Early this month, as the bodies of three young jihadists killed near Srinagar were borne to their graves, the founding patriarch of the long war in Kashmir vowed vengeance.
“There are more youth ready to pick up the arms of martyred freedom fighters, even before they have been martyred,” said Muhammad Yusuf Shah, the head of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
“The people’s participation in the funeral processions of martyrs has given nightmares to New Delhi”.
He was right.
Faced with an apparently inexorable tide of violence in Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has backed an audacious gamble.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced on Wednesday, 16 May, that central forces will terminate offensive operations during the month of Ramzan, yielding to calls from Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti that were earlier reviled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The idea is audacious, politically courageous – and fated to fail.
Centre’s Ceasefire ‘Gamble’ an Acknowledgement of Past Failures
For months now, New Delhi’s force-first policies in Kashmir have been mercilessly exposed. Even though Jammu and Kashmir Police-led operations have decimated the insurgent leadership, new recruits have been joining up in growing numbers.
Forces seeking insurgents are routinely attacked by mobs of young men willing to die to help their jihadist heroes escape.
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Large parts of southern Kashmir, in particular, are under the control of jihadists and their Islamist political allies.
New Delhi is gambling that the ceasefire will end clashes between protestors and security forces seeking out insurgents – clashes that have claimed several lives this year, feeding a relentless cycle of hate.
Even though the decision was bitterly opposed by both the Intelligence Bureau and the Indian Army, highly-placed government sources said, it won the support not just of the Home Minister and party tactician Ram Madhav, but also National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
In essence, the government’s gambling that a peaceful Ramzan will lead on to a peaceful Amarnath Yatra – and give Chief Minister Mufti breathing space.
The government’s ceasefire gamble is based on an acknowledgment of what hasn’t worked.
In 2014, soon after coming to power, Indian troops replied shells for shell, and bullets for bullet, against shots the Pakistan Army was firing across the Line of Control.
Later, in 2016, the Prime Minister ordered strikes on jihadist camps across the Line of Control, and stepped up bombardment across the Line of Control.
He bragged that Pakistan’s Generals were“scared” to take calls from his officers informing them of the attack.
But the story didn’t end there. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad were used by the Pakistan Army to step up the tempo of violence inside Kashmir.
Last year, figures for the Kashmir zone show, terrorist fatalities surged to 209 from 136 in 2016, 121 of them either unidentified or foreign.
But, central police and army fatalities also grew to 83, from 81 the previous year. Killings of civilians surged from 23 to 71.
Even a casual acquaintance with history would have warned the government this outcome was likely.
Insurgency in Valley on the Rise Since 1998
From the summer of 1998, secure in the belief its demonstrated nuclear-weapons capability would now deter a conventional Indian military strike, Pakistan’s army ratcheted up infiltration to bolster the flagging insurgency in Kashmir.
India responded with ferocious exchanges that levelled entire villages in the Neelam valley.
Yet, the violence grew.
In 1997, there were 1,116 attacks on Indian forces – the lowest since 1990. These rose inexorably, in the following years, to 1,211, 1,390, 1,560, 1,994, and 1,654. Fatalities suffered by Indian forces also rose, from 203 in 1997, to 230, 387, 499, 577 and 457 –the highest numbers ever recorded during the long jihad in Kashmir.
The violence only ended when India and Pakistan negotiated a ceasefire at the end of 2002 – after the Kargil war, the failed Ramzan ceasefire, and the near-war of 2001-2002. That, in turn, set the stage for a sharp deescalation in violence which prevailed until 2014.
In a best-case scenario, that’s what Prime Minister Modi would like to bring about again – but with Prime Minister Sharif evicted from office, and the army firmly in charge, the odds are, at best, poor.
He’s taken a bet on the next best thing – but history, again, doesn’t hold out much hope.
Non-Use of Force Just as Dangerous as Its Indiscriminate Use
In his History of the Peloponnesian Wars, written around 400 BCE, the historian-warrior Thucydides noted that killing insurgents didn’t end rebellions. “Only great simplicity can hope to prevent human nature”, he argued, “doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent force whatsoever”.
“We must not, therefore”, he concluded, “commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the punishment of death, or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance”.
Like its predecessors, this government has learned its Thucydides the hard way – but that isn’t the end of the story, for the non-use of force can be just as dangerous as its indiscriminate application.
When Vajpayee’s Ceasefire Experiment Created Safe Havens For Terrorists
In the media-manufactured narrative on Kashmir, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Ramzan ceasefire, this one’s intellectual progenitor, was a stellar success.
The hard numbers tell a very different story.
December 2000 to April 2001 saw 158 security force personnel killed, along with 278 civilians and 183 terrorists.
In the same months of 1999-2000, 129 security force personnel had been killed, along with 241 civilians – but 294 terrorists were shot dead. Earlier, from December 1999 to April 2000, the figures were 83, 244 and 265 – and from December 1998 to April 2001, 52, 187 and 204.
Kashmir’s winters allow counter-insurgency forces to mount aggressive operations, since terrorists cannot easily retreat into dense mountain forests to evade fire engagements.
In the winter of 2000-2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s action ensured terrorists could rest safe – at the cost of the lives of security force personnel.
From 2011 to 2016, it is little known, the Kashmir government tried the experiment again, using undeclared local ceasefires which ceded safe havens to jihadists in rural areas, in return for their helping to prevent fidayeen strikes on the cities.
The live-and-let-live deal worked – but helped jihadists consolidate ideological control, which exploded in the mass anti-India violence of 2016.
The ceasefire might have paid off if there were significant political gains to be had – but its hard to see what they might be.
The ageing leadership of the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference has little traction with the young protestors on the streets. The New Islamists they support, and the jihadists who back them, do not want talks.
Perhaps worst of all, Pakistan’s Generals, in turn, see escalating violence in Kashmir as a means to strengthen their jihadist partners, valuable allies in the struggle against that country’s civilian leadership.
In principle, the state government could use a pause in violence to govern effectively, and reach out to the public – but neither of Kashmir’s major political parties has shown much ability to do this in the past.
Led by people with few qualifications for high office other than their parents, and often enmeshed in a corrupt, contractor-driven economy, the pro-India parties are almost totally alienated from Kashmir’s youth cohort.
What Can the Next Best Policy Step Be?
The best Indian government policy would be to eschew grand gestures, and incrementally address problems – by improving policing of mass protests with non-lethal weapons, increasing prosecutions of rioters, and enhancing training to improve precision counter-insurgency operations.
The government ought also implement plans long on the drawing board to dismantle Kashmir’s structural corruption, and incentivise entrepreneurship instead.
Like his predecessors, though, Prime Minister Modi has been seduced by the grand gesture. This great hurrah, like so many others before it, will most likely end in an in an ignominious whimper.