By Ranjan Solomon
On 14 February 2019, a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber at Lethpora in the Pulwama district, Jammu and Kashmir. The attack resulted in the deaths of the attacker and over forty Central Reserve Police Force personnel. The Indian government claimed the perpetrator was a member of Jaish-e-Mohammed,a Pakistan-based Deobandi jihadi group active in Kashmir. The group’s primary objective is the separation of Kashmir from India and its merger into Pakistan. Since its inception in 2000, the group has carried out several attacks in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, eyed enhanced electoral prospects at a time when its popularity was drastically shrinking across the country. By resorting to jingoistic rhetoric, it was relatively successful in whipping up fury and rage by creating the illusion of a massive military vulnerability unless India was to strike first and gain ascendancy. The frenzy that followed gave the Indian government an edge, and a virtual mandate to bomb hard and deep in Pakistan – to teach ‘them’ a ‘lesson’ for their grave indiscretion! In three days, India arrested a number of suspects without so much as having completed an investigation. In the meantime, the government roundly condemned the Pulwama attack and refused to own any part of the tragedy. Meanwhile, Pakistan offered to join a transparent and comprehensive joint investigation of the attack. India, as expected, rejected the offer and, instead, launched invasive attacks into Pakistani territory, leading to claims and counterclaims from both sides.
After a short period of silence when the Indian nation as a whole played ‘patriot’ – irrespective of political affiliation or loyalty/disloyalty to the BJP, voices of disbelief began to surface. Questions were asked of the government and the army. Why was such a sensitive spot no covered by any serious security measures? Some went so far as to call it a ‘deliberate gaffe’ suggesting a hint of a false flag attack. Meanwhile, India’s foray into Pakistani territory was regarded as having failed to achieve its military goals. The euphoria, via the Indian media’s high-pitched xenophobic and pseudo-patriotism, allowed the gullible Indian patriot to celebrate a victory that was being interrogated. All that Indians could be sure of was that one Indian Air Force jetfighter had been shot. The pilot had evacuated and landed in Pakistani territory, only to be released in a goodwill gesture by Pakistan. India, needless to say, denied it was a goodwill gesture, but that it was a response to the massive diplomatic capital accumulated by Modi during his numerous jaunts to an abundant array of countries.
With many difficult questions from the political opposition and social media, the government went into damage control mode. It underplayed the issue, and probably ordered the hitherto pliant media to go hush. This happened too because the government’s track record on containing strikes across the border, its mishandling of Kashmir as a policy (an obvious failure) were being exposed, and government spokespersons were fumbling with unconvincing explanations.
The government was also embarrassed after it had allowed a political climate in which ordinary Kashmiris working and studying in different parts of India were subjected to brutal mob attacks. This would not have happened without the triumphalism accompanying India’s ‘war against terrorism’. Kashmiris are victims, and their aspirations and voices are silenced in a thousand ways. The freshly induced dose of triumphalism added fuel to hate crimes being conducted under tolerant eyes, and quickly became unmanageable. Once more, the government had to beat a hasty retreat. It closed all democratic space for discussion and debate and prepared a ground ripe for recruitment by militant groups. At some point the government must have been alerted that the continuation of street brutalities by illegal police-like forces would only serve to worsen the underlying political causes of the Kashmir conflict. It was bad enough that spaces for political dialogue had been shut down and Kashmir was hurtling down the path of disaster. What is visible is that the clumsy and arrogant handling of the Pulwama crisis by the Indian government and the media that sought to hold up the path of triumphalism being tread by the government have served only to seriously heighten the discontent of the Kashmiri people.
Plain facts suggest that the Indian government stands accused of grave human rights’ violations in the region. The United Nations has condemned the routine clashes and use of force by the Indian military towards Kashmiris on multiple occasions. Despite the outcry from the international community and human rights groups, the Indian military continues its regime of brutality against innocent Kashmiris.
Today, with India’s economy in shambles and unemployment rising, the BJP finds itself in a bind. It ran the ‘Pulwama show’ a bit too early to capitalise on its decline as a political force. The strategy backfired. Pulwama has been forgotten – except in the minds of the rabid Hindu communalists who are brought up to hate Pakistan. A quick glance at social media shows a well-informed, rational polity wanting to make valid choices and refuting the politics and rhetoric og hate. The masses, especially the critical masses, refuse to swallow the Pakistan bait.
In desperation, the BJP has resorted to heightening Hindu-Muslim divisions and has relegated issues of policy and development to the background. It has nothing else to clutch on to. India claimed to have won global support and sympathy. Not quite. Too many nations and an alert, agile global media saw through the propaganda.
For the time being, Kashmir is the last thing on the political agenda in India – except for the people of Kashmir. They know that Kashmir cannot be an issue that has a solution in and through war between two nuclear powers. India’s reckless talk of war risked the lives of millions of innocent Indians and Pakistanis. It even threatened the rest of the world with the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. The conflict between India and Pakistan needs diplomatic dialogue for comprehensive and creative solutions based on new formulas. More militarism will not eliminate years of oppression and instability. India has rejected dialogue, instead demanding that terrorism must end for dialogue to begin. Many previous attempts at dialogue had failed at the ultimate step for want of trust or because one factor of irrationality breached the options of peace.
