Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote
Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote
Security forces on the banks of Dal lake, Srinagar in the Indian-administered region of Jammu and Kashmir. November 2023.
Security Forces on the banks of Dal lake, in Srinagar. There is a huge gap between New Delhi’s claims that Kashmir has become peaceful and reality. In November 2023. Praveen Donthi/CRISIS GROUP.
Commentary / Asia 15 minutes

Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote

Indian authorities speak confidently of a new era in the region of Jammu and Kashmir, for decades a hotbed of separatism, insurgency and tensions with neighbouring Pakistan. But with New Delhi stalling on promised elections, local frustration continues to fuel unrest.

Days before retiring in October 2023, the outgoing police chief of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Dilbag Singh, asserted that the Himalayan region, over which Pakistan also claims sovereignty, was “coming out of the dark era of terrorism”. Yet over the next three days, events conspired to prove him wrong. Militants carried out three separate attacks, killing two police officers and a migrant labourer, in three different districts of the Kashmir valley. 

There is a substantial gap between the Indian government’s claims that Jammu and Kashmir has become “peaceful” and reality in the restive region. The government’s narrative contains more than a bit of wishful thinking: security in the area is a matter of supreme importance to New Delhi, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set his cap on consolidating control and wiping out armed militancy there. On 5 August 2019, the freshly re-elected Modi administration broke with 70 years of Indian constitutional tradition by overhauling the region’s administrative order. It revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which had guaranteed the country’s only Muslim-majority state semi-autonomy since it joined the Indian union in 1947. According to New Delhi, the state’s special status was “a hurdle for development” and a wellspring of “separatism, nepotism and corruption”. The Modi administration then split the state into two “union territories” – one called Jammu and Kashmir, and the other Ladakh – placing them both under direct central government control, via appointed lieutenant governors. Officials promised that these decisions, none of which were taken in consultation with the local population or political representatives, would bring “peace and prosperity” to the region after three decades of insurgency. 

Four and half years down the road from this momentous decision, there have been improvements in the security situation, but the changes have not been the panacea that was promised. While, according to official data, the number of militants is low compared to the past, not a week goes by without an insurgent attack or a deadly encounter between insurgents and security forces. Kashmiri youth, disgruntled with New Delhi’s policy of direct control of the region and deprived of political space to vent their frustration, continue to join militant groups. Lacking proper training and weapons, many of these new recruits are killed in a matter of months, if not weeks. 

According to security officials, militants could ramp up their activity if they choose – or if Pakistan chooses, since Islamabad has historically supported the anti-India insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives since the late 1980s. Islamabad backed the separatist insurrection that erupted in 1989, and over the years it has provided funds, training and equipment to various militant outfits, even if the assistance seems to have tailed off since the two countries recommitted to a ceasefire along the contested border in 2021. But however Pakistan’s role in the region evolves, it seems unlikely there will be lasting peace until the authorities address the causes pushing young Kashmiris into militancy and driving public support for insurgent groups – foremost among them a lack of voice in the region’s affairs. 

A paramilitary truck stationed in the old part of Srinagar city, locally known as Downtown. More than half a million soldiers are still stationed in Jammu and Kashmir to counter an anti-India separatist insurgency. In November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

Militancy Goes Underground

New Delhi has deployed additional military units to the region since 2019, pushing militant activity deep underground but failing to snuff it out entirely. The result, according to Naeem Akhtar, a former minister in the regional administration, is a “form of guerrilla warfare in which you can’t see the enemy”. The new generation of fighters – with no prior record or known links to insurgent outfits – are adept at carrying out attacks and quickly slipping back into civilian anonymity. They no longer have the high profile their predecessors cultivated by toting guns in public and on social media. 

Calling them “hybrid militants”, authorities note that these insurgents have a radicalisation agenda. “The militants’ thinking seems to be that when they go after soft targets, the reaction from the state will be disproportionate – we will pick up people, question them, harass them … which will create more disaffection among people”, a mid-level police officer explained. “This is what they want”.

New Delhi systematically downplays the region’s violence, instead showcasing its claims of peace and stability in Kashmir. “This government doesn’t want to acknowledge their presence”, Omar Abdullah, the erstwhile state’s chief minister from 2009 to 2015, observed in reference to the militants. But the facts speak for themselves. Official data shows that the security forces killed 113 militants, arrested 500 of their associates and busted up 89 militant cells in Jammu and Kashmir in 2023; 34 soldiers were killed as well. Tensions in Kashmir became hard to cover up in 2023 when the Indian government, which held the presidency of the G20, organised a meeting of the bloc’s Tourism Working Group in the region’s summer capital, Srinagar. Usually prohibited from visiting the region, foreign journalists discovered that Kashmiris live in fear and resent the central government. When the journalists asked about heavy-handed security measures in Kashmir, they received an angry response from a central government minister.

