A Kashmiri student throws back a tear-gas canister fired by Indian police during a protest in Srinagar, April 2017. 
Danish Ismail / REUTERS

With spring, yet more turmoil has come to significant parts of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Widespread violence has resulted in several deaths and has left at least 200 injured. The trigger this time appears to have been elections for two vacant seats in the Indian Parliament. One seat, in the capital city of Srinagar, had been vacated after its holder, Tariq Hameed Karra, quit the Peoples Democratic Party in a dispute over the handling of political disturbances in the state last year. The other seat had been empty since the current chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, left it last year to assume her present role after the death of her father, the veteran Kashmiri politician Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

As the April 2017 elections approached, various separatist organizations in the state, including the umbrella organization, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, called for a boycott. This was nothing new, and on previous occasions, most Kashmiris ignored the instructions and turned out to the polls in substantial numbers. This time, however, even the capital city, Srinagar, saw a precipitous decline in voter turnout. A mere 7.14 percent of the eligible electorate turned up to the polls during the first week of April—the worst showing in three decades. Violence was so widespread in the other constituency, Anantnag, that one of the candidates asked the election commission to postpone the election until late May, which it did.

These events reflect growing discontent among many Kashmiris. Government apologists in New Delhi may point to Pakistani chicanery and instigation as the source of the problem, but the fact is that harsh Indian counterinsurgency policies in the state are also to blame.

A REPRESSIVE STRATEGY

There is, of course, little question that Pakistan’s political leadership views the recent turmoil with considerable glee. Furthermore, there is evidence that Pakistan has long provided both material and other forms of support to Kashmiri separatists, who have been waging a campaign against the Indian state since 1989. Worse still, Pakistan has also aided a host of terrorist organizations that have wreaked havoc across the state for the past several decades.

A concerted Indian counterinsurgency strategy has worn down these terrorist entities, but the campaign has not been cost-free. It has involved the presence of a vast military and police apparatus in the state, widespread use of curfews and detentions, and, on occasion, heavy-handed use of force. Although directed primarily at Pakistan-based terrorists, the dragnet has inevitably swept up significant numbers of young Kashmiri men over the years. Many of these men have endured routine harassment, been subjected to harsh (and degrading) interrogation, and been detained without trial for indefinite periods of time.

Many Kashmiri men have endured routine harassment, been subjected to degrading interrogation, and been detained without trial for indefinite periods of time.

These practices have continued despite the successful conduct of a series of mostly free and fair elections for local and state offices. The failure of elected governments to end these security policies despite the ebbing of the insurgency has contributed to simmering resentment across a wide swath of the population, but these grievances are no doubt most concentrated among the young Kashmiri men who have borne the brunt of aggravation at the hands of security forces.

The clearest indication of these frustrations came last year when Indian security forces managed to corner and kill a young Kashmiri terrorist, Burhan Wani, who was affiliated with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Unlike his Pakistan-based counterparts, Wani hailed from Kashmir and was a savvy user of social media. In killing him, Indian intelligence had wholly failed to understand the extent of support that he had enjoyed. Massive crowds turned up at his funeral and large-scale protests ensued thereafter. Mufti appealed for calm, but her pleas were of no avail.

The protests quickly turned violent, with the agitators resorting to pelting security forces with stones and even storming police stations. Faced with the unprecedented fury, local and national police resorted to pellet guns to quell the violence after tear gas failed to disperse the protesters. Unfortunately, the guns were indiscriminate and, on occasion, quite lethal. Thousands of protesters were maimed, including a few who were blinded. Although Indian authorities maintained that their use of the guns was a matter of “second last resort,” anger against the security forces only mounted and led to further protests.  

As winter blanketed the state, the protests gradually wore off. The damage, however, had been done. Far from cowing the demonstrators, the harsh tactics sowed further disaffection. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that these elections for the two parliamentary seats should again become a moment of opportunity to express discontent for those who have lost faith in the electoral process. The renewed protests exemplify the underlying problem that New Delhi confronts in Kashmir.

There is little question that, through sheer might, Indian security forces can impose order on the state. However, this kind of stability, unless accompanied by other measures such as addressing the issue of those who have disappeared over the years without a trace after being arrested or providing compensation to the wrongfully harassed young men, is bound to be fleeting. The real and critical task, which the regime of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its predecessors have ducked, has been assuaging the grievances of a generation that has been continually treated with distrust and suspicion. Facile claims that assign the blame to Pakistan will do little to address what ails the state. If India can win back the loyalties of its estranged Kashmiri youth, however, no amount of Pakistani meddling will be of consequence. The question is whether anyone in New Delhi is inclined to try. 

  • SUMIT GANGULY holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
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