There is a border military build-up on either side of the Line of Control (LOC). Ceasefire violations are frequent and are something of a norm. People living in the border areas suffer the uncertainty of army conflagrations punctuated by cross border firings and casualties, which severely impacts their lives and causes panic and distress to many others. Reports suggest that thousands of people living alongside borders have been involuntarily or voluntarily evacuated to other locations; schools have been shut down; farmers have lost their crops.
The political classes on both sides indulge in frequent bouts of belligerent rhetoric. Muscle flexing by past and current generals further muddies the waters, when even they know how absurd they sound. On the Indian side, the borders are manned by ‘jawans’ (ordinary soldiers) mostly from lower economic classes and castes. Those who propagate war are the upper classes who sit behind their laptops in the absolute safety of their living rooms far removed from the battlefront. Meanwhile, spouses of armed fighters on the war front appeal for calm and common sense. They know that war can only create the peace of the graveyard, and that the avenues for peace exist outside the thinking of politicians who manipulate politics to keep the India-Pakistan border permanently on the boil.
In times of relative peace, trade between the two countries has flourished, defined always by vibrancy and benefit to both sides. When there have been sport and cultural exchanges, deep and lasting friendships have thrived. People who have practised co-existence through meaningful cooperation see little reason to harbour ill-will and antagonism. Indians and Pakistanis are the same people – a common heritage and a common destiny torn apart by one of colonial history’s most colossal errors.
This may be the time when the political leadership of both countries should take serious and sensitive initiatives and de-escalate the violence in border areas. It is also a time when top army officials should keep away from making provocative and political statements. The Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) should reiterate its position that, in a democracy, the armed forces avoid making statements and should allow civilian governments to do their constitutionally-mandated duties. The army or its top-ranking officers making press statements and evoking jingoism is a direct threat to the democratic fabric of the country.
Commenting on the crisis, PIPFPD issued a call for peace, arguing that 'all civilized societies must prevent bloodshed and condemn, mourn killings.' It has also claimed that there s an important reason to go into the genesis of the attack and shun the notion that violence and war can somehow bring solutions. To avenge blood is to be short-sighted.
It is of paramount importance to unpack the inherently-flawed current Kashmir-centric policies of the Indian government. To believe that militancy can be uprooted by sheer military power and interventions is reckless because experience attests to the fact such an approach is untenable. India has not done anything to reach out to the Kashmiris in terms of real political solutions. In contrast, its military formulas are recipes for more militancy. Experience shows that militarism is accompanied by unwarranted tyranny in the Kashmir valley. Reports suggest that in the last four years, young men, women and children have been killed and maimed with bullets and pellets. The PIPFPD reports vast numbers of crackdowns which result in arrests and increasing human rights’ violations. These end up being provocations that anger young people who then see violence as their only resort because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If Kashmir remains unresolved, so does the political fact that prompts conflict. The Indian state perceives (and interprets) dissent as a daring bid to minimise its authority and, consequently, reorders its political strategy in ways that subvert democracy and human rights.
How does one disallow dissent when the Indian state indulges in the most bizarre political steps? It is a move that could plunge the Kashmir Valley into a perpetual state of crisis. Jammu and Kashmir are not coping with the contentious decision to ban movement of civilian traffic for two days a week. This two-month long ban will be sorely counterproductive because the people must bear the brunt of an already fragile economy. It is an ‘Israelization’ of Kashmir. Shah Faesal, the chair of Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), asked: ‘How can any democratic society enforce a ban on the movement of people, and how would it justify the diktat?’ This further aggravates the Pulwama-related harassment of the general population through more abuse, harassment, and beating of Kashmiris on the highways by the security forces, particularly by the army.
Warmongering can only serve to counter measures for peace and democracy. It does not allow the people of Kashmir to feel included and keeps them painted as traitors who feel no respect for the nation. The truth is radically different. For as long as India and Pakistan refuse to take courageous steps for peace, they will endanger the sub-continent, and, indeed, the entire region, with the huge risks of war between two emotionally-charged nuclear powers.
It is now that India must abandon its preoccupation with putting down militancy. Instead, it must unlock ways of conciliation with the people of Kashmir. Immediate confidence-building measures will reduce tensions and open channels for a comprehensive dialogue. It would make even more sense to include the people of Jammu and Kashmir – those who are the subject of the conflict – in such a negotiated outcome.
According to SIPRI, India spends 63.9 billion dollars on military expenditure. That amounts to 2.5% of its GDP. If one juxtaposes that with the poverty figure of at least 700 million people, one would wonder how defence spending and development spending square off. OXFAM reports that India’s top 10 per cent of the population controls 77.4 per cent of the total national wealth. Further, the top one per cent owns a whopping 51.53 per cent of the national wealth. The bottom 60 per cent, the majority of the population, own merely 4.8 per cent of the national wealth.
In the name of Kashmir, would India fight a senseless war in and around Kashmir and ask the poor to eat bombs, tanks, and machine guns for breakfast with a sprinkling of nuclear weapons for added effect?
* Ranjan Solomon is a social activist who also works as a consultant fororganisations and movements working on issues of peace, human rights and social justice.