Is India re-thinking its Kashmir strategy? 

Is India re-thinking its Kashmir strategy? 

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In the modern political history of South Asia, one of the most critical developments has been the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution in August 2019, which ended the special status of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir and split the state to create two new union territories of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. Naturally, none even among the pro-India political fraternity within the Kashmir Valley was receptive of these changes and in a bid to crush public anger against the move, a comprehensive lockdown regime was enacted with all forms of communication suspended. 
For decision makers in Delhi, the rationale was simple-- it’s time for the Kashmir exceptionalism to be settled once and for all. Yet after nearly two years of this political heavy handedness backed by the might of the Indian state, the Indian government in an apparent volte-face was compelled last month to yet again engage with its political proxies within Kashmir. In order to decipher if the BJP is finally changing its political strategy vis-à-vis Kashmir, a glance is warranted at the history and drivers of the current securitization of India’s Kashmir policy that started to take shape after the state elections of 2014.

The central government of the Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) explored political options to enter the power fray and eventually its state chapter joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as a junior coalition partner. This political power sharing did usher in a new era within the political demography of the state because for the first time BJP was ruling Jammu and Kashmir State. Still, this new political settlement came with its own complexities. BJP had swept across the Hindu dominated Jammu region of the state while PDP had emerged as the largest party within the Kashmir valley. This meant that both partners catered to an entirely different set of constituents and their political goals within the state didn’t overlap either. 

An Indian government that had constantly shrugged off Pakistan’s attempts at political engagement, has itself been forced to engage with its western neighbor simply because of the political repercussions of its own actions.

Umar Karim

In the wake of the death of separatist-militant leader Burhan Wani, a new wave of anti-India sentiment rocked the Kashmir valley. As a non-partisan Concerned Citizens Group (CCG) led by veteran BJP leader Yashwant Sinha visited Kashmir in 2016, it found the valley’s youth full of anger toward the security forces for their excessive use of force and in particular the pellet guns. The report pointed out that Indian ruling circles’ decision to employ force as a strategy to deal with this wave of unrest further politically disenfranchised the population of the Kashmir valley. 
The revocation of Article 370 went hand in hand with the Modi government’s plan to end the era of traditional politics and political players within Kashmir valley, primarily the ones that had remained the face of the Indian federation and replacing them with a new crop of political entrepreneurs in a refurbished political marketplace. In a speech after this move, Modi made a veiled jab toward the dynastic politics of the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti led PDP by declaring that now political representatives would be coming from the people and not traditional political elites. 
After wiping off this entire political canvas, the Indian government still had been unable to develop a new more loyal and effective political grouping within the Kashmir valley. With pro-India political elements caught with their pants down, the political legitimacy of the separatist Hurriyat Conference leadership has only increased further. 
On the foreign affairs front, there has been a sufficient cost incurred for these steps. Although Indian actions in Kashmir had the tacit approval of the Trump Administration, the current Biden administration may not prove to be as supportive. Moreover, the Indian government’s assertion to take back Aksai Chin from China ended the goodwill of Wuhan consensus, culminating in the Chinese ingress into Indian territory across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, thereby realizing the possibility of a two-front war for India, and compelling the Indian government to re-deploy troops from the west to the north alongside the Chinese frontier. 
Another outcome has been India’s secret engagement with Pakistan resulting in a cease-fire along the Line of Control (LOC). An Indian government that had constantly shrugged off Pakistan’s attempts at political engagement, has itself been forced to engage with its western neighbor simply because of the political repercussions of its own actions. And within Kashmir in order to limit the damage done, the Modi government had no other option but to engage with the same “Gupkar Gang” it vowed to dismantle. For the likes of Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, it’s once again time to be politically relevant and to renegotiate their political subservience with New Delhi. 
For Pakistan, it will be wise to approach these new developments with caution and not to compromise upon its political, diplomatic and moral support for the Hurriyat leadership which has not wavered in its commitment toward the freedom struggle and Pakistan.

– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.
Twitter: @UmarKarim89

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