Security presence in Lal Chowk, a city square in Srinagar. In November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

Resentment of the Indian State

The constitutional changes undertaken in 2019, alongside the more than half a million soldiers now stationed in the region, have bred deep public discontent. In the eyes of many Kashmiris, the Modi government has turned Kashmir into a “police state” where arbitrary detentions, high levels of incarceration and constant surveillance have generated a climate of pervasive fear. But the disaffection with central rule extends much further than criticism of the massive army presence. The scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 had already annulled the exclusive rights that locally born people had over land ownership and government jobs, but a series of laws ushered in by the central government since then has sown further resentment. New land and domicile laws have allowed Indians from other parts of the country to purchase land, acquire residency and apply for government jobs in the territory for the first time. 

Cumulatively, these changes have triggered fears that the central government, which is in the hands of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is pushing for demographic change in the country’s only Muslim-majority region. “It’s a civilisational project”, says former minister Akhtar, summing up the perception of many Kashmiris. “They see us as an anomaly on the map of Hindu India”.

New Delhi has disclaimed such intentions. But the view that Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is intent on disempowering local Muslims is now an article of faith throughout Kashmir’s civil society and political establishment. Most political leaders point out that none of the top administrators, bureaucrats and police officers appointed by New Delhi are locals. “How many of them represent the majority community? How many speak the local language? It’s not just about control, it’s about [Hindu] majoritarianism. They don’t even want local officers to get their due space”, former Chief Minister Abdullah lamented. 

At the same time, Jammu and Kashmir’s political life has all but come to a standstill. The last regional elections took place in 2014, and the elected government ceased to exist in 2018 after New Delhi imposed President’s Rule, a constitutional device that places regional authorities under central government control. Addressing Kashmiris in 2019, two days after announcing the creation of the new union territories, Modi promised: “You will elect your own political representatives; they will come from among you”. But four and a half years later, his promise to create a regional legislature remains unfulfilled. The national government has taken steps in this direction – it has delimited new constituencies and revised electoral rolls – but it still has not held the polls.

All political activity remains severely curtailed.

Meanwhile, all political activity remains severely curtailed, in part owing to the Modi government’s excessively harsh treatment of the region’s politicians and media. While carrying out the 2019 overhaul, the Modi government detained the entire Kashmiri political class, including three former chief ministers of the state, two of whom had also been ministers in the central government. Most were released over the following year, but some remain in jail. Those who have been freed are often prevented by the police from carrying out political work, such as attending public meetings or meeting families of victims of security forces’ abuses. Local authorities under New Delhi’s control have also cracked down on journalists, routinely summoning them for interrogation, placing them on no-fly lists to keep them from travelling abroad and arbitrarily arresting them under harsh anti-terror laws; in some cases, journalists’ family members have also lost their government jobs. 

Strikingly, the 2019 wave of arrests targeted not just separatists but also the region’s mainstream politicians, whom Kashmiris refer to as “pro-India” because they recognise Jammu and Kashmir as part of the Indian union and have taken part in elections. Separatist parties, on the other hand, had long refused to take part in polls and called upon Kashmiris to boycott them, while some had direct links to militant groups. 

Even the most pro-India politicians were taken aback by the ferocity of New Delhi’s clampdown. Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, a 34-year-old leader from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), one of the region’s two major political formations, was once considered a potential chief minister thanks to the backing he enjoyed in New Delhi. In 2020, however, he was arrested under anti-terror laws and, according to a team of UN experts, tortured, before being released on bail after seventeen months in jail. He continues to fight terror charges in court and is not allowed to travel outside the region. His perceptions of the Indian state have undergone a corresponding sea change. “I used to believe that the sky was the limit for a Kashmiri Muslim in India”, he says. “Now I have lost all hope”. Seeing Kashmiris of all political and ideological hues – from those who worked for the Indian state to those who fought it – living together in the same jail convinced him that, in the end, the Indian state treats all Kashmiris the same way. 

