While Indian bureaucrats insist that Kashmir is better off under New Delhi's direct rule, security experts urge caution, describing the region as a "pressure cooker" that can "blow up" anytime.
Lodged somewhat in the middle of Srinagar’s arterial Residency Road is Khan News Agency, a store of periodicals with a sizeable stock of books on strategic affairs. Hilal Khan, the owner, talks less but opens up to old friends. In the winter of 2019, two months after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, administered by India, had been unilaterally withdrawn, he whispered that a “water Naag” – the fountain underneath – was waiting to spurt, but “a Genie” had positioned its hulking foot on the Naag, “turning it restless like a snake.”
The Naag in this scene is Kashmir’s hoi polloi, while the Genie symbolises the armed forces controlled by the Indian state. In March 2022, I again met Khan – a mindful observer of Kashmiri affairs – and enquired about the outcome of the Naag-Genie battle.
“For now, the Genie is winning…” He sounds vigilant. “But we have to watch,” he says.
Within weeks, the Naag-Genie combat had intensified, amplifying casualties on both sides.
Official figures and explanation
Muslim-majority India-administered Kashmir – centrally controlled by New Delhi since 2019 – has been reeling from a spate of killings targeting Hindus that sent aftershocks throughout India, a country that consists of about 80 percent Hindus.
In Kashmir, during the last few months, 13 Muslim civilians and six Hindu civilians – including ethnic Kashmiris – were killed by militants. Vijay Kumar, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) responsible for maintaining law and order in the Kashmir Valley, agrees that such killings cannot continue.
“The trend will decrease as we have taken some preventive measures, like shifting places of work (posting) of Kashmiri Hindus from remote or vulnerable areas to district headquarters in Kashmir,” Kumar tells TRT World.
Although over a dozen Muslim civilians have fallen prey to violence this year, it is invariably the killing of Hindus that the Indian government and a pliant media always highlights.
“Investigations of all such cases are conducted on a priority basis. Some of the terrorists involved in these terror crimes were killed in encounters and some were arrested. Our intelligence set-ups are tasked with generating preventive intelligence. Area domination exercise (monitoring and physically controlling vulnerable points) has been increased,” Kumar, the IGP, says.
As of the middle of June, at least 18 personnel of Indian armed forces, including the army, the police and central semi-military forces have been killed. Six of these personnel “were on leave and unarmed when killed,” officials confirmed.
“After the abrogation of Article 370 (the constitutional provision that gave Kashmir its special status), more than 500 terrorists have been killed just in Kashmir in different encounters. Almost all old terrorists are killed except only four. Their support structures have been destroyed. In such a situation, frustration crept in and they started targeting innocent civilians and unarmed policemen,” says Kumar.
With the killing of three militants by the Indian armed forces late on Thursday, the police says a total of “108 terrorists, including 29 foreign nationals, were neutralised in different encounters in 2022.”
The word ‘encounter’ indicates a fight between the Indian armed forces and militants. The number of militants killed in encounters in recent months is – curiously – double that of 2021. The full-year official figure for 2017-2020 was even higher.
While the figures indicate that there has, indeed, been a rise in violence, tourism has been booming in the region, in stark contrast to the past few years.
After a lull of six years (2016-2021) – for reasons ranging from robust civil society-led protests (2016-17) or revocation of special status (2019) to the Covid-19 outbreak (2020-21) – the daily inflow of tourists, numbering some “thirty to forty thousand,” was a record in light of dwindling numbers of tourists in the past few years, said Farooq Kuthoo, the president of Travel Agents Association of Kashmir.
The footfall of pilgrims in Amarnath, a popular Hindu shrine, is expected to register another record, expecting some “six to eight hundred thousand” tourists between the end of June to the middle of August this year.
The public interprets the rise in tourism and almost zero civilian protests as an outcome of the government’s “decisive action” to revoke the special status.
“After the abrogation of Article 370, not a single civilian was killed in law and order problems. It is a landmark achievement and change,” says Kumar. Since its inception in 1980, the withdrawal of Jammu & Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status has always featured in the ruling BJP’s election promises.
No major organised militant attack in the last three years is also seen as a telltale sign of peace.
Today’s Kashmir is run by an administration that takes its orders from New Delhi and not from locally-elected politicians.
About half a dozen Indian Home Ministry officials told TRT World that it would be “premature” to let politics re-capture the space created by New Delhi with the revocation of Article 370 and thereby replace bureaucracy.
While most of the top pro-freedom leadership is either behind bars or under house arrest, the key Kashmiri politicians – including former Chief Ministers like Farooq and Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti – are barred from commanding the political narrative.
Over the decades, they, alongside others, acted as a bridge between New Delhi and the restive province. Many were booked with charges under an anti-terror law, the Public Safety Act (PSA), which can deny bail for two to three years.
