Has India’s Kashmir policy under Modi failed?

With violence refusing to abate, the much-touted ‘muscular’ policy pursued by the BJP is not working, say experts, as they urge political engagement.

Modi in Kashmir
In April this year, Modi, centre, visited Indian-administered Kashmir, his first public event since New Delhi stripped the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019 [File: Channi Anand/AP]

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its limited autonomy and statehood in 2019, it claimed the move would wipe out decades of armed rebellion in the region, and usher in peace and development.

Nearly three years later, peace continues to elude the disputed Himalayan valley, with nearly daily killings of rebels, Indian security officials and civilians in gunfights and targeted attacks.

Only this year, more than 100 suspected rebels, mostly young Kashmiris aged between 18 and 26, have been killed by the Indian police and military, the region’s police chief Vijay Kumar said on Wednesday.

The rebels in turn are accused of killing at least 16 people this year, seven of them belonging to the minority Hindu community.

Since the abrogation of the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir on August 5, 2019, at least 197 security personnel, 675 suspected rebels and 131 civilians have been killed in the wave of violence that has engulfed the valley.

These include the targeted killings of at least 23 people from the region’s minority, mainly Hindus. Even non-resident Muslim migrant workers from other parts of India have not been spared.

The spiralling wave of violence has prompted critics to wonder whether the Modi government’s “muscular policy” towards the country’s only Muslim-majority region has failed.

‘Alienation has only deepened’

After sweeping to power in 2014, the BJP said Article 370 of the Indian constitution – a special citizenship law that protected jobs and land rights of local residents in Indian-administered Kashmir and which the right-wing party had opposed for decades – should go.

Revoking the law was one of the promises in the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto, which saw Modi return with a larger majority in parliament.

Within months of his re-election, Indian-administered Kashmir was stripped of its partial autonomy, divided into two federal territories and brought under New Delhi’s direct control.

When you push people to the wall, some sort of unwarranted situation is created.

by Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, Kashmiri politician

While the BJP’s top leadership went into a self-congratulatory mode over the landmark move, believing they had resolved the longstanding Kashmir crisis, the realities in the region were entirely different and even belied their claims.

The move to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its limited autonomy was backed by an unprecedented military deployment in what was already one of the world’s most militarised regions.

As part of a “muscular” policy that Modi’s government imposed in the restive region, hundreds of politicians including former chief ministers, rights activists, lawyers and students were arrested, while a security shutdown in the valley continued for months.

A new domicile law was introduced that allowed outsiders to permanently settle in Indian-administered Kashmir, raising fears of a demographic change and allegations of a “settler-colonial project” in the region.

Last month, the Modi government released a list of redrawn electoral constituencies in the region, giving greater representation to Hindu areas and drawing condemnation from opposition parties who accused New Delhi of “gerrymandering” the region to disempower Muslims.

According to a census conducted by India in 2011, out of the region’s total population of 12.5 million, Muslims comprise 68.31 percent and Hindus 28.43 percent. An overwhelming 96 percent of those Muslims live in the valley.

Kashmir protest
Demonstrators throw stones towards Indian police during a protest in Srinagar [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

The moves by Modi’s Hindu nationalist government have only added to the anti-India sentiment in the valley.

“The alienation has only deepened. More and more people getting disappointed and hopelessness is the norm of the day,” former legislator and left-wing leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami told Al Jazeera.

“When you push people to the wall, some sort of unwarranted situation is created. Violence unfortunately becomes an option for some sections of people and that is what is happening here,” he said, referring to a spike in violence in the region.

Tarigami is a member of the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an alliance of pro-India political parties fighting for the restoration of the region’s special status.

We never felt unsafe like we do today. Nothing has changed for us in three decades.

by Ashwini Kumar, Kashmiri Hindu

Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of the region and a PAGD member, also accused Modi’s government of pushing young men towards an armed resistance through its threatening approach.

“More and more young people are running away from homes and joining militancy. It is due to the anger and the environment created by the BJP,” she told reporters last month.

“They (youth) are being killed within 2-3 days of joining the armed struggle, some had not even picked up a gun yet. Everywhere it is the blood of Kashmiris that is being spilled.”

