In the Kashmir Valley rebellion has become a way of life. What are the forces that inspire a near thirty year insurgency?
The ongoing anti-India insurgency in Kashmir will be 30 years old in 2019. Max Boot, an American scholar, says in his book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from the Ancient Times to the Present, that the average insurgency post-1945 has lasted 14 years. The Kashmir insurgency is still going strong and has entered an unprecedentedly resurgent mode in its 30th year.
Boot also states that since 1945, although the success rate for insurgents has gone up to 40.3 percent, counterinsurgents still won 50.8 percent of the wars. The Kashmir insurgency also appears to be nowhere near any of its stated goals – independence or merger with Pakistan.
It is not close to even a compromised solution agreeable to the three conflicting parties: Kashmiris, India and Pakistan.
How does one then evaluate the three decades of the anti-India revolt in Kashmir keeping in mind the inadequacy of the typical success-failure binary at this stage? Right now, this highly popular insurgency can only be termed as a colossal tragedy wilfully overlooked and unnoticed by the world.
On the Margins
The insurgency in Kashmir began around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘End of History’. A string of catastrophic events followed.
For the world at large, Kashmir has always remained a sideshow compared to the much bloodier wars and insurgencies elsewhere. An afterthought to protracted conflicts like Palestine that have managed to capture the world’s attention.
Kashmir was never catastrophic enough to move the world, to get noticed sufficiently. However, like the proverbial tortoise, it has outlived most of them and has acquired a distinct rhythm, a dynamic of its own, in which the lives of ordinary people have become nearly indistinguishable from the rebellion.
Last month, a PhD student posted a picture of himself on Facebook brandishing an AK-47 rifle: the signature way youths announce their entry into a guerilla outfit in Kashmir these days.
A month earlier he had been canvassing for student elections in one of the most prestigious Indian universities, the Aligarh Muslim University.
Media reports suggested that harassment by Indian troops at a highway check post led him to the decision, exposing just how thin the line between a normal life and a life marked for death can be.
The average life of an insurgent in Kashmir is a year or two at present.
A couple of children picked up arms in this dramatic fashion before the PhD scholar, and were killed in gunfights with soldiers and policemen within a couple of years of becoming militants.
What keeps the insurgency alive
In a nutshell, Kashmiri Muslims and Pakistani support are the primary reasons behind the longevity of the Kashmiri resistance to the occupation by the regional superpower India. But the real oxygen for resistance is India’s iron-fisted policies and defiance. This resistance has, however, come at a gargantuan cost.
Since 2013, for every Indian soldier or policeman killed, about two insurgents have been killed. The overall insurgents-forces kill ratio since 1989 is about 4:1 (22,000 militants to 5500 forces personnel).
An Indian Brigadier begrudgingly told a friend of mine that this kill ratio means is the sign of a successful insurgency because a couple of hundred insurgents armed with nothing more than AK-47 rifles are pitted against half a million soldiers, paramilitary forces and policemen. That number does not take into account a vast invisible army of intelligence operatives and informers.
This is the staggering number of forces deployed in occupied Kashmir: Between 200,000 to 250,000 army soldiers, between 65,000 to 80,000 paramilitary central reserve police force personnel, between 20,000 to 30,000 border security forces and other paramilitary groups, 85000 local police and 36000 special police officers (which is like an irregular mercenary police force engaged on a salary of just under $80 a month), and 25,000 to 30,000 village defence committee personnel (a civilian militia armed by the state mostly comprising Hindus). This, for a total population of around 12 million residents.
Kashmir's might be the only contemporary armed insurgency that operates solely on the merits of the legendary AK-47.
Aside from being a smear on its international image, the Indian state has suffered setbacks in Kashmir on other fronts.
The insurgency has taken a toll on Indian forces in other ways too. A 2011 study by a noted Kashmiri sociologist, the late Professor BA Dabla, noted that between 1,500 and 2,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary personnel have committed suicide in Jammu and Kashmir in the preceding two decades.
The figure could well be higher. Many more have died in fratricidal killings (friendly fire, soldiers kill each other or their officers on issues like a rejected leave application, anger, etc).
Next to the armed insurgents, civilians have been the biggest casualties of the conflict. At least 14,000 civilians have been killed since 1990 and more than 5,000 have been subjected to enforced custodial disappearance by Indian forces. (These are official figures. Local rights and resistance groups put the total casualties between 65,000 and 80,000).
If it were not for the support of the local population (6 million in the Kashmir Valley), the Indian forces could round up and wipe out the 200-odd armed insurgents currently leading the revolt in half a day.
