On 21 August 2019, IPCS hosted Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain, Member, IPCS Governing Council, and former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar, for a talk entitled Jammu and Kashmir Today. This is a summary of the proceedings.
In light of BJP’s recent decision to effectively abrogate Articles 370 and 35A, the Indian public perception of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has largely been focused on the events of August 2019. However, to imagine that this momentous decision has resolved the 72-year-old issue is a very reductive understanding of the issue’s strategic dimensions. To understand the situation in its entirety, and predict what the future holds, it is imperative to analyse the region’s historical trajectory.
The summer of 2019 was a relatively quiet and stable period for J&K despite the Pulwama and Balakot attacks that took place earlier in the year. There are a number of reasons that explain this normalcy:
1. Along with a plunging economy, Pakistan has been under tremendous political and international pressure, making it difficult to confront India as far as J&K was concerned.
2. In the past two years, the Indian government has attempted to dismantle the ecosystem—comprising of drug smuggling networks, NGOs, banking systems, hawala etc.—through which Pakistan’s proxy efforts were supported in J&K. Thus, very little space now remains for the functioning ecosystem. Overground workers (OGWs), the strength of anti-national networks, were also significantly neutralised.
3. Considering that everything in Kashmir, including the stamina of terror, agitation on the streets, businesses, etc. goes through a three-year cycle, the summer 2019 was a period of relative rest for J&K after 2016-18.
Based on an understanding of this context and the relative environment of normalcy, the government bifurcated the region into two union territories—Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh—which, from a security perspective, is far better both politically and strategically. The Jammu and Kashmir regions, though divided by the Pir Panjal range, have intrinsic linkages, and it is well-known that these can help overcome regional tensions. Separating Jammu from Kashmir would have thus been a retrograde step.
Peace and harmony in J&K is vital for India primarily due to its strategic significance. The territory of J&K is situated directly adjacent to Pakistan, which is the only country to be surrounded by five civilisations (Indian, Chinese, Persian, Central Asian, and Arab). By bordering these civilisations, Pakistan is in close proximity to major developments unfolding in today’s contemporary world order. It has much to offer the nations that form parts of these civilisations. Pakistan’s strategic significance therefore far exceeds its political and economic weight, thus allowing it some leeway in following a negative agenda against the neighbouring states of India and Afghanistan.
Linking the Past to the Present
After losses incurred in the 1971 war, Pakistan sought to address conventional asymmetry by seeking nuclear parity with India. This conviction was reaffirmed by the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Zia-ul-Haq, who forcefully seized power in the coup d’état of 1977.
In a series of events, especially the extension of Pakistani support to the US and Saudi Arabia to counter the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the balance of influence tilted in Pakistan’s favour through the 1980s. By 1989, the international order was in flux, and India was in an extremely weak strategic position due to political instability, a shaky economy, and military commitment in an out-of-area operation in Sri Lanka. In this environment, Pakistan took advantage of experience gained in its 10-year commitment in Afghanistan. With such altering dynamics, Pakistan chose to launch a ‘war by a thousand cuts’ in the form of proxy hybrid warfare that focused on J&K.
The system of hybrid warfare, popularly known as smart warfare, includes parts of conventional war, as well as information transmission, transnational crimes, violent extremism, etc. The advantage of hybrid warfare is flexibility and longevity, with the ability to sustain fighting even with limited availability of resources. This proxy hybrid war began in 1989 when pro-independence and pro-Pakistan guerrillas struck the Indian Kashmir valley, and has continued since.
These developments are important to understand the emerging strategic problem. The vulnerability that India underwent in 1989 can be divided into five broad domains:
1. Political: Changes in government with the shift from a majority to a hung parliament led to political instability in New Delhi.
2. Diplomatic: The international scenario was in flux with the end of the Cold War. As a result the world took little note of Pakistan’s proxy terror strategy.
3. Military: Despite its own turbulent borders and internal security problems, the Indian army concentrated more on out-of-area operations, and a large number of troops were deployed with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.
