The latest edition of Conflict Weekly covers: J&K a year after 5 August 2019, Militant ambush in Manipur, Environmental protests in Northeast India, and the return of street protests in Iraq | Contributors to this edition are: D Suba Chandran, Vaishali Handique, Sayan Banerjee, Samreen Wani and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
J&K, one year after the constitutional and administrative changes
In the news
5 August 2020 marks the completion of one year of the new “J&K.” On 5 August 2019, the federal government made crucial changes – constitutional and administrative, to the State of J&K, as it existed since 1954. New Delhi removed two important Constitutional provisions – Article 370 and Article 35-A, that provided special status to J&K.
Administratively, the State was divided into Union Territories. Ladakh has been separated from the erstwhile J&K State and had been made an independent Union Territory administered directly by the federal government, as some of the other UTs are. The two regions – Jammu and Kashmir, have been made into another Union Territory, thus removing the status of Statehood.
Issues at large
First, the issue of too much and too little. While the supporters of the 5 August 2019 decision within the erstwhile J&K and outside it consider one year as too little to analyze the impact, the opponents – within and outside the former J&K State consider, the last one year as too much in terms of political and security restrictions. While the first section is expecting more needs to be done, the second section finds it suffocating, and wants to return to 4 August 2019.
Second, the issue of opposition and support to the 5 August 2019 decision. Within Kashmir Valley, there has been no credible support to the federal government’s decision, and the follow up administrative actions since then – that includes the detention of political leaders, restrictions on free movement and the right to assemble, limited internet and related actions. On the other hand, there is widespread support to the decision in Ladakh and the Jammu region. Outside J&K, there is widespread support to the decision in the rest of India; though, a section within the civil society and political parties call for an open debate on the 5 August decision, and the future of J&K.
Third, the issue of security approach, especially in Kashmir Valley. The State in the last one year is looking at maintaining the security situation in the Valley; hence, the success is counted by the number of militants neutralized and the absence of protests. More military and para-military troops have been deployed in the Valley to prevent any assembly of people coming together in the streets. Jammu region remains relatively free from the above restrictions, while Ladakh is largely free.
Fourth, detention and access to the internet, as the two most crucial issues. While the State has been insisting that the political leaders who were detained in August 2019 have been released, the opposition in Kashmir Valley and outside still consider that a large number of political leaders, especially belonging to the PDP including the former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is still under detention. According to Times of India, referring another report, 6,600 have been arrested during the last one year, that includes 400 plus are political leaders (of which 300 have been released). Another major concern is the absence of internet connectivity; while the State believes the restriction is important to maintain the security situation, the opposition considers it as against the fundamental rights. Though the State argues that there has been a restoration, the opposition considers it as a farce and says the internet is intermittent and the speed is too less, with 2G.
Fifth, the issue of violence and counter militancy operations. During the last one year, there has been increased violence, especially in Kashmir Valley, led by the militants. They have targeted the security forces, political leaders, civilians and local leaders. The number of militants killed in 2020 has also been high. According to the Director-General of Police, during January-June 2020, 128 terrorists were killed, of which “70 belonged to the Hizbul Mujahideen, 20 each were from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the rest were from other terrorist outfits.” (Quoted in The Tribune, 30 June 2020)
As one year gets completed, the State has to look towards an exit strategy.
The status quo – in terms of security restrictions, detentions and limited connectivity has to lead to a broader stable politics, with regular politicking. There has to be a more considerable debate at three levels – within J&K, in the Parliament, and between the two.
In Manipur, a militant ambush revives the fears of insurgency in India’s Northeast
In the news
On 29 July 2020, there was an encounter between the insurgents and the Indian security forces, along the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur ( in Chandel district bordering Myanmar).
Three personnel of the Assam Rifles were killed and five others injured. A joint statement was released subsequently by three separatist groups of North-East India – the PLA, the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) and the United Liberation Front of Asom- Independent (ULFA-I) taking responsibility of the attack. They claimed to be fighting “against colonial ruler of India for (our) independence” and urged the people of Northeast “to withdraw from Indian forces” and fight for independence.
The Chief Ministers of Assam and Manipur condemning the incident expressed their concerns. The CM of Manipur “vowed” to not let the sacrifice of the Jawans go in vain and has taken immediate steps of rehabilitating the families of the victims. He remarked that “perpetrators would be hunted” while his Assamese counterpart has named a road in Barpeta district of Assam after one of the demised Assam Rifles Jawan.
Issues at large
First, the return of insurgency over the last five years. Claims of the federal government over restoring complete peace by 2022, is a long way to go, especially amidst a pandemic. With the recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the entire North-East, the insurgent groups have found it easier to create a narrative justifying their fight against India.
Secondly, the groups share ideological similarities with the People’s Liberation Army of China. There has been speculation that these groups are in touch with the Chinese and involved in active training sessions in batches. At a time, when India is on the verge of a possible war with China, unrest in north-east India associated with PLA Manipur can be an indicator of infiltration and decoy according to various think tanks.
Thirdly, the Indo-Myanmar border being porous, scattered with hilly terrains and jungles, is poorly guarded. Various insurgent groups along the border have their hideout camps and training facilities in the neighbouring country and can easily travel back and forth from India.
