Just under eighteen months ago, Kashmir looked to be at a turning point. State elections in 2014 produced an unlikely coalition of hawks from the ruling BJP and doves from the local PDP. The BJP had historically taken a tough approach to Kashmir, while the PDP had been more sympathetic to Kashmiri grievances. This meeting of minds, suggested academic Sumantra Bose, was 'unmistakably the most hopeful development since the descent into violence a quarter century ago' – a reference to the bloody insurgency of the 1990s – and 'precisely the kind of approach that eventually succeeded in ending the long conflict in Northern Ireland'. Those hopes now seem forlorn.
The Indian journalist Praveen Swami warned in April that 'failing a serious effort to revive and build a new democratic culture, the prospect of a larger crisis is very real'. 'Kashmir’s civil society', he noted, 'its political organisations, cultural bodies and the very structure of the family' had been destroyed. The next month India’s former national security advisor M.K. Narayanan sounded a similar alarm, writing that 'since the beginning of 2016, the Valley has been facing its gravest crisis since 2008 and 2010', which saw mass unrest. He blamed this on Kashmiris’ anger at the continued erosion of their autonomy from New Delhi, their consequent readiness to shelter militants infiltrating from Pakistan, and a youth bulge feeding the ranks of protesters. Among those who know Kashmir best, such warnings were common.
Then on 8 July, local security forces assassinated Burhan Wani, a charismatic 22-year-old militant of the Hizbul Mujahideen – which is designated as a terrorist organisation by India, the US, and EU – having grown alarmed by his success in recruiting fighters. Wani’s killing sparked a straight month of mass protests, and a heavy Indian crackdown. Thousands of protesters have been arrested, at least 58 civilians have been killed, and many more disfigured and blinded by the use of pellet guns. Schools, colleges, petrol pumps and businesses have been closed. Mobile internet has been suspended and broadband was cut on Friday, hobbling the local press. Security measures were especially tight ahead of India’s independence day on Sunday.
It took Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a month to break his silence on the issue, but his lofty declaration that 'every Indian loves Kashmir' seemed to reinforce the idea that Kashmir and Kashmiris were not truly Indian. The indications are that Modi 'wants the violence stamped out first … with a hard hand' and is willing to deploy the army back on the streets. On Sunday, the BJP general secretary declared, 'you cannot compromise on Kashmir'.
There are several aspects to Kashmir's unrest that seem to suggest a shift in its social and political dynamics.
First, traditional separatist leaders are increasingly irrelevant. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a coalition of 33 Kashmiri groups formed in the early 1990s, has seen its influence and authority wane. Its leaders were taken into 'preventive custody' on Thursday, but their long-term control over events on the ground is doubtful. Second, protesters are increasingly 'young, educated, [and] tech-savvy'. These are men and women who came of age during the protests of 2008-10 rather than the bloodletting of the 1990s. The Indian Express’ Bashaarat Masood talks of 'a new generation', often from prosperous families, 'taking centre stage, replacing the older, fatigued generation'. Third, the protests are wider than before. As Kashmir’s police chef explains, that earlier round of protests 'began in the towns, and remained largely urban', but 'this time, it began in the rural areas of South Kashmir' – Wani’s base – and 'is far more difficult to control'.
Fourth, this uprising is indigenous. Pakistan’s intelligence organisation, the ISI, played a crucial role in fomenting and radicalising the insurgency in the 1990. But Pakistan has struggled to smuggle militants into India, and official figures from last year show that of 142 active militants in Kashmir, more than 60% were local and only a minority from Pakistan. Moreover, unarmed locals have repeatedly used stone-throwing to breach army cordons around villages in order to help militants escape. Others have taken up position in mosques, sounding an alarm if a police raid is imminent. NDTV’s bureau chief in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar, himself a Kashmiri, writes that 'even at the height of the uprising in 1990, militancy never got this sort of public endorsement'. The government’s contention that 'the whole agitation … is being run out of Pakistan' simply isn’t credible.
Individual grievances – anger at the PDP 'selling out' to the BJP, assertive moves by Hindu nationalist groups and causes, legal attacks on the Kashmiri state flag, and heavy-handed tactics – are less important than the general feeling that, as a serving Kashmiri civil servant Shah Faesal wistfully pointed out, 'India has become synonymous with a military bunker'. Wajahat Habibullah, a retired senior official, went further: 'the mission to win for India the people of Kashmir appears lost irretrievably'. Academic Paul Staniland’s 2013 paper is a useful summary of that mission and its discontents.
The Indian press naturally has a wide range of views on the appropriate response. Bombastic news anchors have delivered McCarthyite attacks on colleagues deemed to be soft on Kashmir and, therefore, on terror. The print and online media are typically less hawkish, many carrying opinion pieces in favour of a 'roadmap' or similar political steps – usually short of detail.
Retired Lieutenant General H.S. Panag, who led India’s Northern Command, argues that 'there is a need to reduce the military footprint', 'selectively and progressively' remove the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which gives immunity to security forces in Kashmir, and 'autonomy … to save the idea of India'. He points to a landmark accord that was signed with Naga separatists in eastern India last year. Others have dived into history to flesh out what autonomy might look like in practice. And because one-third of the old princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is held by Pakistan, this is connected to the broader question of a deal between New Delhi and Islamabad, of the sort that was nearly reached in the 2000s. Manoj Joshi in The Wire and Muazamil Jaleel in the Indian Express both acknowledge the importance of such steps, but suggest that Modi is politically incapable of serious concessions to Kashmiri autonomy given his and his party’s ideological baggage on the issue. 'This leaves dand [the stick]' concludes Joshi, 'as the only way out'.
By contrast, analyst Samir Saran and columnist Ashok Malik are more sceptical of political solutions built around 'unbridled self-determination'. They argue that the prospect of Kashmiri independence has been discredited by global unease over violent Islamist movements, and that India therefore has unprecedented latitude in dealing with Kashmir. Notably and unusually, they invoke China in arguing that 'less-than-optimal political structures', a euphemism for repression, 'do not preclude efficient social and economic development and governance'. They criticise successive Indian governments for propping up local, dynastic elites and urge broader 'outreach'. But, the question remains, to whom?