Waheed ur Rehman Para, a youth leader of People’s Democratic Party, was once considered a potential chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. He was one among the many pro-India politicians arrested post 2019. In November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

Pro-India politicians in the region often characterised their role as intermediaries between New Delhi and Kashmiri civil society. Para himself used to be a flagbearer of Indian democracy among young people in the region. He was credited with persuading many of them to take part in elections. “We wanted to marginalise militancy as an ideology by bringing dignity to democracy”, he recalls. “We used to look at elections as a process of countering violence”. But the absence of an elected regional government has left Kashmiris with nowhere to turn to address their grievances and stoked resentment of the federal government. Kashmiris’ desperation is visible at political party offices in Srinagar, where people queue to seek help with their day-to-day problems even though the politicians there have virtually no power.

Mounting Pressure for Elections

Against this backdrop, and for the first time ever, Kashmir’s two political lineages – pro-India and separatist – are both demanding elections for the promised regional assembly. Their alignment on the issue of polls is nothing less than historic, even if some of the most hardline separatists remain outside the emerging consensus. The call for elections is a position that enjoys support from outside the regional political establishment as well; the Kashmiris Crisis Group spoke to were united in calling for elections at the earliest possible moment. This plea is all the more extraordinary given the mistrust of polls in the past, with central government interference and manipulation in elections a constant since independence in 1947. It was precisely such manipulation of the 1987 regional elections that led to the birth of a separatist insurgency, and since then, militants and separatist politicians have systematically exerted their clout to ensure that participation rates remained abysmal – at times as low as 6 per cent. 

Politicians who have always boycotted elections, and called upon all Kashmiris to follow suit, are now demanding that polls be held as a way to protest what they consider to be Indian occupation. “We had our differences with [the mainstream parties]”, notes Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s chief cleric and chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of moderate separatist social and political outfits. “We looked at them as those who could administer and govern day-to-day issues, but they never represented the sentiments of the people. Farooq, who has spent much of the last five years under house arrest, adds: “In hindsight, I believe it was wrong on our part to call for boycotts of past elections”. Now, he is “encouraging people to fight politically and peacefully”.

The central BJP government has taken steps to prepare for regional elections in Jammu and Kashmir, although not all of them are welcome. In particular, residents worry that the BJP is skewing the system to its political advantage. In March 2020, New Delhi initiated a process to demarcate new constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir. In the end, six new constituencies were added to the Jammu division, with a population of 5.3 million, while only one was added to the Kashmir division, which has 6.8 million people. For most Kashmiri political parties and much of the public, this measure confirmed the suspicion that the central government’s objective is to boost the number of seats in non-Muslim majority areas of the state, since Jammu has a majority-Hindu population, while the Kashmir valley is 97 per cent Muslim. The BJP hopes that the numerical heft given to the Jammu region will help it achieve a majority in Jammu and Kashmir, allowing it to form a regional government with its own chief minister at the helm, without depending on a coalition that would need to include Kashmiri regional parties. 

Kashmir’s political leaders have denounced the move as a deliberate attempt to engineer a victory for the BJP, with the objective of achieving the election of a Hindu chief minister in the region for the first time. “They have already rigged the elections even before they are held … to further disempower Kashmiris”, declared former chief minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti. In an apparent bid to weaken existing regional parties, New Delhi has also propped up newer pro-India formations. But while these new parties have been somewhat successful in poaching from the ranks of traditional parties – the PDP, for instance, has lost over 40 senior members since 2020 – they are struggling to generate popular support, as many Kashmiris consider them to be BJP proxies.

Mehbooba Mufti, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (2016-18). In November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

Many Kashmiri leaders and analysts assert that the main reason New Delhi has not yet announced a date for the long-awaited regional elections is that it cannot yet be sure that the BJP or its proxies will do sufficiently well. “[Elections] is one place where people can give vent to the feelings”, said former chief minister Abdullah. “By voting against the BJP or parties perceived close to it, they can make known their unhappiness about the state of affairs post-August 2019”. It is also likely that the BJP does not want to risk losing regional elections in Jammu and Kashmir ahead of national elections beginning in April, when Prime Minister Modi will be seeking a third term. (National elections will be contested in Jammu and Kashmir as elsewhere in the country.) The central government’s reluctance to test the regional electorate has even extended to elections for municipal bodies and village tracts, which are also overdue. India’s chief election commissioner has defended the delays on the basis of security conditions in the region, but a senior police officer says the real reasons are political. “If the central government could hold elections in 1996 and 1998, when militancy was at its peak, it should not be difficult to do so now”, he observed. 