Mufti said the BJP gains votes in the rest of India “on this policy of bloodshed where they show how much they can suppress” the Kashmiris.

“Look at how many they are jailing and how much muscle power they are displaying,” she said. “This policy is not going to work in Kashmir, at the end they (BJP) have to come to healing tough policy.”

Kashmir protest
Kashmiri Hindus protest against the killing of a community member by suspected rebels in Jammu, Indian-administered Kashmir [File: Channi Anand/AP]

Policy based on Muslim ‘hatred’

Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri academic based at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, told Al Jazeera the BJP’s Kashmir policy is based on its “hatred of Muslims and not on any benign principle” of equal rights and citizenship.

“It is a policy that seeks to erase Kashmiris and their voices from the public sphere, as well as show that the Modi government is fulfilling Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s desire of turning Kashmiri Muslims into a minority,” he said, referring to the RSS, the BJP’s far-right ideological mentor formed in 1925 along the lines of the Nazis in Europe to create an ethnic Hindu state out of a secular India.

Junaid said the BJP government believes its Kashmir policy “will end the Kashmir conflict as well as satisfy their right-wing electoral base in India that has been fed on a steady course of anti-Kashmiri bigotry”.

Experts say the anti-Muslim hatred behind Modi’s Kashmir policy has also threatened the lives of the minority Hindus in the region, known as Pandits.

Nearly 200,000 Pandits were forced to leave the valley after an armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule and targeted killing of the Hindu minority members began in the late 1980s. While official estimates say 219 Pandits were killed by the rebels during the exodus, right-wing Hindu groups and a recent Bollywood film claim that number is in thousands, with some even calling it a “genocide”.

Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP under Modi, as part of its promises “of bringing them (Pandits) back to their roots with dignity”, aggressively pushed for their rehabilitation in Indian-administered Kashmir.

In 2010, the federal government launched a rehabilitation package for Pandits, which included government jobs and housing. However, since last year, some of the Pandits who returned to the region under the scheme have become victims of targeted killings by suspected rebels.

According to an Al Jazeera tally, of the 131 civilian deaths reported in the region since 2019, at least 23 were non-Muslims, most of them Hindus, who for the first time in years have taken to the streets across the region against the BJP government.

Pandits say they feel unsafe amid the spiralling violence. Hindu government employees have been boycotting their work for over a month in protest against the killings, demanding to be relocated outside the turbulent valley.

“We never felt unsafe like we do today. Nothing has changed for us in three decades. How can we live when we are being killed?” Ashwini Kumar, a 40-year-old Kashmiri Pandit told Al Jazeera.

Kumar had returned to his native village in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2010 after taking up a job as an engineer.

Family members and relatives mourn as they carry the body of Rafia Nazir, a young Kashmiri woman killed in grenade attack
People mourn as they carry the body of a young Kashmiri woman killed in a grenade attack in Srinagar [File: Mukhtar Khan/AP]

Most of the attacks on the region’s minorities and non-residents have been claimed by a little-known armed group called The Resistance Front that surfaced in 2019. In its social media posts, the group says it is “targeting settlers and those who collaborate with the fascist regime” and are part of the “settler-colonial project”.

Experts say the armed rebellion is now becoming increasingly home grown, calling it a “worrying trend” and asking the government for “more political engagement” with the Kashmiris.

“The claims made to justify the revocation of Article 370 was that it would end terrorism, and bring development and massive investment in Kashmir and that has not happened,” Ajai Sahni, political analyst and executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think the solution lies at the level of security.”

Sahni said Modi’s government is creating “more and more polarisation and alienation” in the valley. “So as long as that continues, I don’t see a possibility of a solution,” he said.

The BJP rejects the allegations, saying the government is trying to bring “normalcy to the region”.

“Some vested interests want to disturb peace and the government has launched a big crackdown against them. It is only the opposition parties that are making noise. Things are getting normal in Kashmir,” BJP spokesman Ashok Kaul told Al Jazeera.

Academic Junaid, however, said what the Modi regime wants in Indian-administered Kashmir “leaves no space for political engagement, just continuous oppression”.

“Kashmiris, of course, will not accept this. For them, these policies are an expansion of India’s longstanding policies of political repression.”

Source: Al Jazeera