Keeping Kashmir on the Radar
Keeping Kashmir on the Radar
Commentary / Asia

Keeping Kashmir on the Radar

As the decades-old conflict continues in Kashmir, with incidents occurring every week, dangerous tensions make future violence possible. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to push for India and Pakistan to rebuild mutual respect and peaceful relations by resuming formal bilateral ties and re-engaging with Kashmiri political leaders.

Away from the international limelight, the decades-old conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir grinds on, as New Delhi grapples with a Pakistan-backed but largely local separatist insurgency. In August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government unilaterally scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, abrogated its statehood and redrew its geographic boundaries. The government claimed that its decisions would put an end to militancy in India’s only Muslim-majority region and ensure its economic development. Neither has occurred. Instead, Kashmiris are increasingly alienated from the Indian state, with more and more youth joining insurgent groups – many to be killed by security forces in a matter of months, if not weeks. Meanwhile, the Modi government continues to steer clear of engagement with the Kashmiri political class, though it did release many of those it had detained for months after the August 2019 reforms. 

More encouragingly, New Delhi has held back-channel talks with Pakistan, leading to an agreement to respect the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control – the unrecognised border that divides the Himalayan region in two. But with both countries laying claim to the entire region, and with New Delhi accusing Islamabad of supporting the insurgency, bellicose rhetoric remains the norm on both sides. Any significant militant attack in Indian-administered Kashmir would inevitably raise tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours. The level of violence has not returned to what it was at the insurgency’s height, but incidents nonetheless occur every week, with various signs pointing toward an uptick in conflict. 

The European Union (EU) and its member states can help address the deadlock by:

  • Pushing for resumption of formal bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, which were suspended in 2019, at the earliest. While reports of back-channel talks are encouraging, and were welcomed by the EU high representative, such informal exchanges will not be sufficient to bring about enduring peace in Kashmir. Meanwhile, the risks of military escalation between the two countries are too high to contemplate.
     
  • Pressuring Pakistan to take meaningful action in reining in anti-India jihadist groups operating from its territory. Islamabad’s assurances in this regard lack credibility given Pakistan’s history of active support to militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir.
     
  • Persuading the Indian government to re-engage with Kashmiri political leaders of all stripes – both those from “pro-India” (ie, mainstream) parties and separatist leaders, who for the most part enjoy greater credibility with Kashmiris. It should also nudge New Delhi to live up to its promises to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and hold regional elections. 
     
  • Making clear to New Delhi that the relentless crackdown on Kashmiri civil society is both anti-democratic and a driver of instability that it should wish to avoid. The EU should raise the issue of abuses against journalists, activists and ordinary Kashmiris with the Indian government, and urge New Delhi to allow foreign reporters and observers back into the region. 
     
  • Encouraging the Indian government to show greater respect for religious sensitivities in Kashmir, for example by handing over bodies of slain militants (or suspected sympathisers) to kin, instead of burying them in faraway graveyards, and lifting the ban on Friday prayers at Srinagar’s historic mosque. The present policies only reinforce Kashmiris’ perception of the state being anti-Muslim, fuelling support for militancy.

A New Escalation of Insurgency

The decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status had been part of Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto for years. Emboldened by its May 2019 re-election and increasingly driven by its Hindu nationalist ideology, the BJP approached Kashmir with an iron hand. Not only did New Delhi scrap the state’s unique status, it also rescinded its statehood, splitting Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – both administered directly by the federal government via an unelected lieutenant governor. Authorities also detained the entire Kashmiri political class, including three former Chief Ministers, for months. The state legislature had been previously dissolved, depriving residents of an elected regional government. 

More than two years later, anger and anxiety prevail among Kashmiri Muslims, whose resentment of New Delhi has only deepened in light of a series of measures the government has taken since the 2019 moves. Modi’s administration has made sweeping legislative and administrative changes, leading to fears it is playing at demographic engineering in India’s only Muslim-majority region. Indians from other parts of the country can now buy land, get residency rights and apply for government jobs in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. Militants have stepped up attacks on migrants in response. The central government has also removed Kashmiri Muslims from most important positions in the local administration and police, bringing in outsiders to carry out its agenda. 

