Jammu & Kashmir: A year after: Last year’s big moves broke self-perpetuating cycle, could potentially end intractable proxy war

On this day last year, much against the run of events in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the Centre took some major decisions to give a new course to the proxy hybrid war troubled state. It involved two basic changes: abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution which gave J&K a special constitutional status, and its administrative downgrade from a single state to two separate Union Territories of Ladakh and J&K.

On the first anniversary of these decisions, three basic questions bear significance. First, in retrospect, did these decisions warrant being taken at that moment in the light of the then existing scene? Second, have they helped improve the deteriorating situation? Third, how are the effects of these decisions likely to shape regional geopolitics, internal security, integrative process, people’s psyche and related domains through the very challenging times ahead?
For the last 30 years we had been subjected to sub-conventional proxy war by Pakistan, making use of the schisms it created within society in J&K. Although India had effectively used the kinetic route to curb Pakistan’s capability to change things, it never could sufficiently address the issue politically for lasting effect. The Centre dithered and lacked the confidence to comprehensively address the prickly issues sustaining the conflict, imagining a non-existent Pakistani capability masterfully packaged to create a defensive psyche within India. Articles 370 and 35A helped create a self-image for J&K of it being different, a psyche instilling a belief of never being part of the Indian mainstream.

That psyche, in turn, fostered a delusive belief about ‘azadi’ (Independence) which is unachievable given J&K’s demographic makeup and geostrategic location; an unreal belief that however permeated every quarter. It was exploited by the deep state in Pakistan to create a perpetual state of proxy war. Existing within the establishment and the political community was a long embedded belief that even touching the constitutional exclusivity of J&K would mean unbearable consequences. It needed a transformational decision to break this self-perpetuating cycle.

One way of viewing the situation in J&K today is through the prism of the past. Every three to four years a cycle had been repeated; violent years followed by a short period of peace. Since 2013 a generational change in leadership was occurring; the new one brash and irrational, given to radical external ideological influence. In 2014-16 the government did try conventional ways of conflict resolution, but overtures to Pakistan were responded to by terror attacks at Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota and later Pulwama (2019), along with increasing street turbulence, radical utterances by separatists, difficulty in governance due to nepotism and corruption in local politics, and multiple networks run by overground workers (OGWs).

In 2016 the situation was only heading southwards. All these gave a cumulative signal for transformational change. When security forces have to rally every few years to recover the security situation and the writ of the state is challenged at every juncture, it is time for such change.

Has that change occurred in the last one year? A binary answer is never possible in a dynamic situation; a festering proxy war cannot be defeated in a year even after major decisions. The two year period prior to 5 Aug 2019 witnessed a focused campaign launched to counter the OGW networks which ran everything nefarious in J&K; finances, media, ideology, street mobs, drugs, arms and ammunition. The effects of that started to tell in 2019 but the process is even now incomplete, so deeply are these networks embedded. Measures to isolate the separatists and the OGWs long used to backdoor official support drew criticism, but persistence paid dividend.

India had for long fought terror, militancy and separatism in a benign way where people’s liberties were minimally disturbed even as the security forces took casualties. In the last year that policy changed with limited curbs on rights. The prime difference has been curtailment in the flow of finances thus neutralising the mobilisation of stone throwing protests, the elimination of terrorist leaders, greater flow of intelligence with the change in the winds of support at the grassroots, reduction of recruitment and easier decision making on such issues as mortal remains of even local terrorists not being given for last rites to their families.

The recent resignation of SAS Geelani from the Hurriyat Conference can largely be attributed to all these measures which have rendered the separatists ineffective. Careful amendment in laws of domicile, a contentious issue for long with potential to trigger unrest, has been effected without opening floodgates. Many unfairly deprived of rights such as the refugees from ‘West Pakistan’ now find themselves empowered. The real challenges however lie in the field of governance and political activity both of which have been stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic. The information and influence domains to create perception of public acceptance towards national mainstreaming also need a more imaginative and empathetic approach.

The first year after a major national decision as this must necessarily be with focus on security to prevent rekindling triggers that adversaries could bring to bear. However, given the bold decisions of 5 August, operational stabilisation thereafter and India’s proactive stance on the return of Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK, enhanced strategic confidence has had impact in the geopolitical world too. The events in Ladakh can partially be ascribed to this. Nothing has yet ended with the bold decisions. There is no magic wand to end proxy war. Patience and all round pragmatism to absorb temporary setbacks will enhance the chances of eventual success.