Violence in Kashmir does not take place within a vacuum, and the Indian government will only aggravate it further if it does not concede that its root causes lie in its treatment of Kashmiris.
On a cold afternoon of February 14, a young man Adil Ahmad Dar drove a car laden with explosives into a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian soldiers on a highway in Kashmir. The resulting blast left Adil along with close to fifty soldiers dead. Such a large-scale loss for Indian forces in Kashmir is rare.
The typical stories of deaths that come from Kashmir are ones of Kashmiri civilians and rebels at the hands of the Indian forces. Those deaths barely trickle into the mainstream news in India and when they do the usual responses range from civil society indifference to nationalist jubilation.
The February 14 attack has quickly turned the indifference of New Delhi’s elite into indignation and the grotesque jubilation of the Hindu nationalist BJP government and Indian media into a vengeful rage.
The instant reaction of the Indian government was to look across the border and lay the blame on Pakistan. Pakistan, which has often expressed “moral and diplomatic support” for the Kashmiri right to self-determination, denied any involvement in the bombing.
Immediately after the attack, a militant Kashmiri organisation Jaish e Mohammed claimed responsibility by releasing a video of Adil explaining why he was going to attack the Indian soldiers even at the cost of his own life.
Jaish’s chief Masood Azhar apparently lives in Pakistan, yet it is unclear whether he directed the strike, or if it was local Kashmiri rebels who planned it and cobbled together a bomb. The highway is heavily guarded, but not immune to attacks.
At the time of writing, dozens of villages near the attack site have been put under military lockdown. The Internet remains shut across the region preventing Kashmiris from responding to the hateful propaganda against them on Indian media. Crowds of Indian nationalists have gathered in Indian cities burning Muslim properties, assaulting Kashmiri students, and threatening mayhem.
The attack comes only days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech in Kashmir’s capital Srinagar in which he threatened Kashmiris demanding independence from India with dire consequences and asked his forces to “break the back of militancy.”
Modi and his national security administration are known for nationalist posturing and public bravado.
Since he took power in 2014, Indian policy in Kashmir became even more trenchant and militaristic than before. Unlike his predecessors who showed some flexibility and occasional political suave, Modi remains trapped in his own hardline image. He has consistently refused to engage Kashmir’s pro-freedom leadership in dialogue, has relied on his war-mongering military generals to shape the narrative on Kashmir, and has, in general, not presented any peaceful, political, or diplomatic solution to the long-standing question of Kashmiri independence as a sign of India’s weakness.
A life-long member of a Hindu supremacist organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi sees the question of Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, as an assault on Hindu nationhood and Indian territorial integrity. As part of this warped ideological perspective, he persistently revs up his Hindu nationalist base into a frenzied hatred against Pakistan, a posture that has regularly paid him good electoral dividends, even though these incessantly come at the cost of Kashmiri lives.
After a similar attack on Indian soldiers in Uri in Kashmir in 2016, Modi had announced that his military had launched reprisal attacks called “surgical strikes” against “terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” Whether those “strikes” actually happened or not remains highly contested (Pakistan claimed they never saw the “surgical strikes”), so does the actual outcome of such attacks if they did, but Indian media (including films) see “surgical strikes” as an “achievement” for Modi.
A recent Bollywood film “Uri,” reminiscent of Rambo-style movies of the 1980s, celebrated the doubtful strikes, with its makers cravenly trying to please Modi and his national security advisor Ajit Doval. As the elections near, Modi has used dialogues from the film to deflect attention away from his government’s economic missteps, crony defence deals, and job creation failures.
The newest attack has come at a particularly ripe time for Modi. Indeed he will try to milk it, even if that involves putting the entire region at grave peril, to win elections that are just two months away.
Over the last few days, Indian experts in blood-curdling TV “debates” have been calling for “splintering Pakistan.” Others have demanded “air-strikes” or “limited ground incursions” at the least. The few sober voices in India that point to the dangers of nuclear conflagration and the general delusional nature of Indian militaristic discourse have been squeezed out as effete and inadequately enraged.
What is also instantly apparent to those who follow the situation in Kashmir closely, accusations against Pakistan are a way to deflect attention from Indian military and policy failures in Kashmir.
Since 1990, when the Kashmiri independence struggle became a mass movement, Indian policy in Kashmir has been primarily driven by a military logic. The Kashmiri movement was suppressed brutally, on multiple occasions leading to massacres of dozens of unarmed Kashmiris. As the political space for a peaceful struggle was squelched, Kashmiris were forced to take up arms.