Such a sweep, it turns out, would do the Indian state no good either. Because, reportedly, at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prodding the Indian army started ‘Operation All Out’ to kill all the militants by the end of 2017, only to find out that even after killing 215 militants (the total strength at the beginning of the year), there were about 200 more at the end of the year.
Likely stressing the popularity of the insurgency and the disproportionate nature of the military occupation against the resistance, Booker Prize winning Indian author Arundhati Roy once said that such a huge number of soldiers have been stationed in the 6158-square mile Kashmir Valley only to keep the rebellious civilian population under control, not to fight a bunch of poorly-armed militants.
This claim is buttressed by the fact that since 2013, an overwhelming majority of the 300 odd civilians killed in the Valley were shot dead by Indian forces during anti-India protests, including the 100 who were killed during the 2016 uprising triggered by the killing of the popular guerilla leader, Burhan Wani.
What has rattled the Indian state since 2014 is the phenomenon of civilians coming in between insurgents and government forces during a gunfight in a bid to help the besieged, outnumbered and outgunned militants escape.
Indian forces have killed at least 30 civilians, including about six women, during such rescue protests (protests aimed at saving militants) in the past four years.
In no other insurgency in recent times have unarmed civilians attempted to chase away an army with stones and slogans during a raging gun battle to save armed insurgents. There was a time when such popular political struggles inspired movies in the West.
The David has thus no doubt put up a valiant fight but the world is too distracted and enamored with Goliath’s immensity: the world’s second most populous country; the world’s third largest army; a democracy known more for folded-hands namaste soft power than for blinding 1,100 young protesters in 2016 with pellet shotguns normally used to hunt birds; an economy that every rich and powerful nation in the world wants to dip its hands into, and the vulnerability of its only supporter — Pakistan.
The dominant right wing forces threatening India’s carefully cultivated democratic image in the world owe their rise in part—a big part—to decades of jingoism, propaganda and hate-mongering about Kashmir, especially Pakistani support for the insurgency. Kashmir is thus a rallying cry of the Hindu nationalist nation-building project
Recently, Amnesty International launched a campaign against pellet ammunition used by Indian forces to control civilian protests. In 2016, the world saw (and largely ignored) the first mass blinding of its kind carried out by police and soldiers in Kashmir using pellet shotguns, injuring 5,850 people, mostly youngsters, 1,100 of them with eye injuries.
The local comprador Legislative Assembly announced last week that 11,290 people had been arrested on charges of stone throwing during street protests in the past two years. Local media reports that more than 15,000 people were injured during the protests during the months-long uprising in 2016.
Protests on this scale in a geopolitical hotspot like the Subcontinent would have been greeted with terms like ‘revolution’ if it were anywhere else in the world (during the Egyptian Revolution, 6000 people were injured in the government crackdown).
The world’s silence has only emboldened New Delhi to pursue its repressive policies. Last year, Indian forces conducted more than 800 cordon-and-search operations in the Kashmir Valley. During these operations, civilians are forced out of their homes which are then searched for “militants”.
However, civilians complained of ransacking, harassment and violence during many of these operations that were a routine during the early years of the insurgency but the searches staged a comeback on this scale last year.
One hardly finds these events reported in the international media. High casualties and border skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces only get reported regularly because the world frets a bigger flare up between the two nuclear powers. Kashmir is one of the most – if not the most – underreported insurgency in the world.
Statistics, however revealing on the face of it, do not always tell the full story. Calling it the highest militarised zone in the world hardly throws any light on what it means to live in such a place.
To give you an idea of the Indian army’s footprint in the Kashmir Valley, more than 670 Kashmiris alone have died in road accidents involving the vehicles of Indian army and paramilitary forces since 1990. As many as 145 people have been injured in these accidents. The CIA World Factbook says Kashmir “remains the site of the world’s largest and the most militarised territorial dispute”. But Kashmiris chafe at the words “territorial dispute”. “It is about us,” they say. They are people, not somebody's "territorial dispute".
The Jammu and Kashmir Assembly announced recently that Indian forces illegally occupy 53,750 acres of land in the embattled region. This land is in addition to the 62,500 acres of land the local government had handed over to the army for firing practice in Ladakh area in 2016. These two slices of land exclude what the armed forces are holding “legally”—hundreds of camps, three Corps headquarters, several brigade headquarters and other smaller garrisons.
Indian military control is not as naked as the Israeli occupation of Palestine. A dozen odd ethnic Kashmiri families who bask in New Delhi’s privilege have provided the occupation the democratic facade it requires over the years.
One such chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, when he got a chance to speak at the UN, read out a long, quasi-academic paper on the benefits of nuclear energy. Another chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, bashed Pakistan at a human rights conference in Geneva once, when he could have been talking about some of the worst rights abuses in human history under his own rule. This bunch of highly malleable – and compromised – politicians is one of the biggest internal challenges to the resolution of the Kashmir conflict.
