Internationally, the impact has been positive across the international community and, even China, although initially negatively disposed, has chosen not to be too vociferous in its protestations, writes Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) for South Asia Monitor
It took courage on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to take the landmark decisions to revoke Articles 35A and 370 of the Constitution of India which gave special rights and status to Jammu & Kashmir, reorganise the state into two union territories (UT) and, in the bargain, await an unpredictable outcome.
It’s essentially unpredictable because for well over half a century the two constitutional provisions had psyched most governments into believing their cast-in-iron status. The best time to have revoked these was immediately in the wake of the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Perhaps none then wished to rock the boat after a stupendous strategic success. No one could have then predicted that these provisions would become a millstone around the neck of successive governments, pegging them with threats from Kashmir’s polity that the only link which bound J&K to India was Article 370. Some deft legal interpretations about who could abrogate these and very deep homework enabled the final decision.
The impact may be felt in many domains but primary among them are internal security, governance and international opinion. In the field of internal security it is yet early to predict although, preceding the decision, care was taken to tighten loose ends which could trigger disturbances instigated by separatists. A fear existed that the response of the mainstream polity could also be unpredictable. Although distasteful, detentions took place as precautionary on the basis of past experience when Kashmir had seen major turbulence in the streets in 2008-10, deliberately instigated by exploiting triggers. Again in 2016, post the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani, the streets went on fire, the separatists were hugely emboldened and the public fear of the army and police vanished, with deliberate breaking of curfew and large-scale deaths and grievous injuries in the streets. The use of pellet guns by the police led to several people being blinded, drawing an international furore against alleged human rights violations, exactly what the separatist hoped for.
With lessons well learnt, Kashmir was virtually evacuated of tourists and other non-Kashmiris to avoid any reprisals which could have led to an unstoppable spiral against Kashmiris around the country, jeopardizing all the gains of the decision taken by the government. No one wishes a lockdown of any part of the nation but when momentous decisions have to be taken which are incorrectly perceived by the populace there are few options but to exercise full precaution. Of course, this entire exercise could have been done differently - by a government campaign over several years to explain the benefits of full integration without awkward conditions to the people. That became impossible due to the ongoing proxy war sponsored by Pakistan and the disinformation campaign it played out through their propaganda arms.
Threats to internal security are all based upon public perception, politics and instigation from Pakistan. Their neutralization is contingent upon the right strategy. Thus far peace has prevailed with lockdown in place, no communication services and also no attempts at breaking of curfew. The protest industry of Kashmir, sponsored by Pakistan, directed by the separatist leaders and led in the streets by increasingly younger men and some women, needs a system to be in place; it is not on auto mode.
This system had taken several years to create and extended down to the village tehsil and even block levels. It included the universities, faculties of schools and colleges, media owners and prominent journalists, bank officials and hundreds of nondescript, low-profile people working as over ground workers (OGWs). The best example to understand this is the speed and alacrity with which the Baramulla-Kupwara road could be closed to Indian Army convoys running the logistics to maintain the troops at the Line of Control (LoC). An accident, a small act of misdemeanour or even the killing of a high-profile terrorist could be used to stall movement and commence stone-throwing for a couple of days. Efforts by security forces and agencies to neutralize the OGWs always seemed to come to naught. Thoughtfully, from 2017 this system was targeted by the government from Delhi and later directly under Governor’s rule. It was not possible to achieve full neutralization in the time available, but the separatists were isolated and their hold over the system weakened. The test of this will emerge once the lockdown is gradually reduced.
However, indicators are already available with no reports of any attempts to break the curfew. With clandestine financial networks dented, money may not find its way into hands of instigators; preventive detentions have reduced their nuisance potential on the streets. In the event of the government strategy not working there are enough forces on ground to cater for contingencies; the outcome then will be unpredictable, but the chances appear bleak.
Internationally, the impact has been positive across the international community and, even China, although initially negatively disposed, has chosen not to be too vociferous in its protestations. India must not take this situation for granted, especially with the approaching session of the UN General Assembly. The diplomatic pressure on Pakistan must be maintained relentlessly through not just diplomacy but by direct outreach to intellectual communities in other important countries, particularly in West Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping visits India in a few weeks. That opportunity will be used to drive home to China how stability in J&K contributes to its interests, especially when there is restiveness in its north-western Xinjiang.
Pakistan will make efforts to ratchet tension at the LoC through attempts at mass infiltration and targeting some of our patrols and posts. The Army would already have adequately reinforced deployment there. Internally, the other threat is mainly from IEDs (bombs) because that is one domain where a determined terror module may sneak past all security and create havoc of very serious proportions, recalling Pulwama and the attack on the J&K Assembly in 2001.
To really qualify for a landmark decision the constitutional and administrative changes must deliver quality governance and that too in a very short time. A couple of things will be needed early enough and I am not rooting for restoring of the electoral process in that time frame. Advantages of the union territory status through higher central oversight must accrue to the common man. The confusion in the minds of the public must be addressed by a direct outreach; call it a hearts and minds approach but that terminology unfortunately draws cynicism from many who do not understand the larger strategic gains from such action. The return of Kashmiri Pandits - Kashmiri Hindus who were made to leave their homes in the Valley following the outbreak of militancy in the late eighties - must be discussed with their leadership and ways of ensuring this in an environment of existing mistrust must be sought.
Overall, this is still work in progress. Resting on laurels of a fine decision won’t deliver. There is many a mile before we sleep.
(The author is a highly-decorated former Military Secretary of the Indian Army who has commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu & Kashmir)