Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to punish those responsible for the Pulwama attack, which left 40 paramilitary personnel dead last week, has fanned speculation about what could happen next. But even as everyone wonders about India’s next move, it is important to consider the circumstances around the attack: the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s failure to build a coherent policy on either Kashmir or Pakistan.
At the start of Modi’s term, there was much hope that a Hindu nationalist government, unafraid of being called weak, might be in a better position to make progress on talks with Pakistan. Hopes for a more enduring political solution in Kashmir were raised by an unlikely alliance between Modi’s BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party, a Valley-based party once accused of begin an apologist for separatists.
The optimism soon abated. Modi’s outreach to Pakistan initially stayed strong in the face of militant attacks from across the border but the lack of a broader strategy to anticipate such crises saw it eventually fall apart. In Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP seemed to ignore the genuine political problem, falling back instead on Hindutva rhetoric.
This approach led to the surgical strike, a 2016 attack by Indian forces on “terrorist launch pads” across the Line of Control in response to militants attacking an Indian Army base in Kashmir’s Uri. The strike was followed by much chest-thumping, even a triumphal Bollywood movie, and taken as proof that Modi was taking tough action to resolve the problems of Kashmir and Pakistan.
The data, however, does not support this view. Apart from the specific question about intelligence and operational failures that led to the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Pulwama, the broader picture is grim.
Data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks violent incidents in the region, points to the situation getting much worse on most counts since 2014. For starters, the number of what the portal describes as “killing incidents” has steadily climbed.
Dividing this up into individual data points produces an equally grim picture. The number of civilians and security personnel killed in Jammu and Kashmir has climbed continuously over the past five years.
To attempt an explanation for why the figures are generally higher, the Modi government can point to the higher number of militants killed by Indian forces over the last five years.
But even if the data reflects an increase in gunfights (which is why casualty numbers are higher), it is worth noting that militant recruitment from the Valley has also been steadily rising, a fact that is deeply disturbing.
The government has failed to contexualise its decisions within a clearly articulated strategy. Instead, the BJP has stuck to the rhetoric that it is punishing terrorists. It has whipped up anti-Kashmiri, anti-Muslim sentiments around the country. Even the much-touted surgical strike was not placed in a larger strategic framework. This may help the BJP’s electoral prospects elsewhere, but it only makes the situation in Kashmir worse.
The result? 2018 was the bloodiest year in a decade in Kashmir and saw a dramatic increase in the number of ceasefire violations along the Line of Control. The Pulwama attack may have turned the focus back on how India will deal with Pakistan in the short-term. But amidst calls for war and other stern action, the larger question remains: does the Centre have a coherent policy on either Kashmir or Pakistan?