In fact, it will take an age to make the world understand that it is a sophisticated military occupation. Indian military formations are spread in this tiny valley in a manner, right in the midst of civilian populations, that the soldiers can populate every major population center within 20 minutes or less.
The Indian armed forces in Kashmir operate with impunity provided by law – the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – under which they can shoot anybody on mere suspicion. They have constructed schools and vocational training centres to “win hearts and minds” – but all in vain. They organise cricket tournaments and requisition local school departments to send a bunch of students who are then taken to Indian cities for “integration tours”. Max Boot says population-centric counterinsurgency is often successful, but for India the strategy has failed miserably.
The Indian army works like a quasi government. It is an entrenched force. They carry out local censuses without bothering to inform the local government, which is in any case powerless. The local comprador chief minister has two sitting generals as her advisors.
What would create outrage and attract the attention of child rights defenders everywhere, hardly raises any eyebrows if it takes place in Kashmir. The Indian army has established an orphanage inside a walled garrison in the heart of the capital, Srinagar. The orphanage is called Muskaan, or “smile”. Former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen once attended a programme organised for the orphans.
Another massive army camp shares a boundary wall with a university, the Islamic University of Science and Technology, where classwork proceeds alongside target practice by the soldiers nearby. When an army convoy passes on the busy Bye Pass Road, soldiers do the traffic management.
The valley is vaingloriously called ‘paradise on earth’ but this tourist haven has no airport.
What passes off as the Srinagar ‘International Airport’ has actually been built on the 30-odd acres of land leased to the Airport Authority of India by the armed forces from their biggest air base. The runway where civilian flights take off and land in reality belongs to the armed forces and is meant for fighter planes, which sit under camouflaged bunkers nearby. The fighter planes maintain the right to fly first.
The Kashmiri men who crossed to Pakistani administered Kashmir for arms training in 1989, risking life and braving treacherous terrain, were the first Kashmiris in the past 500 years to lead an armed insurrection against what they perceived as a foreign power – one more in a long succession of foreign invaders. Until then, Kashmiris had been written off as a timid race, undeserving of the beautiful place they inhabited. The preceding 42 years of Indian rule had been a saga of broken promises, intrigues and constitutional frauds.
A people who had adopted syncretism, non-violence and tolerance a way of life were compelled to pick up arms after years of a failed peaceful political struggle. The insurgency, which started as a form of protest against Indian misrule, has transformed over the years, much like the Indian state.
Like all liberation struggles and insurgencies, the Kashmiri rebellion is also rife with contradictions and failings. The leadership of the political resistance is criticised on a daily basis for not translating the popularity and gains of the insurgency into tangible results - or, at least, provide a long-term roadmap for how to continue the fight.
The political leadership has been lambasted for reducing the resistance to general strikes, which the people say hurts an already tattered local economy and does the occupier no harm. In their defence, many argue that a leadership that is in jail or under house arrest most of the time can't accomplish much anyway.
By crushing peaceful means of resistance—civilian protests, civil society initiatives, student politics, etc.— the Indian state has effectively left no other avenue for dissent outside of armed opposition. That is why the resistance leadership’s press releases on most days address the “international community”, earning them scorn for trying to flog a dead horse.
On the militancy front, the fight has been scaled up to an extent that youngsters steal weapons from Indian forces and join militant groups, whose supply of arms from Pakistan has almost dried up.
The local government informed the Assembly two weeks ago that 251 rifles were stolen from Indian forces over the past three years. But how long can a brutalised society endure the heavy cost of the blood of its youth is the question most often debated on the narrow confines of social media networking sites these days.
Local media is awash with stories of how a sizable number of the militants killed during the past two years held great promise of careers in engineering, medicine and academics. That is why Kashmiri society is sharply divided over the question of continuing the armed resistance, with many arguing that this is what supplies India with an alibi for suppressing Kashmiris.
But the fate of secessionist political struggles in Kashmir that preceded insurgency have demonstrated that the Indian state has been equally Machiavellian towards peaceful movements.
“Integrating Kashmir with India” is the core political project of the ruling Hindu supremacist dispensation in New Delhi. They plan to do it by scrapping legislation that provides some constitutional safeguards to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, including its Muslim majority. If they go ahead with their plans, Muslims would be reduced to a minority. The current unprecedented popularity of armed insurgents, therefore, stems from this existential threat to the very character of Kashmir.
Kashmir’s insurgency is poised to last as long as the world remains indifferent to the suffering of a people brutalised by decades of political uncertainty, and three decades of crushing military control.
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