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Grassroots democracy is Kashmir's only hope against militancy

Thorough check ups on the roads heading to Amarnath after the attack Photograph: (Others)

Delhi, India Jul 14, 2017, 06.14 AM (IST) Niloy Sengupta


By Niloy Sengupta & Rumela Sen*

Jammu & Kashmir witnessed a dastardly attack on a group of Hindu pilgrims, resulting in several casualties, mostly women. This attack is significant and has to be seen in the context of the ongoing conflict in the region and the overall Hindu-Muslim relations in India. In politics, as FDR had once said, nothing happens by accident. If that’s true, the attack on Hindu pilgrims was planned and wasn't just a case of innocent civilians being caught in the cross-fire between the security forces and the militants. 

Madhumita Saha, in her poignant piece in WION, wonders if militants acted out of desperation and if militancy would take a new turn in the area. We would like to argue, on the contrary, this follows a familiar playbook of escalation of violence, and militants are provoking New Delhi to push the conflict towards more militarisation. We wonder why is New Delhi happily obliging?  

The movement that started as an aspiration of people for their own national identity, “Kashmiriyat," has steadily metamorphosed towards Jihad.

That an increased militarisation will be able to finish off the conflict is a mere pipe-dream. J&K is already one of the most militarised regions of the world with around 7 lakh security forces personnel already posted there. A generation of Kashmiris has now seen only jackboots and AK-47s in their land. Still, the conflict goes on unabated, through peaks and troughs of violence, crippling the economy of the region and the well-being of the citizens. The movement that started as an aspiration of people for their own national identity, “Kashmiriyat," has steadily metamorphosed towards Jihad. And the two sides that have benefited from this strategic stalemate have been the Islamic fundamentalists of the region, with a lot of the leadership staying in the relative security of Pakistan.

The incentive for militants to kill pilgrims is pretty evident. As the voices for more powers to the army grows shriller in New Delhi and elsewhere, there will be more human rights violations in Kashmir, which, in turn, will provide more oxygen and local support to the radical Islamic fighters. The militancy that started as a moral outrage of local Kashmiris taking up arms under the JKLF banner is now largely under control of Pakistan-based terror groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen. The Kashmiri jihadi groups are acting as conduits to draw in the global Jihadi elements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region, who already have significantly increased their presence in neighbouring Afghanistan and are just waiting to escalate the conflict to a whole new label.

Given the strategic location of J&K, a military conflict is not about to end anytime soon. In fact, the recent rhetoric of the Hindu chauvinists in India, that the army can finish off the job in the next two years has not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world. Iran, who has been sitting on the sidelines regarding Kashmir and had been a good ally of India, has now called for support to the Kashmiri cause.   

Looking at extremist movements elsewhere, it is pretty evident that few have been vanquished militarily. Two exceptions in South Asia were the total trouncing of Tamil Tigers and Khalistan militancy. Neither is comparable to Kashmir as they did not fit into global geo-politics. It would have been difficult for Sri Lanka to succeed militarily against the LTTE unless India took a "hands-off" policy following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the terrible setback for the IPKF. Nobody should expect that Pakistan and the global Jihad industry will sit back and relax on the matter of Kashmir.  

The Kashmiri jihadi groups are acting as conduits to draw in the global Jihadi elements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region

On the other hand, there is already a model for de-escalation of violence and transition to democracy as shown by the Nepal Maoists and the FARC in Colombia. These models are important, as were bi-partite efforts and did not require interlocutors, as any otherwise would be unpalatable to New Delhi. That leaves us with important lessons and templates for resolving the Kashmir conflict.

It is important to note that political settlement of the Kashmir question is critical but not a necessary pre-condition to initiate the de-escalation process. In fact, as peace settles in, and people experience its benefits, there will be pressure from below to force the hardliners to change stance and stick to the negotiations rather taking up the gun again. 

That brings us to the central argument for grassroots peacebuilding in Kashmir. It might sound like a cliché beaten to death by overuse, but grassroots democracy is the only solution to an intractable ethnic conflict. The mechanism is quite intuitive: as long as the two communities routinely interact with each other on ordinary, dull, day-to-day issues, the breadth of civic engagement checks violence. Everything, from street corner gup-shup, theatre, art, films to various professional and trade associations and labor unions, count.

There is a wealth of empirical evidence to show that villages constitute a remarkably small portion of ethnic rioting compared to cities, where inter-ethnic communication is relatively sparse. Ashutosh Varshney has meticulously documented that between 1950-1995, rural India accounted for only 3.6 per cent of death in communal violence whereas eight cities representing merely 5 per cent of India’s population, accounted for 46 per cent of such deaths. He concludes that routine inter-ethnic engagement among Hindus and the Muslims kills rumours, banish radical elements to the sidelines and makes neighbourhood level peace possible. These local peace committees can act as bulwarks against rebel recruitment and polarising rhetoric and actions that precipitate violence. 

Only when the two communities communicate, their respective leaderships and other stakeholders will experience a bottom-up demand to negotiate a political settlement. Of course, there are time-tested measures of counter-insurgency that needs to be integrated with this framework of grassroots peacebuilding. But spiteful bravado of rightwing fundamentalists, cheering violent repression by the Indian state, and baying for the blood of all Kashmiri Muslims as terrorists, is bound to polarise the two communities further into their belligerent clamshells. This will obliterate any possibility of neighbourhood intimacy and choke the limited democratic space that can be the site of inter-ethnic dialogue and peacebuilding.

Instead of using surrendered militants against the current militants, the state needs to integrate former rebels into grassroots peacebuilding initiatives, both formal and informal.

A thriving associational life will also create opportunities for rebels to retire and reintegrate back into the mainstream. We need the boys and girls to return to democracy. The vitriolic rhetoric of hate trickling down to towns and neighborhoods makes the prospect of return impossible and unattractive to rebels ready to quit extremist groups. As part of the counterinsurgency strategy, the Indian state needs to start to engage the local population, who are pro-democracy but sensitive to the rebels' cause, to build both neighborhood peace committees. Instead of using surrendered militants against the current militants, the state needs to integrate former rebels into grassroots peacebuilding initiatives, both formal and informal. In other words, potent counterinsurgency strategy in Kashmir is building a thriving network of inter-ethnic grassroots associations, which will contribute to increasing the lure of democracy in the region. 

Of course, there are many spoilers in the Kashmir conflict who have vested interests in aggravating communal relations and continuing the bloodbath. But by eroding the very secular and democratic fabric that holds the country together, by advocating extreme repression and taking every communal outbreak as an excuse for attacking the entire Muslim community in Kashmir, we are playing into the very hands of these spoilers and militants. None of this is unknown to those in power in New Delhi and Srinagar. The question is simple: do we want a long-term peaceful solution in Kashmir or not? 

In spite of provocations such as the Amarnath incident, rich associational life, replete with inter-ethnic civic engagement, both formal and informal, building a bottom-up democracy is our only hope against extremism. It is often referred to as "iron fist, velvet gloves" in counterinsurgency terms. We simply suggest what we already know: guns don’t keep the peace. Rabindranath Tagore said it so well. "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where walls don’t break the world into fragments, where we keep the clear stream of reason unhindered by baggage, can peace and freedom prevail".


* Rumela Sen is Post Doctoral Fellow in Political Science at Columbia University. She is researching political violence in South Asia. Twitter: @rsen02


Niloy Sengupta

Niloy Sengupta is a management consultant in the US, with a keen eye on Indian politics.

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