Meanwhile, Kashmiri political life remains at a standstill. The mainstream politicians (called “pro-India” by the Kashmiris) who were detained in August 2019 have since been let go, but their freedom of movement and expression remains extremely limited. Most separatist leaders had been jailed during the BJP’s first term and are still in detention. New Delhi has promised to hold regional elections as soon as it finishes reorganising the constituencies in the new Union Territories. Many observers, however, fear the exercise is designed to ensure the Jammu region – where the population is over 60 per cent Hindu – has more seats in the new Jammu and Kashmir regional assembly than the Kashmir valley, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. 

Whatever the case, in the Indian federal system an elected assembly in a Union Territory would wield little clout, as executive powers would remain firmly in the hands of New Delhi’s appointed lieutenant governor. Modi and his influential home minister, Amit Shah, have both hinted at restoring Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood, which would provide Kashmiris with more meaningful political representation as it would allow for the election of a local government, but New Delhi has taken no action so far.

The government has also stifled freedom of speech in Kashmir with a brutal crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders, social media users and civil society at large. The intimidation and arrests of journalists, including under draconian anti-terror laws, is particularly alarming. Condemnation by international organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has brought only denials and sharp criticism from New Delhi. 

Desperation among Kashmiris is pushing more youth to view armed resistance as the only way to counter New Delhi’s unilateral moves.

Despite the government’s assurances to the contrary, the iron-hand approach is backfiring. Desperation among Kashmiris is pushing more youth to view armed resistance as the only way to counter New Delhi’s unilateral moves. India has responded with ruthless counter-insurgency operations: of the 128 youth who reportedly joined militant groups in 2021, 30 were killed within a month. According to government data, security forces killed a total of 366 militants between August 2019 and November 2021, losing 81 of their own men in the process. Civilians are caught in the crossfire: at least 96 civilians were killed during this period. A lot of locals question the authenticity of many counter-insurgency operations, as the security forces often have no evidence to present linking those killed to insurgency. Kashmiris accordingly allege that many of these operations are actually staged encounters, targeting civilians or suspects already in custody rather than active militants. 

Citing COVID-19 concerns, security forces have been burying the bodies of those killed in encounters in far-flung graveyards instead of handing them over to their families, who therefore cannot conduct last rites. After completing an operation, they also blow up the houses where alleged militants were holed up, leaving families homeless. Such punishments add to the anger among the population, leading to widespread moral support for militancy. 

Yet, for all its evident failings, the Modi government refuses to re-evaluate its ideologically driven approach to Kashmir, which is largely derived from its deeply held Hindu nationalist agenda. Consistent with that agenda, it also instrumentalises the Kashmir issue for electoral gain in other parts of India, where many BJP supporters regard Kashmiris as traitors loyal to Pakistan.

As for Pakistan, it is an open secret that Islamabad actively encouraged, trained and funded the Kashmiri insurgency in the 1990s. Over the last two decades, pan-jihadist groups it helped create for this purpose have carried out a long series of deadly terrorist attacks in India, from storming the federal parliament in 2001 to mounting the Mumbai attacks in 2008, to killing 40 Indian paramilitaries in Kashmir in February 2019. The last incident dangerously raised tensions between India and Pakistan, leading them to suspend diplomatic ties. Since then, no major attack has taken place, and it is difficult to determine how much support Islamabad is presently providing to the new wave of Kashmiri militancy, which is largely indigenous and appears to have no sophisticated weapons and little training. But given the history, Islamabad’s assurances about offering nothing more than moral support to Kashmiris’ “freedom struggle” will continue to ring hollow as long as Pakistan takes no meaningful action against the anti-India groups known to operate from its territory. 

Against this backdrop, the best news to come out of Kashmir in the last two years arrived in February 2021, when India and Pakistan recommitted to the 2003 ceasefire after holding back-channel talks. For India, the decision could well have been a consequence of tensions rising on its China border, which has prompted it to redeploy security forces there, rather than genuine will to lower the temperature with Pakistan. Whatever the case, the reduction in direct friction between the two nuclear powers in what is one of the world’s most militarised regions is a positive development. But the ceasefire accord alone will not bring about long-term stability, especially in the absence of proper diplomatic ties. With India accusing its neighbour of supporting militant groups, any large-scale attack in Indian-administered Kashmir will inevitably result in heightened tensions – and probably in military escalation. 

