The meaning of Jammu and Kashmir flare-ups

The real challenge lies in the political field; a consensus appears unlikely, but 2023 could well be the year of political manoeuvring in J&K to conduct elections in 2024.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

As internal and proxy conflicts fade into activity levels well below perceptions of threshold danger, the tendency is to start ignoring them. On the first day of the new year, violence returned and that, too, to the south of Pir Panjal, confirming Jammu and Kashmir’s proxy war is not over. Nor has it dipped to levels where it can be ignored, assuming that only the political process is left to be completed. 

In 1996 when the Government of India decided to conduct elections, return J&K to democracy and reintroduce the political process, the expectations were clear that it would be a long, arduous climb to normalcy. Since then, it’s been a long and challenging period of 26 years.

The decisions of August 5, 2019, were momentous and brave because a transformation was needed. We were all extremely positive, as we remain even today, that the decisions will finally lead to a stronger integrative process and a full and final integration of J&K.

The part about the return of PoK remains an important element but in the current context is essentially an addendum awaiting final achievement. Given this situation, we have to accept that Pakistan, which invested heavily in building networks, altering ideology and creating various other means of bringing mayhem to the environment, has not given up.

Internally for Pakistan, J&K remains an issue through which power politics is played, and the Pakistan Army finds it the best tool to use.

Its pushback, therefore, is essential for two reasons; first, the necessity for Pakistan to keep the Kashmir issue alive to reap the benefit of what it has invested.

Second, to keep India’s resources interminably committed to fighting a counter-proxy war campaign in an out-of-proportion mode. Pakistan could have withdrawn its proxy campaign, accepted the reality that defeating India through a violent irregular campaign would not be possible, and focused on its internal schisms and instabilities. That would be rational behaviour.

However, rationality has never been part of Pakistan’s strategic thinking, and its confidence appears to stem from the very crucial geostrategic location it occupies in relation to Central Asia, China, India, the Indian Ocean, Iran and the Gulf region. Here the situation remains dynamic at the best of times, and new opportunities could arise without warning. That is exactly what Pakistan predicts and appreciates, and would therefore like to tactically recoil while keeping slow fires burning, awaiting a situation which works in its favour. Recent regional events reinforce its belief, especially the US turnaround to support Pakistan.

In addition to the US decision to positively review its relationship with Pakistan, three things appear to keep Pakistan positively inclined towards believing that opportunities will come its way if it plays out the interim period with patience.

First is the festering situation in Afghanistan, which Pakistan believes will offer unpredictable opportunities for it to steer the situation as per its interests; the fallout of most security situations there is in South Asia as a whole.

Second is the belief that the Kashmiris are not satisfied with the decisions of August 5, 2019, and are only projecting false happiness.

The third is another abiding belief that India’s Punjab offers ample opportunities that Pakistan has yet not exploited. Much unlike our belief that Punjab’s insurgency ended in the early Nineties because the people of Punjab defeated it, Pakistan believes that it pulled out of India’s Punjab because of the opportunities which simultaneously arose in J&K. Handling both J&K and Punjab in the Nineties was perceived as something far beyond Pakistan’s capability. That belief may have changed today, and Pakistan is much more confident of handling both because of the experience gained through Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014–18) and the Balochistan insurgency, although both were about countering rather than supporting insurgencies and terror.

Whatever China’s intent at the Sino-Indian borders, it will be aided in no small way by the instability at the western borders of India. Drone flights to fly in military wherewithal and currency, narcotics networks, and other logistics into Punjab is a way of building up resources, although India’s BSF has successfully shot down many drones in December 2022 alone.

Being witness to the situation in Ukraine, China is probably having serious misgivings about its conventional warfighting capability and victory potential; any and every aid that comes to its assistance in conflict situations with India will be welcome; that is since a victory against the Indian Armed Forces cannot be taken for granted. This is what Pakistan will exploit to the hilt—its potential to act as the X factor.

The ceasefire at the LoC may have held well since February 25, 2021, but that is a projection of the will to pursue peace, a kind of ploy.

In actuality, Pakistan will pursue its interests through diverse means even if it has to scrounge the last rupee from the bottom of its empty barrel in the face of a serious economic crisis. It knows that small actions are unlikely to draw out a serious response, which India had demonstrated with the Surgical Strikes and Balakote under its new doctrine.

Pakistan’s actions will remain pinpricks at best, which project the campaign as being alive, prevent India from redeploying its forces (much to China’s liking) due to inherent threats of revival pictured by frequent actions such as minority targeting using hybrid terrorists, and thus maintain only a threshold level of violence.

The latter would also prevent an easy course towards political activity involving elections and the restoration of democracy. In the face of all this, it’s not easy for the Union government to take decisions on the future of politics in J&K.

2023 is likely no different from 2022, with spurts of violence occurring at intervals. The real challenge lies in the political field; a consensus appears unlikely, but 2023 could well be the year of political manoeuvring in J&K to find a way to conduct elections in 2024.

Pakistan will also attempt to prevent this from happening to retain its relevance and await another opportunity sometime later. The proxy war in J&K is far from over, and our approach needs to remain proactive—neutralise Pakistan’s ability to interfere, endeavour to wrest back PoK, restore governance of the highest quality, and play a professionally worked out campaign to bring Kashmir’s citizens further into the mainstream. Much of it is happening, which is why it is making Pakistan intensely uncomfortable, forcing it to execute acts that could well be devoid of thought.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University

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