Article 370 abrogation: Four years on, a cautious elation
Four years later, we are cementing the takeaways from the courageous decision and reviewing the distance we have gone in this exercise.
The Kulgam encounter in South Kashmir on August 4, 2023, which left three Army soldiers killed in action, has justifiably dampened the celebratory mood for the fourth anniversary of the decision to amend Article 370. However, it may also sound cautious that some security concerns can continue to demand focus from the national security perspective. More on security later in this column.
A decision that looked almost impossible without J&K imploding found a voice on August 5, 2019. Four years later, we are cementing the takeaways from the courageous decision and reviewing the distance we have gone in this exercise. In light of the changing contours of security threats, J&K may have dropped a few notches in priority at the cost of the northern borders and some other areas of internal security. Yet by no means has progress not been achieved; in almost every parameter, social, economic or security, there are visible signs of stabilisation and transformational change. As an analyst, I will still need to tread cautiously before declaring a situation of conflict termination. The factors have sufficiently changed to term these only as the last vestiges of conflict stabilisation.
The decision of August 5 strategically achieved the removal of the idea that J&K was a state/territory different from others within the Union of India. Rationale demanded no special powers to the Assembly, no special laws on citizenship, no special flag and no special Constitution. The decision to bifurcate the territory into two union territories (UTs) may not have found favour with the residents of the erstwhile state of J&K.
However, it has been a boon for the UT of J&K because of the direct oversight that the Centre has been able to exercise over it. Much of the problem earlier was due to the perception mismatch between the Centre and the state. The stabilisation process had a crying need for convergence of political interests, which has been achieved through this measure. But despite an almost two-year hiatus in development activity due to the pandemic, J&K could be the state/UT seeing the fastest economic growth today.
Like the Northern Ireland model of counter-terrorism, which achieved stability through economic growth coupled with much-improved security, J&K’s current leadership under Lt Governor Manoj Sinha is doing well to adopt a similar policy. Tourism is up and running, and the Shri Amarnathji Yatra is drawing hordes of pilgrims who also indulge in tourism. Flights to Srinagar airport are numerous, including some at night. The initiative to permit and successfully conduct the Muharram processions in Srinagar has been a personal achievement for the Lt Governor and conveyed a message of supreme confidence. His attendance at the same was an excellent symbolic gesture reflective of his genuine understanding of syncretic culture.
A drive to Sonamarg and Baltal takes one through Ganderbal, thriving with big stores and shops I never saw before. There are coffee and tea shops galore, something missing for many years. Kashmir’s urban centres seem to attempt to catch up with all they missed out on during the development surge in the rest of India post the 1991 reforms. Film theatres have opened in places such as Baramulla, and the young are leading the ‘happiness revolution’, which seems apparent.
All this is extremely good, but my advice to the Administration would be to concentrate on winter logistics. The Kashmiris have rarely been comfortable in winter. With the improving power situation and hopefully more people paying for power usage, there should also be sufficient stocking of essential supplies to overcome the inevitable issue of road closure. The road closure may be treated as a security issue, and the Indian Air Force can hugely contribute through aerial supply of milk, fresh vegetables and medicines. The summer supply chain appears excellent as Kashmir’s quality of fruits and vegetables can match New Delhi’s.
It is security which is still a concern. Dying embers of militancy and terror can sometimes provide sparks which can reignite the fires that have burned in Kashmir all these years. Today’s comparative silence is because of the strong presence of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and the integration with the J&K Police and the CAPFs. Recruitment and infiltration figures have shown a marked drop, but both can return with a vengeance once the conditions for sponsorship of proxy war return in Pakistan.
There are enough detractors in Pakistan who would want the international community to remain concerned about J&K. Different forms of hybrid war can be employed by our wily adversaries, just as they found narcotics as a means of bringing Punjab to its knees; the illegal trans-border drone movement from Pakistan continues unabated, bringing narcotics, fake currency, weapons and ammunition. Most of these are intercepted, but some do get away. The intent is to cultivate turbulence in Punjab and the Jammu regions, the two being contiguous.
This year has seen Army casualties in the Pir Panjal South areas, indicating the presence of some hardcore groups in the higher reaches. A sudden appearance of terrorists in the higher regions of Kulgam could also mean these elements are migrating to the valley side to escape the dragnet in the Rajouri-Surankot belt. The Punjab-Jammu synchronisation by Pakistan cannot be allowed to continue unabated.
There are two issues we should remain extremely wary of: First, the Afghanistan–Pakistan area is again emerging as a hotbed of Islamic terrorists. The absence of the US from Afghanistan has a telling effect, with the Taliban ruling the roost. Under its sponsorship, Pakistan, too, is suffering the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s delinquency in the western tracts of the nation, with large-scale casualties. With global terror on the backfoot, a second cycle of global terror could be expected in a few months. J&K will be targeted to some extent. For that, a surge in recruitment and infiltration would be mandatory.
The second issue is the perception of India’s legitimacy in its hold over J&K. We can expect that a new government in Pakistan would wish to establish its credentials through the clandestine cultivation of international opinion. For that, it has to demonstrate J&K’s unhappiness with India. Proactive in this domain, one can expect Pakistan to launch a professional international campaign to achieve these objectives. In lieu of this, India needs to be pre-emptive and launch its own campaign.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir