This Time Is Different: A New Hope for Kashmir

This Time Is Different: A New Hope for Kashmir

The careful cultivation of a Kashmiri civil society and a western neighbor in turmoil means that circumstance has charted a different course for the historically challenged territory.

As the Red Army prepared to march the last of its troops out of Afghanistan in February 1989, a new frontier awaited the now triumphant mujahideen. Confidence was high; in a few short years, the eager group of ragtag combatants would credit themselves with the collapse of one of the world’s most formidable modern empires. With a wave of independence crashing over the shores of Eastern Europe, the band of true believers was anxious to secure the same fate for the other “occupied” territories of the Muslim world. With local discontent already brewing following allegations of fixed local elections—and under the direction of the Pakistani military—attention turned to Kashmir.

For over three decades, Srinagar lay at the epicenter of the increasingly bloody Kashmir insurgency. Situated between India and Pakistan, with portions administered by both nations, Kashmir became synonymous with violence, suicide bombings, and terrorism. Emigration of the most vulnerable in society, following their expulsion by militants, such as the Kashmiri Pandits, and plummeting tourism rates served as stark indicators of the region’s instability. Yet, in recent years, violence against civilian targets has decreased and tourism has gradually begun to return to the previously very popular north-eastern region of India. Therefore, news of the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan in August 2021, coupled with concrete proof of Al Qaeda’s presence in the capital earlier this year, has led to worrying similarities being drawn between now and 1989, suggesting that Kashmir could once again be plunged into darkness. However, this time it’s different. The careful cultivation of a Kashmiri civil society and a western neighbor in turmoil means that circumstance has charted a different course for the historically challenged territory, one with less violence and more prosperity for the next decade.

Autonomy has been interwoven into the fabric of the Kashmiri identity since partition, when the ruler of the princely state, Maharaja Hari Singh, sought independence over absorption by India or Pakistan. Much to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s pleasure, Singh eventually chose to sign the Instrument of Accession to India—an event that was, in large part, aided by Singh’s need for military assistance to ward off Pakistani-led hostilities in the region. The Instruments of Accession signed by Jammu and Kashmir, as well as over 550 other princely states, were generous in the powers that they afforded local rulers,, only matters of defense, external affairs, and communications were handled by the central administration. As a result, the Instruments of Accession had a markedly temporary feel to them, and in 1950 the Indian constitution was ratified. Over the next six years, the princely states transitioned to union territories, creating a stronger republic of states than the previous dynamic had allowed. Once more, however, Jammu and Kashmir were apprehensive about forfeiting their autonomy to a centralized power, and Article 370 was introduced, which maintained Jammu and Kashmir’s control over all affairs aside from those signed off to the central government in 1947. Additionally, Article 35A accompanied 370, introducing restrictive laws on land ownership, local government, and education. These provisions were to stay in place well into the twenty-first century.

It is therefore understandable that the people of Jammu and Kashmir felt as if their autonomy was being stripped away following the controversial events of 1987. One year earlier, in 1986, the local National Conference party had entered into a power-sharing agreement with the central government’s Indian National Congress, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This move paved the way for the National Conference to defeat the newly established Muslim United Front and emerge victorious in the 1987 legislative assembly election that was immediately accused of being rigged. Such subversion of democracy created fertile ground for armed opposition to the government and within two years the opportunity to destabilize the state was seized by the Pakistani military intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).

Once started, the insurgency fueled itself. Instability generated resentment against the government amongst the younger generation of Jammu and Kashmir, who saw militancy as the only means of “expressing their disenchantment with a flawed political process”. At the outbreak of violence, the primary insurgent group was the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which targeted disenfranchised youth to wage an armed struggle against India for complete independence. By 1994, the JKLF had declared a ceasefire with the government, however, with violence flourishing, the conditions that had pushed the JKLF’s recruits to join them in the first place had, if anything, worsened. The following year six Western tourists were taken hostage by another militant group, and one was beheaded when their demand for the release of fifteen prisoners was not met. The violence was far from over. With new and more radical Islamist groups cropping up, there were plenty of suitors vying for the allegiance of the still dissatisfied militants.

This high level of discontent has diminished in recent years making it more difficult for terrorist groups to find sympathy within the general population of Jammu and Kashmir. A change of approach by militants has led to the targeting of military and police personnel being preferred to soft targets, significantly reducing the disruption to life for the civilian population. The contentious abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019 have also, theoretically, helped lay the foundations for future prosperity in Kashmir, targeting the many concerns that had previously perpetuated the violence. Outsiders are no longer barred from purchasing land in the region, inviting investment that will undoubtedly lead to job creation. Additionally, the right to work, own property, and vote in local elections was also awarded to West Pakistan Refugees, the group that had fled from Pakistan and settled in Jammu and Kashmir following partition in 1947 and had, until 2019, been denied the same rights as Kashmiris born in India.

Symbolically, this move has aligned Jammu and Kashmir with India, and this has since been mirrored culturally, with Umran Malik becoming only the third Kashmiri-born cricketer to be called up to the Indian national team. Malik’s achievement is not solely sporting, and the athlete can serve as an example for young Kashmiris who are now able to envision a future of their own as part of a larger Indian national identity. Gradually, more rights and opportunities are being afforded to young and previously marginalized groups in Jammu and Kashmir. The result is that signing up for a terrorist group is no longer deemed the only option for those living in the valley. Perhaps most indicative of this change in on-the-ground realities is the rise of locally-led non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Jammu and Kashmir Policy Institute, that work to empower youth, decrease inequalities, and thus target those that had previously been pushed to militancy. These monumental shifts in the landscape of Jammu and Kashmir have helped to cultivate a nascent civil society, averting homegrown terrorism. Such elements are thus, working collectively to block the previously trodden pathways to radicalization. However, peace in Jammu and Kashmir has always been dependent on the actions and decisions of neighboring Pakistan.

In the 1990s, the JKLF’s short-lived campaign of terror was successful insofar that it caught the attention of India’s western neighbor, who spotted widespread support for an insurgency in its infancy. During the ten years prior, Pakistan had dedicated much of its resources and attention to supporting the Afghan mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets, and with this mission completed, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq sought to transfer the “skills of covert operation learnt in Afghanistan to a liberation struggle in Kashmir”. Not only did Pakistan adopt the same tactics and methods in Kashmir as in Afghanistan, but the majority of militants themselves either fought in the Afghan jihad or were trained by those who did.  

For Pakistan, however, the outlook in 2022 is far different from that of the late 1990s. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was hailed as a “major non-NATO ally by Colin Powell, a stark contrast to today’s frosty bilateral relations under the Biden administration. This strategy of endorsing, co-opting, and arming militant groups has also backfired domestically, with the Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), appearing to hold all the cards in negotiations with the state. Elsewhere, the country is already experiencing some of the most severe effects of climate change, whilst attempting to grapple with a financial crisis that will require a great deal of good fortune to avoid a collapse akin to that of Sri Lanka. Exorbitant spending must, therefore, be reined in, and there will be little support amongst the public or politicians to further increase funding to a military establishment in which the ISI operates as the point of contact for the country’s more unconventional assets. Thus, the political and military will and financial capabilities to maintain a strategy that has long been a staple of Pakistani foreign policy is rapidly declining, removing a key component that had sustained thirty years of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Alongside Pakistani patronage, however, the militants that operated between the borders of India and Pakistan during the height of the insurgency also profited greatly from the presence of the Taliban and, subsequently, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.