Political normalisation in Jammu and Kashmir

Political normalisation in Jammu and Kashmir

New Delhi faces a rebellious population in Kashmir and hostile neighbours on the region’s borders.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The resumption of politics has sidelined local parties in Jammu and Kashmir, amidst growing influence from New Delhi, increased militancy in the region and brewing territorial rivalry with China.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Stalled political processes in Jammu and Kashmir have contributed to growing local discontent that may prompt further unrest and ultimately, another lockdown
– China is testing India’s military resolve along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the unofficial border between disputed Chinese and Indian-controlled territories — by increasing incursions, leading to fears of military escalation
– China’s involvement in the region has been encouraging to Pakistan, which may further support independence movements and militancy against the Indian administration

A HISTORY OF CONFLICT IN KASHMIR

Known as the most militarised zone in the world, Kashmir — with its majority Muslim population and strategic resources — has been a flashpoint for India-Pakistan relations for decades. The neighbouring Indian region of Ladakh, which incorporates the Aksai-Chin plateau, has also been contested between regional powers, India and China. In August 2019, the central government of India unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which previously guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) special autonomous status. Subsequently, J&K and Ladakh were integrated into India as two new union territories. These changes saw the enforcement of an eight-month-long martial lockdown — intended to suppress local opposition — that was eased in March. Since then, the normalisation of politics has been compounded by three key factors: the bifurcation of internal politics in J&K, escalating Pakistani-supported militancy in the region, and encroaching Chinese geopolitical interests. The external interference from the two other claimants is likely to escalate violence during the next year.

A POLITICAL RESTART

Photo: Ubaidsardar/Wikimedia Commons

Delhi has sought to advance its agenda in the former princely state of J&K through the recently launched Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP). The party’s launch in March 2020 — following the lockdown — was meant to represent a convergence of Union and local politics. It was a wholly new entity that imbibed and even ‘poached’ members from existing political parties like the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). While the JKAP was criticised for its affiliation to the central and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it heralded hope for a peaceful political transition in the state. However, central to political normalisation were three prerequisites: the restoration of statehood, protection of domicile rights and the creation of an advisory council. The central government has generally acceded to the first two requests; the return of statehood and domicile rights would mean J&K would no longer be directly administered by the central government. However, it is the opposition to an advisory council that reflects the bifurcation of bureaucracy in J&K.

Since 2018, the Indian government has directly administered the state and clamped down on local opposition from parties like the NC and PDP that previously administered the region. Following the lockdown in 2019, the central government detained key leaders like former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who they saw as threats to the takeover. Absent their leadership, its alleged vassal, JKAP, had a window of opportunity to recruit NC and PDP members to its ranks. This has given the JKAP a veneer of being representative.

However, the key issue of the advisory council has remained. The council would have truly allowed local parties to participate in policymaking made by Lieutenant-Governor Girish Chandra Murmu’s administration and to represent the concerns of their constituents. Murmu had initially endorsed the advisory council with the central government’s blessing, to the delight of local politicians. However, this was strongly opposed by the local BJP unit in J&K, which saw the creation of such a council as an erosion of their monopoly over policy in the state. The process has thus been effectively stalled, to the chagrin of local politicians who consider this as further proof of the central government “occupation” efforts.

A THREE-WAY GAME OF THRONES

Photo: Jeevan Singla/Pixabay

The recent deadly confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops reflects how China’s growing geopolitical interests in the region complicate the resumption of politics in J&K. The conflict was over access to Aksai Chin — the Indian-claimed plateau that China controls. The construction of a feeder branch to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road (DSDBO), which provided the Indian military access to the Tibet-Xinjiang highway through Aksai Chin, triggered the border skirmish in the Galwan Valley. While many have cited the skirmish, which killed 20 Indian soldiers, as an example of Chinese belligerence, it may be a cautionary response to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s declaration that the newly minted J&K state includes Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin within its boundary. As both India and China continue to adopt more nationalistic stances, expect unilateral declarations and military buildups along the border to become the norm.

The integration of J&K and Ladakh into the Indian Union has removed the historic buffer between India and China that was created following the war in 1962. China sees Ladakh and Aksai Chin as vital passageways for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key feature in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. The widening power differential between the two nuclear powers has given Chinese forces the confidence to be more assertive along the LAC and to gradually erode this ill-defined border altogether. However, India has pushed back, and its territorial familiarity and force preparedness in infrastructure, air defence and base resilience will present strong opposition to China’s buildup of infrastructure along the border. Compounded by the normalisation of politics in J&K, this threatens China’s strategic ambitions for Ladakh.

On the other side, Pakistan has celebrated China’s starker entry into the fray. Islamabad has allegedly supported militancy in Indian-administered J&K and rejected any demographic or territorial change. By unilaterally shifting the goalpost, India has handed militants an urgent, existential cause to rally behind. The emergence of the Resistance Front appears to be Pakistan’s proxy attempt to stall political normalisation through targeted attacks and political assassinations. Many of its cadres consist of members of known extremist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are formidable due to their familiarity with the region. However, such tactics have proven ineffective and increasingly predictable against a more numerous and well-trained Indian military. Despite the low-threat level, expect a protracted militancy to prove cumbersome to thinly-spread Indian security forces that is also attempting to contain popular opposition. Add to this, escalating border skirmishes with China, and India may find itself fighting a war on two fronts.

Without an immediate increase in border deployment, which has proven untenable thus far, India will be unable to redress the growing military threat from both sides. Further militarisation of the region will further divert Indian resources and attention away from the political mishaps in J&K. The continued push to ramp up infrastructure projects in the region is also sure to invite China’s ire. Pakistan is likely to bandwagon on China’s attempt to disrupt security forces, which is likely to shore up Islamabad’s confidence in supporting militants in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in an effort to decry the ‘illegal’ occupation by India.

India faces a perplexing conundrum. Political normalisation and infrastructure development in J&K will be met with strong resistance from China and Pakistan. Unable to politically coordinate the deployment of more resources and troops to the border regions, India is likely to explore economic or diplomatic avenues to de-escalate tensions. However, further intervention by Delhi in the region will be opposed by local politicians championing a return to statehood in J&K. Therefore, it is likely that India will resort to heavy-handed tactics to enforce its will on J&K so as to contend with imminent external threats.