One of the retired army generals, Lieutenant General D S Hooda – along with others – describes present-day Kashmir as a “pressure cooker” that may “blow up if not provided a release.”
Realising that there is, indeed, a “Naag” under Genie’s foot, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met 14 top J-K leaders representing various political parties last June.
Mehbooba Mufti, the chief of one of the key outfits, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), argued two days before the meeting that if India “can talk to Taliban then why not Pakistan” on Kashmir question. The comment triggered a counter-narrative within India’s security establishment. The officials affirmed that the “good work” of reducing Pakistan’s engagement in the Valley helped in “lowering both protests and attacks.” It will be wasted if politicians return.
India has always maintained that Pakistan trains and deploys militants in Kashmir – an allegation routinely denied by Islamabad.
The security-centric ecosystem thus continues to remain in place, replacing the political process. It has its own ramifications, says G N Shaheen, a seven-time secretary of J-K High Court’s Bar Association.
“About 10 thousand Kashmiris are periodically kept in prison, being mostly booked under PSA on flimsiest of allegations. Kashmiri lawyers were arrested (later released) and kept under severe surveillance. The Bar Association’s election is not allowed and the rule of law has ceased to exist,” Shaheen tells TRT World.
The civil society – often represented by an association of teachers, lawyers, doctors and even traders – is considered by the administration as Pakistan-funded “agent provocateurs,” who allegedly instigated students to participate in the 2016 and 2017 protests that tarnished India’s global image after the pellet-hit faces of the babies, children and teenagers were circulated globally. It compelled India to re-align its security strategy in Kashmir.
A top police official who served in Kashmir listed a few “pointers” to restrict mass agitation in a 2019 interview. His recommendations included more focused investigations, a general clampdown on protests, charging them under the draconian Public Service Act to the quick and continuous shutdown of the Internet, if necessary. This formula has been fine-tuned over the last couple of years.
The other casualty is journalism. The country’s news publications need to “apprise” officials about stories before publishing them, says an Urdu newspaper editor.
“The older crop of journalists has decided to leave the profession, a section has aligned with the administration and a few young ones – mostly freelancers – dig a little deep, inviting trouble,” says a senior journalist who distanced himself from reporting. Many of the reporters have shifted to New Delhi.
“Unless the political process is restored, no individual can stand up to speak for the people,” Shaheen adds.
Kumar, the disputed region's top police officer, has a different point of view, however.
“Those politicians, journalists and retired officers who aren’t happy with the abrogation of Article 370 are spreading a false narrative that the situation is not good.”
An influential circle in New Delhi – from retired army generals to civil servants – underscores the risk of replacing the political process with bureaucracy-led governance. The most vocal is A S Dulat, the former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). He served in Kashmir during the 1990s, its most turbulent decade.
In a recent interview, Dulat outlined the risks of having a suspended political process.
In context to the recent round of killings, he said the administration is “failing” to identify the “sympathisers” of the militants as “the public is not cooperating.”
“I am convinced that there is a terror cell operating out of Srinagar” – otherwise, the recent killings cannot be orchestrated so smoothly – as “militancy and terrorism have gone deep underground, which is most dangerous,” he says, since “nobody knows what is happening.”
Earlier, with local political parties in the saddle, the nation’s youth “used to know where to go and what to do,” but the absence of a political space where politicians could hold rallies and hear people out created a “hopeless situation” for the younger generations, making it difficult to trail them.
The former R&AW chief also questioned the rapid growth in general and religious tourism, arguing that “the fear of a demographic change will always be revisited in Kashmir.” The Jammu and Kashmir region has a population of just over 12 million people and the sudden jump in tourism has exacerbated Kashmir’s deep anxiety related to its fear of demographic engineering.
“There is this consideration that the tourists are not coming on their own but persuaded to visit Kashmir which is interpreted as an (attempt to engineer) demographic changes, (it triggers) a danger to (Amarnath) yatra. However, risks for the pilgrims are limited as the yatra is a major tourism-centric business booster,” Dulat opined. Bureaucracy will never provide a solution, but politics will, he added.
India’s national election is also scheduled in about two years’ time. Any disturbance in Kashmir – considered an integral part of India – is an emotive issue and any flare-up benefits one party or the other in the rest of India, depending on how nationalist sentiments play out closer to the elections.
Kashmir’s immediate fate depends, to an extent, on the whipping up of such sentiments, as a recent film has suggested.
India, of late, is advocating a ‘middle path’ between the Russia-China and US-Europe blocs following troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine.
The US has also been steadily pressing the issue of minority rights violations in India in international forums – more so in recent months than before. Kashmir observers are keenly monitoring how the situation in the Valley is being handled by the West, especially when India and China are inching closer.
Against this backdrop, the recent surge in murders has opened a new chapter in the labyrinthine plots and counterplots in Kashmir’s political history.
The battle between the Naag and the Genie is thus expected to intensify.