Fourthly, as mentioned in the recent joint statement, “Indian expansionism” has been the most critical issue of the insurgents. They prefer to identify themselves as people of “Western South-East Asia” (WeSEA) over India. Hence, either individually or in a joint military offensive, they have tried to reiterate their point with situations of unrest and violence. Their dream of independence from India has been their priority.
The recent ambush was expected because the Northeast has always been on the radar of violence and insurgency. The presence of security forces over the four decades, fuel an anti-Indian narrative, that is cashed by the insurgent groups.
Second, the speculation of China’s involvement with the Northeast insurgent groups is important. If confirmed, it will make the situation complex, and provide space for China to counter India with a direct face-off.
Third, given the friendly Myanmar-China relations, the chances are that Myanmar will favour the Chinese over India and help the insurgent groups gain momentum for their resurgence in North-East India. Fourth, if the resurgence gains strength, some fractions of the youth from the states of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam can come in support of it. The young population, being exasperated with the federal government over issues of racial violence and discrimination, have taken to social media pouring out separatist emotions. This can see a new influx of youth into the insurgency.
In Northeast, environmental conservation triggers a youth-led protest, against the draft EIA notification 2020
In the news
Following the uproar by conservationists in Northeast India against the destructive mega-development projects, several pan-Indian youth environmental groups initiated digital campaigns demanding the roll-back of the controversial and potentially destructive draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020.
Following this, the Delhi Police, on request from Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued notices to prominent environmental groups such as the Indian arm of Greta Thunberg-led ‘Fridays For Future’ under UAPA (later withdrawn) and IT Act. Websites of these groups have also been blocked.
Guidelines on Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was formulated in 1994, under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to proactively analyze risks and impacts on the environment due to development projects and provide alternative options and risk mitigation strategies. Adhering to the precautionary as well as polluter-pays principles, the project developers were mandated to conduct EIA to receive environmental permission before commencing any project.
Issues at large
First, the EIA rules have been diluted significantly since its inception, in favour of the business lobbies. Projects have been passed without quality EIA reports and public participation. Over the years, several projects which could potentially damage the environment have been exempted from the EIA rules. Social impacts and cumulative impacts have also been largely disregarded. Due to the absence of mass awareness about EIA, it has been treated only as a bureaucratic barrier by State and corporates and its full potential for realizing sustainable development has remained unfulfilled.
Second, the draft EIA notification 2020 further weakens the vision and process of EIA to ensure ‘ease of doing businesses. The proposed changes grant post-facto environmental clearance to already polluting and illegal industries without any penalty; further limit the participation of affected communities and the public in general; exempt various large-scale projects from mandatory EIA such as building construction, area development, highway expansion, oil & gas exploration, irrigation and metallurgical industries.
Despite being rich in its biodiversity and a cultural hotspot, the Northeast states of India are facing several environmental issues. The region is experiencing the highest forest and tree cover loss in India due to land-intensive development projects, such as dams and mining, and internal and external migration due to socio-political conflicts. The region is prone to multiple cycles of heavy floods, grade-v earthquakes and landslides. Further, studies have shown that these states are highly vulnerable to climate change-related impacts. Ecologically sound development is expected in this region, but the government is trying to expedite dam building and large-scale mining of coal, oil & gas in the name of ‘national interest’.
The draft EIA notification 2020, through its changes mentioned before, will be disastrous for the region. It will lead to tremendous land and forest conversion without adequate environmental and social safeguards. Spaces for wildlife will be further constricted due to habitat destruction, and hydro-seismic fragility will be further increased. Special constitutional provisions (article 371) for North-eastern states will be violated without public participation, and it will lead to disruption of life, livelihood and local culture. Similar impacts can be envisaged from other states as well.
In this regard, youth-led groups across India are demanding a roll-back of draft EIA 2020 and strengthening of the present EIA process for a secure socio-ecological future.
In Iraq, the protestors return to the streets
In the news
Thousands of people have returned to the streets across multiple cities in Iraq to voice their anger against government mismanagement of the economy, its financial incompetence and demanded an end to foreign interference in domestic politics. Barely two months into office, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is facing the dual challenge of renewed anti-government protests and a collapsing economy.
Security forces fired tear gas into the crowds that resulted in the deaths of three people prompting the PM to order an investigation. Earlier protests in October- that ebbed following the pandemic- had forced the then Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi to resign.
Issues at large
First, the Iraqi economy has been plagued by graft and financial mismanagement for decades. According to Transparency International, about $450 billion in public funds are disappearing into dubious accounts of businessmen and political elites since 2004. Securing convictions based on authentic evidence in cases of corruption is a complicated task as various ministries function like independent branches of the government and dislike unsolicited directives from the PM’s office.
