What the attacks on minorities in Kashmir reveal
The targeted terrorist attacks against minorities in Kashmir mark a dangerous, but not entirely unexpected, turn. It is important to make it clear that these are targeted kills. Sikhs and Hindus were identified and shot for being who they are. The weight of the appalling cumulative violence in Kashmir by the Indian state or the presence of Muslim victims cannot be an excuse to quietly sell this fact. The purpose was pure terror to evict and deter minorities and to exploit the communal rifts developing in India.
India’s fragility is evident on so many levels. These attacks are a reminder that very few counterinsurgency strategies are successful without a comprehensive political solution that includes all parties. It is easy for small terrorist groups to switch to softer targets. It was so easy to deny premature and triumphant claims about “normality” in Kashmir. An analogy is rightly drawn to the 1990s when Kashmiri pandits were attacked and driven out. But there is another aspect to this analogy. Despite the intelligence input, it is again proving difficult for the state in Kashmir to protect minorities. It is still easier to use the plight of the minorities in Kashmir politically than to give them security. The BJP government now has its Jagmohan moment.
Second, the purpose of these attacks is to get a response from the state and develop a “heads win, we lose tails” strategy. There can be two answers. The first is to deepen and broaden the search for terrorists in Kashmir. But in view of the state’s balance sheet, these measures are almost always more depressing and are reminiscent of the permanent state of emergency into which we have put Kashmir. These reactions increase political alienation. The second response is external. For the Indian state, there is no doubt that this is the work of groups supported by Pakistan. If so, we (like the US in Afghanistan) have been reminded again that air strikes, even if they are within your right, are not a solution to the problem of terrorism. India’s possible escalation against Pakistan is now made more difficult by the fact that it is under great military pressure from China on its eastern front. Despite the performative bravery of the air strikes, our security dilemma is worse today than it was a few years ago. The BJP government may want to break the shackles of the past, but its hands are even more tied when it comes to solving real security dilemmas.
Third, these attacks feed directly into the politics of communalism in India. The plight of the Hindus, and now the Sikhs in Kashmir, has always been weaponized by the community. In theory, we can all distinguish between terrorists and other members of the communities to which they belong. Good political leadership would make this distinction. But when you have a community-charged public discourse that has high-level political patronage, terrorism has had its greatest triumph by reinforcing an affiliation with communalism. Slowly but surely, these attacks will play into the deep communal divide that the BJP has created in the rest of India. That is their purpose. Fourth, the ongoing tragedy of the Indian Republic is that we simply do not have a common language of solidarity or a political language that can express a united front against all forms of violence. These murders were condemned by all communities and politicians of all stripes. Formal conviction is easy. Social media has made even the most delicate feelings the less serious by making them cheaper. But the kind of political gestures that demonstrate a commitment to the idea that our grief for the victims will not be selective, our framing of the violence narrative will not include double standards (“My community victims died of bigotry, yours from” root causes ““), Still elude us. In a state like Kashmir, we still lack the political language to bridge this gap.
Fifth is the simple fact that Kashmir still lacks normal political channels of articulation. Its statehood has not been restored and its constitutional humiliation continues. The older political dispensation may have been delegitimized, but no new political class emerged, contrary to the BJP’s claims to create one. Kashmir was never allowed the normal social mediation processes of a democracy. Without it, there is no chance that a counterinsurgency strategy will be successful.
There is also a sensitive issue that we are often not honest about. Political violence in India is closely related to a demographic concept. The Hindutva narrative feeds on fabricated fears of the demographic predominance of minorities. Other states have experienced varying degrees of violence over demographics. In Kashmir, the fear of a change in demographics following the repeal of Article 370 is palpably real. These killings are likely to be politically overdetermined, so speculating about their immediate causes may not be productive.
Were they provoked by the bravery of politicians who claimed that properties sold or transferred by pandits could be reclaimed? Is there a mundane effect that discourages investment, especially in land and real estate? Are these attacks aimed at preventively ensuring that even the small minorities who have stayed behind in Kashmir leave the country? Given the historical status of Kashmir and in line with other “hill states”, demographic composition is an important issue and Kashmiris are right to be concerned.
There is also a distinction between technical change and organic change arising from the historical and economic needs of communities. But it is also difficult to imagine a demographic policy that is not overshadowed by violence and prejudice. The line between saying that there are good historical and environmental reasons to worry about the demographic balance in Kashmir and seeing a Puchka salesman from Bihar or a school teacher from Jammu as a sign of oppression and threat can be palpable be narrow. Experience indicates everywhere that a policy of demography, despite the best of intentions, ends in a reactionary place. India is now falling into this trap.
India’s security environment is precarious, its political future fragile and its human sympathies dead. To master these challenges, great statesmanlike action is required. But instead, we’ll likely get more communalism and bravery. No serious questions are asked.
This column first appeared in print on October 9, 2021 under the title “New Dangers in Kashmir”. The author is an associate editor of The Indian Express.