The biggest bang in Kashmir’s latest cycle of unrest wasn’t the deathly thud of a tear gas canister striking Tufail Mattoo’s head, nor any of the lethal shots that followed. Death became inevitable once the All Parties Hurriyat Conference launched its Quit Kashmir Movement in June, aiming to demilitarize Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir by shutting down the territory. India’s regional government rolled out the usual curfew and security blanket, and one by one Kashmiris fell amidst the escalating waves of protests and strikes.
Though India claims its forces act in strict self-defense, an estimated 50 civilians have been killed in two months including some 25 teenagers. Thousands more have been arrested. Indian forces have suffered injuries but zero casualties.
No, the deepest blow to India came days ago when Kashmiri political actors denied an offer to negotiate. This put India, who had been counting on back-channel talks with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the leading Hurriyat moderate, in a severe bind. With other Kashmiri leaders assessing Kashmir’s temperature and coming down firmly against negotiations, Farooq had no choice except to lead by following.
"Where is the scope for engagement, when a reign of terror has been let loose by them against a people for demanding their basic right?" Farooq rhetorically asked.
Now India is hung out to dry, overwhelmed by relentless protests and lacking a political exit strategy. Crack down harder and Kashmiris will respond with more protests, keeping the issue alive within Indian politics and in the international media. Kashmiri leaders may be playing dangerous hard ball by rejecting government feelers, but they’ve determined that cooperating with India poses an even greater threat. The Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party called Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s peace outreach “a joke.”
Drawing conclusions in Kashmir is challenging because so many cycles have come and gone, but 2010 appears to possess an extra spirit that, if it can be sustained into 2011 and beyond, could finally lead to movement between India, Pakistan, and possibly a third party. The Kashmir Action Committee Pakistan (KACP) recently labeled Kashmir “the New Intifada,” a wise comparison. Like the First Intifada, Kashmir’s latest revolutionary spasms are no ordinary rage, but the release of decades of pent up anger and sorrow.
And like Israel, India vastly underestimated this energy.
While the First Intifada and the Quit Kashmir Movement already share inherent qualities, Kashmiri authorities have consciously shifted from the Second Intifada to the First - starting with the KACP’s rebranding. Palestinians achieved massive success from 1987, the start of the First Intifada, to the Oslo Accords in 1993, which promised a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. By toning down the violence through rocks instead of guns and bombs, and preaching a peaceful but resolute objective - Palestinian statehood rather than Israel’s destruction - a mass movement was able to flip Israel from lovable underdog into tyrannical occupier.
Palestinians would spoil their gains in the Second Intifada by reverting to overt violence and annihilatistic jihad.
Kashmiri authorities have flipped their own script using Palestine’s history as guidance. Gone is the Second Intifada mentality - Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and any sign of terrorism. In comes rocks, women, and a change in message, all with the intention of highlighting India as the aggressor and Kashmiris as the oppressed. India continues to blame Pakistan for organizing Kashmir’s protests, shipping in tons of rocks, and paying teenagers to throw them, but Islamabad’s main threat has been the advice to go non-violent.
India thrives on terror attacks allegedly funded by Pakistan, and Islamabad realizes more damage can be done through non-violent and low-intensity means. Cheaper means too, an important factor during Pakistan’s economic crisis.
Kashmiri leaders were surely willing to comply, as a shift in the power balance would put them at the political forefront. Taking advantage of the drop in support for terrorism, Hurriyat launched a calendar of civil disobedience in June to prove that Kashmiris, not India, controlled Jammu and Kashmir and its capital, Srinagar. And they converted Kashmir’s militant perception into one of peace by demanding that India demilitarize. Now India looks like the militarist, not the world’s most populous democracy.
But organization at the street level has nothing to do with Pakistan. Of course it provides moral support, but blaming it completely leads to a failed strategic assessment. Listen to the multitude of stories and Kashmiris have clearly had enough of Indian rule, particularly the harsh security measures to disrupt protests and a lack of free speech or press. The Times of India’s own reporters were beaten while covering the violence. Among at least 12 media persons critically injured in the last two months, Bilal Bhadur claims, “We were taking picture of the dead bodies, when suddenly seven of us were surrounded by CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] and police personnel and we were beaten up mercilessly.”
Contrary to foreign interference, region-wide protests represent the will of Kashmir. Sadaf Munshi, a professor at the University of North Texas, recently came to India and stayed. Pakistan didn’t pay him to protest in New Dehli, nor does Pakistan need to pay a Kashmiri after they witness a relative, friend, or loved one die by a stray bullet. Like the First Intifada, Kashmiri women have become integral to street demonstrations, providing both physical cover for men and political legitimacy for the movement.