There is, however, pressure on the government to bring the delays to an end. On 11 December 2023, while upholding the government’s 2019 decision to restructure Jammu and Kashmir, the Supreme Court directed the election commission to conduct regional polls before 30 September 2024. But notwithstanding the court’s decision, the choice of election day will hinge on a risk assessment by the government’s national security agencies, which could become a pretext for continuing delay. 

On 7 March, Prime Minister Modi visited Kashmir for the first time since the momentous changes of August 2019 to address a public meeting in Srinagar, with an eye to the forthcoming national elections. The BJP is hoping to register a win for the first time ever in Kashmir. Modi announced a few development projects and asserted that Kashmir’s prosperity is peaking after the abrogation of Article 370. He said nothing of his promises regarding statehood or regional elections. 

Seizing the Opportunity

It would be in New Delhi’s interest to proceed with the Jammu and Kashmir regional polls at the earliest opportunity. Ideally, they would be held well before the Supreme Court’s September deadline, and regardless of whether there are national polls in the spring, which will likely do little more than ensconce the BJP more deeply in power. By allowing Kashmiris to choose electoral representatives who can speak on their behalf, both for a regional assembly and for municipalities and panchayats (the lowest rung of the Indian administrative system), regional and local polls would help counter the growing perception among locals that they are being singled out for a kind of “collective punishment” and have no political capacity to improve their lot; this sentiment can only stoke the frustrations of Kashmiri youth, potentially multiplying militant ranks – which Indian officials concede. “We are in the fourth decade of militancy and have brought it under control to a large extent”, a senior counter-insurgency official confided. “The time for punitive action is over, now is the time for a policy to offer carrots. Punitive action alone can’t bring peace”. 

Unprecedented tacit support from some separatist parties for elections, meanwhile, presents an important opportunity that the Indian government should grasp. After decades of electoral boycotts of the vote, New Delhi should capitalise on the endorsement that both mainstream and separatist forces have made of the electoral process, which could promote higher turnout – even if separatist candidates do not themselves stand for election. “I have been trying to convey to the government of India that the story coming out of Jammu and Kashmir should not be about the BJP’s victory, but about high participation in elections. Why [is the government] focused on selling the success of a party to the world? Sell the fact that for the first time after 1990, you had an election where 40-60 percent of the population turned out to vote”, Abdullah said. There is some risk of violence against candidates, but the burden should be on the national government to prove that it is sufficient to postpone polls. Thus far, the evidence is not there. 

As a confidence-building gesture before any campaign begins, New Delhi should at least provide Kashmir’s pro-India politicians with the space to carry out normal political activity, including the right to free speech and assembly. Local political leaders should be allowed to travel and attend public meetings without restrictions, and arbitrary detentions of politicians in their own homes should cease immediately.

Elections on their own ... will not be enough to calm the tensions in Kashmir.

Elections on their own, however, will not be enough to calm the tensions in Kashmir. New Delhi needs to engage in a sustained, meaningful political process to address rising alienation. Such a process can only start with a dialogue with the Kashmiri political class – including separatists – and civil society at large, including religious leaders and other influential public representatives. Engaging separatists will be challenging, particularly given the ruling BJP’s hawkish political outlook on these issues, but back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan offers a way forward for discreet engagement, given Islamabad’s influence over many of them. In 2019-2020, such back channels, mediated by the United Arab Emirates, saw India and Pakistan recommit to a floundering ceasefire despite severe bilateral tensions at the time. 

To make the most of the political moment, the Modi government would ideally also restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood before holding regional elections. Under the Indian constitution, statehood grants a degree of federal autonomy that empowers regional governments, allowing them to address public demands more effectively. The 2019 decision to downgrade the state to a union territory, which is extremely rare in Indian history, hurt both local governance and Kashmiris’ pride. Since then, the Indian government – led by Modi himself – has promised to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood several times, albeit with redefined borders since Ladakh has been carved out as a separate union territory. But it has yet to announce any concrete steps. Upon receiving a Supreme Court ruling in December that directed it to move ahead with restoring regional statehood, the government said it would do so at an “appropriate time”.

The lack of urgency is unfortunate. Veterans of Kashmir’s troubled history warn that unless the basics of political participation and civic freedoms are in place, New Delhi’s narrative of peace and security will be increasingly challenged by regional unrest. The warning signs are now evident. In the words of chief cleric Farooq, “They are pushing the next generation of Kashmiris to the wall”.

Security forces in a market in Srinagar. In November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Praveen Donthi

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