What is India’s new endgame in Kashmir?

The Indian government has changed its approach to the ‘Kashmir problem’ because it has new strategic priorities.

Kashmiris walk in front of Indian government forces guarding their bunkers on a main road, on March 15, 2021, in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir [Yawar Nazir/Getty Images]

If performance and posturing were the only indicators within politics, it may be said the political scene in Indian-administered Kashmir has been abuzz with renewed activity in the past few months.

Earlier this summer, New Delhi initiated a new dialogue with local collaborators it has forged inside Kashmir, signalling its willingness to once again put its trust in them to help it subdue and rule the valley’s rebel population.

After August 2019, when Kashmir’s nominal autonomy was rescinded and its assimilation within India declared complete by the country’s parliament, Kashmir’s integrationist political formations had found themselves facing an existential crisis. Forever rebuffed by the Kashmiris for doing India’s bidding, they appeared to have also been abandoned by their patrons in New Delhi.

In June this year, however, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Kashmir’s integrationist parties to a meeting in New Delhi and, according to some of the participants, encouraged them to “speak unfiltered”. The local collaborators are now back in the picture and once again expected to “represent” the will of the Kashmiri people.

Some six months before this meeting, in January 2021, India also held secret talks with Pakistan in Dubai reportedly in an effort to “calm military tensions over Kashmir”. Pakistan’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, later revealed that the talks were initiated by New Delhi.

India’s decision to engage Islamabad over Kashmir, after persistently claiming that it is “an internal issue” that should not be discussed with any external force, coupled with its renewed interest in Kashmir’s integrationist parties, led many to question whether New Delhi has a new plan for the disputed territory. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder what prompted such a sudden and drastic change in the Indian government’s approach to the “Kashmir problem”.

Ultranationalist governments, like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India, construct their foreign and domestic policies based on the belief that they are superior to all their adversaries and thus invincible. They, however, periodically face reality checks that cause them to question this belief and readjust their priorities and strategies.

In the last few years, India’s government had two such reality checks in the form of military humiliations.

First, in February 2019, Pakistan downed an Indian aircraft that had ventured into Pakistan-administered Kashmir and captured its pilot. Islamabad later released the pilot “in a gesture of goodwill”, but the humiliating episode left a permanent mark on India’s nationalist government and likely caused it to rethink its approach to Kashmir.

Second, in June 2020, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent face-off with Chinese forces over the disputed border between India’s federally administered territory of Ladakh – earlier a part of Indian-administered Kashmir – and China. According to media reports, during the altercation, the Chinese military also took control of several strategic areas that were previously claimed and patrolled by Indian forces.

The Indian government, and its normally blustery media, appeared to be so rattled by this Chinese aggression that the only response they could initially come up with was silence followed by fiery denial. Later the government banned the Chinese owned social media platform, TikTok, and a few Chinese-made televisions were thrown out of balconies in a show of nationalistic pride, but that was where the buck stopped. New Delhi knew that it could afford neither a trade war nor a military confrontation with China.

In light of these developments, preventing a simultaneous two-front conflict with Pakistan and China became the Indian government’s primary strategic priority in Kashmir. This is why it recently decided to engage in secret talks with Islamabad. Securing at least a nominal thaw with Pakistan will take off pressure from India’s western front and allow it to concentrate on its border with China, especially since Beijing seems to be in no hurry to put an end to this standoff.

Beijing’s official statements on this conflict exhibit a measured confidence, signalling its belief that it is directing this entire show. Besides, New Delhi’s potential for reconciliation towards the Chinese remains limited as any concessions made to China can complicate the country’s position in the so-called Quad – the strategic alliance between Australia, India, Japan and the United States that heavily focuses on undercutting Beijing’s regional influence.

New Delhi’s external woes do not stop here. The American forces are rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban is making exponential gains across the country. The political and security establishment in India sees this as another threat to the regional balance of power. As the Taliban maintains a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with Islamabad, India perceives the growing power of the group as a threat not only to its security but also to its regional ambitions.

India appears to be most concerned about how the situation in Afghanistan may influence the armed rebellion in Kashmir, and whether Pakistan may encourage an exchange of resources and ideology between the Afghan and the Kashmiri fighters. Also, Beijing’s nascent but growing acceptance of the Taliban, exemplified by a recent meeting between the Chinese foreign minister and high-ranking Taliban officials, would surely have set many eyes rolling in New Delhi.

In short, the Indian government has changed its approach to the “Kashmir problem” not because it is seeking to resolve the dispute for good, but because it has new strategic priorities. But will India’s recent strategic manoeuvres change anything in the lives of Kashmiris living under India’s military rule?

For now, all signs indicate that any changes in the situation in Kashmir will be more cosmetic than substantial. The Indian government seems to be working towards restoring a skimmed version of the pre-2019 status quo in Kashmir, wherein regional integrationist parties appear to have some power on paper, but in practice, the BJP has the final say in all matters. It is important for India to give its regional collaborators some authority, as this allows it to pretend that “everything is normal in Kashmir” while remaining in complete control of the region’s affairs. And as these regional parties are set to contest any potential elections in Kashmir, New Delhi can sell this manufactured normalcy to the international community as proof that there is a functioning democracy in Kashmir.

Besides, the Indian government’s apparent decision to, once again, subcontract some aspects of its rule in Kashmir to regional political parties may have to do with the undefeated armed rebellion in the region. While, in 2019, the Indian government predicted that the abrogation of nominal autonomy would blow a death knell to the armed uprising, the recruitment to armed groups and attacks against Indian military installations continue at a steady pace in Kashmir. In this state, the Indian government likely wants to wash its hands of some aspects of the daily governance and concentrate on smashing the armed uprising for good.

Moreover, India’s increased appropriation of land and resources as well as attempted alteration of the region’s demographic structure, would benefit heavily from the legitimacy a Kashmiri-led administration can provide. While the Indian government is constantly pushing in legislations and executive orders that effectively disposes the population in Kashmir of their rights to land and livelihood, Kashmiris have, so far, resisted these actions with defiant perseverance reminiscent of Palestinian “sumud” (steadfastness).

The growing grassroots solidarity between international movements – such as the one between the Palestinians and Kashmiris – might also be influencing India’s increased interest in creating the impression that its post-2019 project in Kashmir has the support of the local population. As it was demonstrated during Israel’s recent assault on Gaza and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, people across the world remain ready to mobilise against colonial appropriation and bloodletting.

The political establishment in India must have been watching the international protests unfold in support of Palestine and would not want a repeat of that for Kashmir. The Indian government’s apparent desire to undercut any substantial solidarity between Palestinian and Kashmiri freedom movements also explains why India recently came out in measured support for the former at the United Nations.

All this leads one to conclude that India will continue to hedge on managing and, therefore, complicating the conflict in Kashmir, rather than resolving it once and for all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.