visit of the home minister to the Valley, it must be recorded how irrelevant their positioning on talks turned out to be. In the event, the home minister, having the next national elections in his sights when he gets elevated to prime ministership, has left behind a potentially worse mess. That neither the governor nor the interlocutor resigned thereafter brings them back to square one in esteem, especially since they are busy implementing anti-democratic orders as privileging the Yatra over state assembly elections and concomitant guidelines as traffic stoppages on arteries favouring yatris over citizens.
To be fair to the home minister, he has cannot be credited with any clue on next steps, if indeed he is the one calling the shots. In his earlier avatar in the home ministry in his province, he is infamous for his calls to gunmen in khakhi out killing hitman Sohrabuddin, even while they did despicable things to the brave wife of the hitman. It is quite clear that the khakis were not out on an autonomous errand. Instead, it is possible – whatever the cabinet system that India conferred on itself seventy some years back might have it - that the Kashmir policy is in the hands of Ajit Doval in his capacity as super defence- foreign-internal-security minister as his step up to cabinet rank implies.
Strategic sense has been kept a state secret all through Modi’s first term. It is no wonder then that by the end of it India was facing the threat of nuclear war as it contemplated retaliating to the Pakistani counter to Balakot launched in broad daylight at Naushera-Rajauri. Not all of the gallant air chief’s sweeping-under-the-carpet act in denying any such attacks took place on behalf of his political bosses can rewrite history on this score. In the event, the Modi-Doval duo chickened out of missile strikes – using the peacemaking intervention of the United States timely released from its obsession with Kim Jong Un - as cover.
Politicians – notable for being in election mode over the past five years - cannot be expected to look past the next upcoming election, set for autumn in Kashmir. This accounts for a Hindu pilgrimage taking front seat as against the priority to revert the state to democratic rule. The disingenuous reason is that the nomads out in high altitude pastures would be disadvantaged by elections any time sooner. It gives the ruling party more time to attain Mission 44, that it missed out on last time. The last time they put the international border sector on fire using Khakis (once again) of the border guarding force to extend the Line of Control’s active scenario on to that sector. This time round an outcome of the Shah visit was to appease the communities inconvenienced by the brunt of the Pakistani Rangers’ backlash with reservations through a parliamentary intervention on his return to Delhi.
The statistic put out of 733 killed over the past four years was to condition the home minister that India is in a position of strength from which it can launch a peace initiative. Sources had it that recruitment had come down, as had stone throwing. The governor, for his part, went out of his way to put the spot-light on peace possibilities, highlighting the softening of separatists. Notably, this followed a visit by Dineshwar Sharma to him, implying that the credit for creating the possibility is a shared one. The intent was to depict this as the ‘ripe moment’, which was certainly a ‘hurting’ strait for the insurgent side, even if not a ‘hurting stalemate’ for India since the problem is seen as confined to three and half districts out of India’s 700 plus districts.
The onus needs to be borne by Delhi. Doval has a military adviser, but his input can be anticipated in light of his view (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loDM_ub6ELE) that the demonetization dealt a body blow to terrorism, with terrorists reduced to robbing teller machines to get by. Clearly, the establishment in Delhi and Srinagar is not on the same page. While Srinagar having followed the script over the past four years thought it was time for a politically predominant exit strategy, Delhi did not think so.
Delhi is perhaps cognizant that Shah, as an aspiring prime minister – now that the bench mark for toughness has been set by the current prime minister – cannot be expected to on his very first visit go namby-pamby. So even if there was strategic level sense for a shift of gears in Kashmir, the political level has different verities informing its consideration. Delhi’s national security establishment errs in putting on political blinkers, borrowed from Nagpur (incidentally, the military advisor is from close by Indore), to its supervisory and advisory role on Kashmir.
This author in an opinion piece ‘War in 2018?’ (18 Jan 2018, http://www.kashmirtimes.in/newsdet.aspx?q=75607) in this publication had dwelt on the portents of war that year, keeping in mind the national elections slated for the following year. The lesson is that Kashmir has potential to take the two sides to war in short order. Considering that the Pakistani side got the better of India over the last crisis – the information war notwithstanding – there would be a push to get even at the next opportunity. So, if this side the India’s backed off from shooting off their missiles, the next time that may well be their start point. Both surgical strikes and the aerial strike were brushed off by the Pakistanis. Indian bravado requires more proof than what mere information war can furnish. All of the air force’s bluster cannot show up an F-16 carcass. Pakistanis, warned off by the air chief that Rafales would be in place by early next year, would also prefer the missile exchange option. It would draw in the international community fairly quickly.
Pakistanis could get uppity. Projecting an indigenous face to the insurgency over the proxy war Indians prefer (the proportion of Kashmiris dead went up from 40 per cent to two thirds), they have been quiescent over the past four years. India’s diplomatic offensive is set to peak in October with the financial action task force taking a review then. This explains Pakistan’s arraigning of Hafeez Sayeed for canvassing money for the jihad. There is enough of an overlap between the Islamic block – that took a dim view of Indian (in)action in Kashmir only early this year - and the task force to bail out Pakistan. No amount of deliberation by Indian diplomats in the shadow of the Sardar Patel’s statue may help out, particularly since India itself does not walk the talk on terrorism – having let off its ‘good terrorists’ in cases such as the Samjhauta express and ensconced the Malegaon accused into parliament.
Pakistanis are also well placed in Afghanistan, having weathered Trump’s worst. Though it put them in an economic bind, leading to the army settling for less in this budget, it has delivered Taliban to the all-Afghan jirga this month. Therefore, it can afford to reengage with mischief in Kashmir, perhaps as early as next year. The 300 or so militants are enough to see off the summer campaign. India’s rebuff of its outstretched hand over the past year could come at a price.
As the ruling party makes gains in Rajya Sabha, it would draw closer to Shah’s promise of rescinding Articles 370 and 35A as part of New India by 2022. This is when Pakistan would likely pitch in, if the 1965 War is any guide. Then, India had rid Kashmir of the titles its governor and chief minister, seemingly drawing Kashmir in closer embrace. A renewed push along such lines would unlikely see Pakistan stand idly by. Also, as in 1965 when India was recovering from its drubbing in 1962, it would be preempting Indian power getting too big to deflate later.
India has good reasons to believe it can withstand anything Pakistan throws at it. However, it must reckon with poor defence budgets over the past four years. It must factor in that its self-image as a power far outstrips reality, if the recent crisis outcome is any guide. It bears warning that a draw with Pakistan – a limited war can only end in a draw - would leave Modi as much out of hot air as was Nehru after 1962.
If the political level is unmindful, the strategic and operational level must push back. Shah has to be reminded that in his new capacity he does not have the likes of DG Vanzara at the other end, lest he carry over habits so formed into his upcoming prime ministership at the cost of India and national security.