Moving Forward

The EU should use its regular exchanges with Islamabad and New Delhi to actively encourage the nuclear-armed neighbours to move toward normalisation of diplomatic relations, more formal bilateral summits and a higher tempo of meetings to build trust. It should further work to ensure that proper communication channels are in place in case of a major militancy-related incident in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Persuading India to move along this path will be challenging. Given how the BJP exploits frictions with Pakistan to boost its domestic political fortunes, the Indian government is likely to be happy with maintaining the status quo. Moreover, since it regards Indian-administered Kashmir as an internal issue, and systematically reminds international actors that Pakistan and India have agreed to resolve their differences bilaterally, it will likely bristle at what it views as foreign meddling. Convincing it will require, at a minimum, international actors such as the EU and its member states to exert pressure on Pakistan to take tangible action against pan-jihadist groups operating from its soil, which New Delhi continues to blame for much of the militant activity in Jammu and Kashmir. The EU should seize both security dialogue and counter-terrorism meetings with Pakistani authorities to nudge them in that direction, if nothing else to make clear that this oft-repeated request remains a European concern. 

Brussels should not close its eyes to what is happening in Indian-controlled Kashmir. While it may feel pressure to safeguard Europe’s strong trade and security ties with New Delhi, and hope to see India emerge as a regional counterweight to China’s growing influence, a smouldering crisis in Kashmir will serve neither purpose. Although they have sometimes tended to avoid the issue, the EU and its member states should systematically raise the escalating human, social and security costs of India’s actions in Kashmir at bilateral forums such as EU-India summits and in human rights dialogues. In so doing, they should point out that New Delhi’s repressive policies in Kashmir are alienating a large section of the population and that its interests would be better served by addressing grievances and achieving greater stability in the restive region. In identifying those grievances, they should be highly attentive to local voices, as Kashmiris complain that their views are often lost in the shuffle as diplomats focus their attention on New Delhi and Islamabad. The EU and its member states should also press New Delhi on the need to respect media freedom in Kashmir. At a time when India wishes to be perceived as an emerging great power, they should highlight that its heavy-handed approach in Kashmir is a blot on its image abroad. 

The EU should encourage the Indian government to hold regional elections at the earliest and to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood.

At the political level, the EU should encourage the Indian government to hold regional elections at the earliest and to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood. In the immediate term, it should do its utmost to convince New Delhi of the need to re-engage with Kashmir’s political class. The Modi government should, in particular, review its treatment of “pro-India” politicians. Although these leaders enjoy limited support, the central government’s efforts to make them irrelevant is counterproductive, depriving it of its few potential allies in Kashmir. It should give them space to operate democratically, allowing them to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly. Ideally, New Delhi should also soften its stand on engaging with separatist leaders, many of whom are idolised by Kashmir’s youth; with most of these leaders in jail, many youngsters feel they have no peaceful, democratic avenue for their political aspirations, leading most to tacitly support militancy and some to actually take up arms. 

The way India conducts security operations is also of great concern. In order to send a strong message to the population, security forces often go after militants in crowded areas, leading to civilian deaths. Such heavy-handed counter-insurgency tactics have a spiralling effect in pushing youth toward militancy. Brussels should continually remind New Delhi of the imperative of protecting civilians and abiding by its obligations under international humanitarian law. 

Finally, the EU and its member states should take up the issue of the Indian government’s poor handling of Muslim religious sensitivities in Kashmir. The security forces’ refusal to hand over bodies of militants killed in security operations fuels resentment toward the Indian state, which Kashmiris increasingly perceive as anti-Muslim. So, too, does the ban on Friday prayers at Srinagar’s historic mosque, Jamia Masjid, in place since August 2019. The significant increase in persecution of Muslim and Christian minorities in other parts of India by Hindu nationalist activists given a free hand to act with impunity under the Modi government has also deepened Kashmiris’ sense of insecurity and rattled their already shaky confidence in Indian democracy.

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