One wonders why the Indian army, with nearly 600,000 soldiers and paramilitary personnel, saw 22-year-old Burhan Wani and his Kashmiri lads as a terrible threat needing elimination. Surely these were not the monsters that murdered dozens at the Victoria Terminus and then scoured the rooms of the Taj looking for Hindus and Jews to shoot. They were not crazed religious extremists, nor on Pakistan’s payroll. Instead these angry rebellious youth were drawn by romance and bravado into their war against Indian occupation. They had a few guns but their real weapons were Facebook images.
That Wani was hunted down, and killed instead of captured, was bad enough. But the use of pellet guns to blind and maim hundreds of protesters at his funeral – no less than 200,000 – is downright criminal. Wani’s killing was also a clear slap in the face for India’s Supreme Court which, on July 8, had curtailed the immunity enjoyed thus far by the Indian armed forces. Specifically, its ruling declared that every armed person in a disturbed area, including Kashmir, may not be necessarily considered an enemy but, even if he turns out to be an enemy, excessive use of force is still not legally permitted.
Having chosen to create another dead hero for Kashmiri independence, India must once again deal with a rebellion that threatens to go viral. Reports say that protesters chanted ‘Tum kitne Burhan marogay? Har ghar se Burhan niklega’ (How many Burhans will you kill? A Burhan will emerge from every home). Wani’s killing may well have set into motion an action-reaction cycle that could take Kashmir back to the carnage of 1987. Set off by protests against the rigging of Kashmiri elections by far-off Delhi, India’s massive over-reaction had sparked off an insurgency that lasted into the early 2000s and resulted in the deaths of nearly 90,000 civilians, militants, police, and soldiers.
Those horrible times must never be forgotten. Nor, of course, must we forget that Pakistan had then hijacked an indigenous uprising. The crimes committed by Indian security forces were eventually eclipsed by those committed by Pakistan-based mujahideen. The massacres of Kashmiri Pandits, targeting of civilians accused of collaborating with India, killings of Kashmiri political leaders, destruction of cinema houses and liquor shops, forcing of women into the veil, and revival of Shia-Sunni disputes, severely undermined the legitimacy of the Kashmiri freedom movement and deprived it of its most potent weapon – the moral high ground.
Pakistani strategists of the time believed that secret support for the Kashmiri mujahideen would be a low-cost option to end a military stalemate. But this botched thinking led to major diplomatic defeats. In this age of television cameras and instant communication, Pakistan’s denials of aiding and arming militants carried no weight. As a result, international support for Pakistan’s position sharply declined. In the UN, the Kashmir dispute is today on the back burner. Even at the level of passing resolutions, Muslim countries and the OIC have been lukewarm. More significantly, China is extremely wary of liberating Kashmir through jihad.
The way forward
But, this time around, things are actually different. Although the initiative has once again come from the Kashmiris themselves, there is little that Pakistan can do to help them. This may not be what some in Pakistan’s military want, but the choice is almost not there. A fence now runs the entire length of the Pak-India border and hi-tech surveillance and night-vision equipment has made infiltration difficult and dangerous.
The indigenisation of the Kashmir movement, increased difficulty of penetration, and the grave domestic and international political costs of using proxies suggests a new path for Pakistan. It can make a virtue out of necessity by cracking down upon Kashmir-oriented militant groups still operating from its soil. Such groups have turned out to be a menace to Pakistan’s society and armed forces, apart from taking legitimacy away from those fighting Indian rule.
No one sees the Kashmir dispute having a solution in the foreseeable future. Everything has been tried: war, repression, elections, and inducements. The only question at present is how to prevent a bad situation from spiralling out of control. Lest thousands more die, it is now time for calm thinking, letting passions subside and moving ahead. Rather than look for ultimate solutions now, the present needs to be managed.
Reflecting the viewpoint of Indian liberals, the respected Indian journalist Prem Shankar Jha has three eminently sensible suggestions: The first step, that Indian security forces declare a unilateral cease-fire, delete the Indian police’s history sheets and give all those on them a respite from fear. The second, to fully support chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in her efforts to heal the wounds inflicted on the wounded Kashmiri psyche. Thirdly, equip the police with suitable technology to deal with stone pelters and others without the use of lethal force.
Jha’s point of view may have few takers in Modi’s India. But thoughtful Indians must ask why their country should care. Surely, if India considers Kashmiris to be its citizens then it must treat them as such, not as traitors deserving bullets. Else it should hand Kashmir over to Kashmiris – or Pakistan. Indeed, its efforts to create a secular state and have religious harmony – and to become the third biggest economy in the world by 2050 – could all come to naught if Pakistan and India relations boil over.
Pakistan and India cannot afford the next decade to look like previous ones. Their conflict is like a cancerous growth, a malignant organism growing unchecked. The current gloomy situation offers just the slightest sliver of hope: the absence of a substantive Pakistani role in this new uprising. This could be seized upon to break the impasse in Pak-India relations. Instead of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lamely repeating “Kashmir banega Pakistan” – and Sushma Swaraj angrily retorting that this will never happen – the two countries should seek dialogue, not confrontation. Pakistan’s proxies led to India looking for proxies in Pakistan, which Pakistan now complains about. Both ways, this interference must stop.
This article first appeared on Dawn.