As a rentier economy, Iraqi state revenues have reduced by half due to a global drop in oil prices. The finance minister had previously expressed ‘shock’ at the dearth of liquidity. For a country needing 10-15 trillion USD in its emergency accounts, Iraq has only about two trillion USD as the economy is projected to shrink by 10 per cent this year. Iraq spends five billion every month in salaries to public workers and government employees. Additionally, the State pays for the welfare of a million recipients, 4.5 million workers and 2.5 million retirees. With a population projected to reach 50 million in a decade and a young demographic, Iraq will have to cater to 700,000 jobs per year in the future. An anticipated financial reform package will likely increase access to aid from international financial institutions, cut over-reliance on oil revenues and boost incomes from non-oil sectors. Some experts warn that unless urgent reforms are implemented, the Iraqi economy will reach dangerous and ‘irreversible’ lows.
Second, the protestors are also quite clearly against the reduction of Iraq into a client state. The Iranians have been steadily appropriating power in Iraq since 2003. However, since the induction of the PMF, Iran has significantly increased in military and political clout. It is no surprise then that PM Kadhimi’s first official visit since taking office was to Tehran. Members aligned to the PMF backed the second most seats in the 2018 legislative elections next only to Muktada al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance. Despite having issues with accountability and transparency, $2.1 billion from the Iraqi state budget was allocated to the group in 2019. The Intercept’s Iran Cables earlier this year detailed how many members of the Iraqi Parliament are beholden to Iran-having forged these friendships when they were in opposition against Saddam Hussein. The report also quite ambiguously defines the relationship between former PM Adel Abdel Mahdi and Iran as a ‘special’ one when he was Iraq’s oil minister in 2014. Iranian patronage and political interference have made an Iranian coup of an Iraqi parliament quite a possibility.
Iraq is famous for its fragile political coalitions and endemic corruption. Public trust and confidence in government are very low. There was almost no accountability for the 550 dead and 300,000 injured by the Mahdi government. And even though the current Iraqi PM lacks broad-based support, the priority should be addressing public demands and making amends. Just clamping down on demonstrations doesn’t solve structural problems; it only reinforces the message of the protests and increases the resilience of the protestors.
Also in the news
Pakistan and Afghanistan exchange fire and allegations
Pakistan and Afghanistan exchange fire and allegations at the Chaman border on 30 July, tension prevailed at the Pak-Afghan border in Chaman after clashed between Pakistan’s border forces and people trying to cross into Afghanistan left 15 people dead after which the Pakistan Army took over the control of the border crossing. Differing accounts emerged from Kabul and Islamabad, with Afghan officials accusing Pakistan of firing shells and gunfire across the border into a crowd of civilians and on the other hand, Pakistan stating that the forces did not open fire first but had just responded in self-defence. The border which was closed for the pedestrian movement was reopened on 29 July allowing people from both sides to travel on the occasions of Eid.
Hong Kong police make its first arrest under the new security law comes into effect
On 29 July, the Hong Kong police made their first arrests under the new “anti-protest” law imposed by Beijing, as crowds marked 23 years since the end of British rule. Thousands of people had taken to the streets of Causeway Bay and Wanchai in defiance of protest bans but were met with a heavy security presence. Ten people were accused of violating the law, and about 360 others were detained at the rally. The national security law which targets secession, subversion, and terrorism with punishments up to life in prison. Many activists have voiced their concerns over the law stating that it destroys freedom, but China has dismissed this criticism. The move went on to sparked international condemnation. The British government, along with calling the new law as a threat to the city’s freedom stated that it would offer a path to citizenship for eligible Hong Kong residents. Further, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that China had broken its promise to the people of Hong Kong.
Japan’s ruling party proposes strike capability to halt missile attacks
On 31 July, a ruling party committee approved proposals to consider acquiring strike capability to halt ballistic missile attacks in a step towards acquiring weapons to strike North Korea. The proposal stated, “Our country needs to consider ways to strengthen deterrence, including having the capability to halt ballistic missile attacks within the territory of our adversaries.” However, the proposals are “to stay within the bounds of the constitution and to comply with international law, that has not changed.” The proposals are being crafted by senior Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers including former defence minister Itsunori Onodera and are to be presented to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe early next week. This development is seen in the light of Shinzo Abe pushed for a more muscular military, arguing that the country needs to respond to the declining security environment in East Asia.
Natural gas finds have triggered a standoff between Turkey and a development alliance
Competition for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean is pushing the region’s main powers toward an open confrontation. A developing alliance between Israel, Greece and Egypt, the beneficiaries of the finds are squaring off against Turkey, which is seeking to break its regional isolation. Foreign Minister of Cyprus stated that “We see a tendency by Turkey to follow gunboat diplomacy and militarization of its foreign policy.” On the other hand, Turkish officials counter that it is Greece’s and Cyprus’s “maximalist” claims on Mediterranean waters that provoked the standoff. This latest tiff of political and military tensions in the Mediterranean broke out on 21 July, when Turkey stated that one of its two new seismic survey ships would explore for oil and gas off a Greek island adjacent to Turkey.
About the authors
D. Suba Chandran is a Professor and the Dean of School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Sayan Banerjee is a PhD scholar at the NIAS. Samreen Wani is a MA in International Studies from Stella Maris College. Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Research Assistant at NIAS. Vaishali Handique is a postgraduate scholar from the South Asian Studies, UMISARC, Pondicherry University