J&K: Conflict transformation

Attrition for some more time and subdued violence will mark the change in political scenario

How should we view the constitutional and administrative decisions of 5 August 2019 and its impact? These have been difficult decisions taken with an element of calculated risk. Lesser informed opinion imagines the end of the so called Kashmir problem and a triumphal attitude appears to exist post the decisions. However the one thing which is absolutely clear is that conflict is likely to persist for some time, subdued violence will mark the change in environment and politics of Jammu and Kashmir will never be the same again. Since the conflict in J&K is hybrid in nature with full throated proxy support, the easiest way to get a clearer understanding is to analyse the conflict transformation phenomenon. Hybrid or conventional conflicts are never static in nature. They move dynamically from the initiation to progression, stabilisation, termination and then resolution. While change from one state to the other is never seamless a sudden step up or down, to or from a status with a distinct change in the functioning environment denotes ‘conflict transformation’. It can promise a better or worse state of things in the security environment. The term ‘security environment’ in proxy hybrid conflict includes many facets of the nonmilitary domain, hence its usefulness in overall assessment.

The inability of the over ground workers (OGW) to remain effective through the lock down and prospectively their continued neutralisation will ensure stabilisation to a far greater extent. Those who have operated in Kashmir would recall how the efforts of the Army and Police to identify and neutralise these elements could rarely materialise due to patronage from many quarters. An OGW would brazenly meet officials, call on senior functionaries, be seen on high profile panels in seminars and yet be functioning against the nation and for the separatists. Indian democratic norms were fully functional in Kashmir at most times (1990-96 was a period when this did not exist).

Freedom of expression and action many times were perceived by some of us as being detrimental to security but the establishment did not act against this. One of freest media continued to remain in existence, writing as it wished and rarely ever expressed any pro-India sentiments. The government at Delhi did not exert itself on this and allowed a degree of flexibility. While we may be critical of its lack of display of commitment towards countering separatist sentiment there can be no denying the fact that it helped create a perception internationally which favoured the Indian narrative as against the Pakistani one. While the Army and the police fought separatism and its manifestation in the form of terror and street turbulence the level of freedom enjoyed by separatists and many of those who sat on the cusp was amazingly high, to the detriment of security. The polity of Kashmir also had its own unique characteristics. Without a soft separatist stance or at the least a commitment towards enhanced autonomy these parties could not have made much electoral headway.

The recognised parties did not have any decided pro-Pakistan sentiments although they did express the sentiment that Pakistan would need to be a party to any talks to resolve J&K. One of the reasons why the situation could not be taken to the next stage each time the Army stabilised the security environment was because there existed a system which somehow helped in ‘marking time’ at the same spot. Thus, August 5, 2019, hugely altered the way India will now handle Kashmir. The Central Government had to close various ends identified as potential areas which could be exploited. Enhanced terror activity immediately in the wake of the decision was never a threat because of low footprint of terrorists and absence of leadership. Yet, that won’t last forever; it’s important now to ensure no surge in numbers either through infiltration or recruitment. The containment of immediate turbulence in the streets was absolutely necessary and the sentiments of the mainstream parties were probably considered unpredictable; hence the action to detain political leaders. That is forcing the government’s hand for now but the risk of releasing them needs to be taken and engagement with political leaders is a must. The release and handling of Imran Ansari, the Shia leader and the conduct of the Muhurram mourning could provide some indicators towards further action.

Why I consider the necessity of taking the risk involved in greater opening and engagement is because conflict transformation indicates that sufficient steps have already been taken and are yet underway to ensure that the street turbulence does not create the kind of impasse it did in 2008, 2010 and 2016. The intelligence agencies appear to have done a reasonably good job in curbing the effectiveness of financial networks. 

It is important to plan beyond the first milestone of the UNGA meeting with small steps. Thought needs to be given to the rejuvenation of the polity. The democratic exercise of early elections will assist in creating traction in international acceptance. The information domain is where the major threat lies. Pakistan has pulled out all the stops and will progressively do more to cultivate international sentiment against India even though the first round of the diplomatic battle may have been won by India. There is no permanence in this and unless we do more to neutralise the perception being expressed in international media there will be no guarantees of continuing support.

Pakistan may yet be on better behaviour until the FATF decision in Oct-Nov but post that, whatever be the outcome,   may not hold back in terms of greater physical involvement.

It may be difficult for the Indian government to do more towards neutralising the first and second order implications of the progressive chain of events but it would need to keep analysing all potential threats and anticipating moves. One of the most visible actions it needs to currently execute is the release of the mainstream political leadership and await the effect of that. With all other measures in place this may pass off peacefully and get India the much needed perceptional advantage to sustain its diplomatic success.

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

This article was originally posted by DNA India. It was posted here with the author's permission.