4. Economic: In a situation far worse than Pakistan’s US$ 7 billion foreign exchange reserve today, India in 1989-90 was coming down to its last US$ 1 billion.
5. Social: India was paralysed by Mandal Commission protests.
The strategic impact of these five factors served as an opportune moment for Pakistan in 1989-90. In the post August 2019 scenario, lessons from this experience must be kept in focus to offset any attempt by Pakistan to exploit potential vulnerabilities.
In addition to exposing India to its shortcomings, the years following 1989 also demonstrated that political consensus is often the best possible solution to a diverse set of problems in the strategic domain. Today’s state-of-affairs is similar to those that occurred in 1994, when India was under severe international pressure arising from Pakistan’s accusations of human rights violations in J&K. In acknowledgement of this pressure, all political parties came together to passed a Joint Parliamentary Resolution on 22 February 1994 that asserted their opposition to any Pakistani claim to the territory of J&K, which existed as part of the maharaja of J&K’s domain.
By countering Pakistan’s proxy war, the Indian government has succeeded in reducing the strength of terrorists within J&K, but a comprehensive strategy to integrate J&K in the political, social, economic and psychological domains has been elusive. Hybrid conflicts have to be fought in multiple domains, and must include an ‘all of government approach’—it cannot be left to just the security forces and intelligence agencies to manage.
Rights and liberty have existed in abundance even in the hybrid conflict environment, but concrete steps to fully integrate the region as any other part of India has again proved elusive. The special status accorded to J&K under constitutional provisions gave a fillip to the local political community to create an exclusivity that did not allow such integration, and served the interests of just a few.
In addition, Indian strategic communications, including psychological warfare and perception management, have been quite weak, particularly when compared to Pakistan. There has also been a lack of political will to peg the Indian claim on J&K strongly. The required political will was successfully demonstrated on 5 August 2019, with the Indian government’s decision to remove J&K’s autonomous status. For the first time, India exhibited the political gumption and strategic understanding that was necessary.
However, the decision alone cannot create a position of strategic advantage unless it is executed with a level of mature understanding. Considering that the initiative is now in India’s hand, New Delhi has an advantage over Islamabad. Yet, long-term success is directly dependent on how strategically India lays out its cards. Thus far, the international community has not been moved by Pakistan’s various attempts to cry foul about the issue.
Taking note of the past and the present, India’s short-term strategy regarding J&K should focus on:
1. Stabilising the security environment, which includes negating adversary propaganda
2. Promoting intra-state integration, which should look at integrating the people of Jammu and Kashmir among themselves
3. Enabling effective governance
4. Promoting peace through engagement and outreach.
In correspondence with its short-term strategy, India’s long-term aim should be conflict resolution, and mainstreaming J&K with the rest of the country. This integration can be made possible with a balanced approach—which can be seen as 80 per cent soft power and 20 per cent hard power—and the long-term retention of this approach. Communication mechanisms to interact with the Kashmiri population must to be developed so as to understand and integrate their issues and concerns within the new systems of governance.
Although there has been a long-term international acceptance of India’s narrative of J&K as an internal matter, it has recently suffered setbacks in international media coverage, with Pakistan also making every effort to retain this relevance.
The Line of Control (LoC) is likely to be active in the month of September, as Pakistan will continue to try and push terrorists into different parts of J&K from bordering areas, particularly in the run-up to the addresses by the Indian and Pakistan prime ministers at the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2019.
A lot also depends on how the situation unfolds in Afghanistan. Pakistan prefers to deal with one problem at a time, whether it is Kashmir or Kabul. As a result, it is in a very awkward position today. Diplomatically it seeks to engage on Afghanistan to elicit US support, but also realises that if enough is not done and said about Kashmir, it might lose an important international as well as domestic political opportunity.
India, on the other hand, must work the ‘hearts and minds’ agenda, focus on de-radicalisation, and continue pressure on the Pashtun and Baloch issues. It must accord the highest priority to preventing the rejuvenation of the terror ecosystem, which would allow Pakistan an upper hand and a surge in its proxy war efforts.
Rapporteured by Akanksha Khullar, Researcher, IPCS
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