Narendra Modi Should Calm Tensions in Kashmir Rather Than Inflame Them

India and the United States must pressure Pakistan to stop sponsoring terrorism, but New Delhi could do much more to quell the anger fueling unrest in Kashmir.

Indian security forces in Kashmir, some six miles away from the spot of a recent suicide bombing, on Feb. 18. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian security forces in Kashmir, some six miles away from the spot of a recent suicide bombing, on Feb. 18. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

On Feb. 14, an Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy was passing through the town of Pulwama in Indian-controlled Kashmir. An SUV carrying an estimated 300-kilogram improvised explosive device rammed into one of the lightweight trucks in the convoy, killing at least 40 soldiers. Within hours, police and intelligence agencies ascertained that the perpetrator of the act was a young man, Adil Ahmed Dar, who hailed from a nearby town. Dar apparently had recently joined the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed, an entity that has long waged an armed campaign against India.

At one level, Dar’s entry into the ranks of the terrorist group was not surprising. According to statistics that India’s Multi-Agency Centre, the body responsible for collecting intelligence on terrorist activity, has compiled, the number of Kashmiri youth turning to terrorism has grown substantially between 2014 and 2017. Those numbers, however, beg an important question: What explains this abrupt rise?

Part of the answer lies in the policies that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has pursued in the region since it assumed power in May 2014. It has steadfastly refused to recognize that an entire generation of young Kashmiris feel deeply alienated from the Indian state and that they constitute an enormous reservoir of discontent. This disaffection, in turn, stems from their experience of growing up in a highly militarized milieu where they have experienced routine harassment and intimidation at the hands of security forces—including CRPF personnel, who often run checkpoints.

Instead of addressing these grievances, the government stepped up a harsh counterinsurgency strategy that has had the unintended, but inevitable, consequence of alienating even more of the local population. Specifically, as more Kashmiri youths joined the ranks of terrorist organizations, the government stepped up its counterinsurgency operations, resulting in the deaths of a substantial number of suspected terrorists. According to Indian government figures, in 2018, for example, as many as 225 individuals believed to be involved with terrorism were killed. Many Kashmiris, of course, would argue that some who were killed were not terrorists but hapless bystanders.

Even as the counterinsurgency campaign has gone into high gear it has also prompted large local protests. Efforts to curb these protests—which have involved rock-throwing against police, paramilitary, and, occasionally, Indian Army personnel—have resulted in the maiming of a significant number of civilians. This was especially the case in 2016, when local police and national paramilitary forces resorted to the use of pellet guns to quell restive protesters. According to the BBC, in 2016 and 2017, 17 protesters died of pellet gun wounds and as many as 3,000 sustained eye injuries. The seeming indifference of the government to the costs that these tactics have exacted has only exacerbated existing bitterness. As this antipathy against the Indian state swelled, some inevitably responded to the siren call of both domestic militant groups, such as the Hizbul Mujahideen, and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organizations, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed or Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Aware of this growing discontent in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Pakistan’s military establishment has aided and abetted a range of terrorist organizations to sow further discord. Most important, it has provided safe havens for Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba and their leaders.

The head of Jaish, Maulana Masood Azhar, has long been known to operate with impunity from Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Similarly, the leader of the Lashkar, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, though he is on the U.S. government’s list of global terrorists and has a $10 million bounty on his head, operates without hindrance from his base near the city of Lahore. While both men have been periodically detained in Pakistan, its courts have always released them, ostensibly for a lack of sufficient evidence linking them with any acts of terrorism.

With Pakistan’s successful transition of power from one civilian government to another and the emergence of Prime Minsiter Imran Khan’s administration in 2018, some analysts had held out the hope that these terrorist organizations would be reined in. These hopes have been dashed yet again. Regardless of whether a civilian or military regime is in office in Pakistan, the country’s security apparatus has unwaveringly relied on terrorist organizations to pursue an asymmetric warfare strategy against India, as the American scholar Paul Kapur argues in his book Jihad as Grand Strategy.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Indian governments, especially the present one, have failed to devise strategies to either reduce discontent in Indian-controlled Kashmir or effectively thwart and deter Pakistan’s efforts to exploit the disaffection. Modi’s government, in particular, has refused to undertake any meaningful initiatives owing to its ideological convictions. According to its worldview, the predominantly Muslim population of Jammu and Kashmir state cannot expect any special dispensation from New Delhi even though the state was granted a special status under the constitution after India’s independence.

For the most part, governments in New Delhi—Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in particular—have viewed the situation in Kashmir as an issue of law and order. As a result, it has relied mostly on curfews, cordon and search operations, and the occasional resort to lethal force. Not surprisingly, it has abjectly failed to come to terms with the pervasive and deep-seated unhappiness among the state’s citizenry.

Simultaneously, Modi’s government has also failed to formulate a military strategy that might significantly hinder if not altogether undermine Pakistan’s resort to an asymmetric war strategy that relies on the use of terrorist organizations. To that end, it has made only half-hearted attempts to secure the porous border with Pakistan through the use of fences, sensors, and drones. However, it has not made the necessary investments in perimeter security and has failed to ramp up both electronic and human intelligence-gathering efforts.

Most important, as the suicide bombing of the CRPF convoy underscored, the Indian government has displayed a curious laxity in providing security personnel with basic force protection measures. The unhardened CRPF vehicle, which was the target of the suicide bomber, was little more than a civilian bus with no capacity for resisting a bomb attack. Such modes of transportation, however, are used regularly to transport paramilitary forces in an insurgency-wracked region.

Unless the Modi government moves quickly to address these policy shortcomings, it is all but inevitable that another attack will soon take place. Worse still, as India’s national election approaches in April of this year, there will be, without a doubt, renewed calls for military responses against Pakistan. Such a riposte, though entirely understandable, would raise the prospect of another regional war between two nuclear-armed rivals, fraught with the possibility of escalation. This could also take the form of a domestic electoral bidding war between politicians seeking to appear tougher than their opponents. Even though one of the worst terrorist attacks took place on its watch in November 2008 in Mumbai, the principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has faulted the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s counterterrorism policy for the recent violence, arguing that it has been a “mute spectator” to acts of terrorism directed at security personnel.

The United States has, over the past decade, sought to forge a viable strategic partnership with India. If it wishes to sustain and bolster this relationship, it cannot afford to remain indifferent to these periodic Pakistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks on India.

The U.S. Department of State and the White House have condemned this most recent attack. However, condemnation alone is unlikely to persuade Pakistan’s feckless security establishment to abandon its continuing dalliance with terrorism. Instead if the United States wishes to indicate to India that it is genuinely committed to a strategic partnership, it needs to send what international relations scholars call a “costly signal.”

To that end, the United States should be willing to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. In the past, various administrations, after toying with this policy option, have shied away from taking such a drastic step for fear of losing Pakistan’s fitful support for the prosecution of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, with a vastly diminished U.S. military presence in the country and the high likelihood of further troop withdrawals in the foreseeable future, the United States is no longer as dependent on Pakistan’s cooperation and can now turn up the pressure.

Within India, the Modi government, even though it is in election mode, should eschew the temptation to engage in grandstanding while resorting to pinprick attacks on Pakistan. Instead, it needs to come to terms with the flaws of its own policies in Kashmir. To that end, it needs to bolster border security, enhance force protection measures, and bring to an end the needless harassment of the local population.

Correction, Feb. 22, 2019: Adil Ahmed Dar worked as a mason before carrying out the Pulwama attack. A previous version of this article misstated his employment status.

Sumit Ganguly is a Foreign Policy columnist. He is also a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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