Asiya Andarabi, leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation), explains, "Every woman is affected by the turmoil here. Hundreds of Kashmiri women have their husbands in jails. Their husbands have been killed by security forces. So their anger is genuine.”
Parveena Ahangar, who heads the association of parents of disappeared persons, convincingly argues that women have suffered the most during Kashmir's tumultuous years since they’ve all lost a male relative or partner. "My son was picked by the BSF men in early 1990s and since then his whereabouts are not known,” says Ahangar. “Who can douse my anger?"
The Times of India has heard enough to describe the exact conditions that yielded the First Intifada: “A more reasonable explanation is being proffered to us now: it's anger, we are told, the people of Kashmir are angry at the recent killings, and that's why the women are being drawn in. That is true, but only partially. For this is no ordinary anger, but an old, bottled-up rage, gathered over so many years that it has settled, and turned rock hard. That accumulated fury is the stone in her hand. To not understand this, to fail to reach its source - or fathom its depth - is to be doomed to not understand the character of Kashmir's troubles.”
Thus India was already months late by the time it tried to mollify Kashmiris with political dialogue and economic incentives. Any political action being considered in New Delhi should have occurred before the latest cycle of violence, not after. And while India extends one hand in peace, the curfews continue in Srinagar as more riot police are deployed - to stop new protests from the latest deaths.
Suppressing protests is never going to work, and harms both India’s interests in Kashmir and its international perception.
India has fallen right into the trap of fourth generation warfare. The opportunity to take advantage of a low-point in Kashmir militancy has transformed into a civil disobedience campaign, and now a harsh crackdown is eliminating the last vestiges of trust, making appeasement nearly impossible. Kashmiris don’t seek India’s destruction, but they want to negotiate one thing only - self-determination.
India finds itself in a deep bind, like Israel circa 1987, so the question is whether Kashmir’s Intifada leads to the same outcome - an Oslo-style accord. At first it would seem impossible for India to meet Hurriyat’s demands. Farooq and another heavyweight, the 80 year-old Syed Ali Shah Geelani, aren’t so far away as their public actions may indicate. Both rejected India’s offer to open a public dialogue, but not absolutely. Farooq's preconditions entail the removal of Indian troops from the region and the release of political prisoners. Many Hurriyat leaders were arrested during the first June protests, obviously failing to halt the movement.
Meanwhile Geelani vowed, "The occupation by India is illegal, unconstitutional and by force of military might, and it will not be acceptable to Kashmiris under any circumstances.” But he added, “A dialogue is possible only if India accepts Kashmir as a disputed territory and starts a process of withdrawal of occupation forces... After this, technical level talks can be held to resolve the Kashmir issue through the United Nations resolutions.”
Although there is some discrepancy between the two positions, Farooq and Geelani present one overriding message to India - that it can’t hold the territory and thus isn’t worth the economic or image sacrifice - and another to the West - peaceful resistance to an occupier and independence. Both call for UN intervention. Historically, the best way out of this situation is to let Kashmiris have their way; few modern states can withstand a determined and legitimate resistance. But the price is too steep to realistically expect Indian acceptance.
No wonder Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, a busy player in Kashmir back-channel talks, recently admitted that Kashmir presents a “unique problem” that requires a “unique solution.”
Perhaps the most realistic solution is a trilateral dialogue between India, Pakistan, and Kashmir authorities; India may or may not have to offer confidence boosting measures to enter this arrangement. The three sides would work to finalize the region’s permanent status and offer Kashmiris a referendum: joining India, Pakistan, or an independent Kashmir. UN peacekeepers may be deployed out of Indian security concerns.
Otherwise the odds of UN and US intervention rise with each protest. As Kashmir influences the entire region only India wishes to keep the conflict a bilateral issue with Pakistan, the one relationship where it retains the leverage. If the situation fails to stabilize, either Kashmir’s moral obligation or Afghanistan’s strategic interests will eventually impel more public US action. Kashmir could easily disrupt the Afghan narrative were it to extend and fester in the international media like the First Intifada. US officials have a phobia of saying the word Kashmir and remain eerily silent over civilian casualties, but the desperation of July 2011 may leave them with no choice. If worst came to worst they could even threaten to limit Indian involvement in Afghanistan, a significant pressure point.
Given that most Kashmiris want independence it’s difficult to believe anything less holds the real solution to Kashmir’s chronic unrest. Considering how Oslo ended, India will likely need a flow of Western exhortation before budging on Hurriyat’s demands. But India must act swiftly and moderately with Kashmiris if it wants to avoid becoming a casualty of fourth generation warfare.
That it failed to do so in June is why it’s cornered now.