Has India signalled the end to its long-held doctrine of strategic restraint?

A new assertiveness

Josie Gardner

Politics, International relations | South Asia

5 April 2019

Military occupation of Kashmir has eroded India’s historic passivity, Josie Gardner writes.

In February, the world was plunged into several days of nervous hand wringing as tensions between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan flared to an unprecedented level. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist group operating from Pakistan, conducted a suicide bombing in Pulwama on 14 February that claimed over 40 Indian police personnel.

Riding a wave of popular anger, Modi gave his military ‘free rein’ to retaliate. As a result, for the first time since 1971, Indian fighter jets crossed into Pakistani territory to carry out airstrikes on a JeM training camp in Balakot on 26 February.

The international community was quick to urge both parties to exercise restraint. Thankfully, Kashmir eventually returned to its not-war-not-peace stalemate as tensions fizzled into little more than a charade of muscle-flexing.

That’s a good thing, right?

Well, not entirely. It could even be more dangerous than ever. India’s ‘pre-emptive’ airstrikes appear to herald an end to India’s historic passivity. However, the erosion of this policy can be equally attributed to decades of internal militancy.

The internationalisation of the event has distracted from the core issue at hand: Kashmir itself. This semi-autonomous region, often treated like a ping-pong ball volleyed between India and Pakistan, is, for the most part, politely ignored by the wider international community.

This ‘frozen’ conflict has two dimensions, which, although interrelated, are often combined or confused. At its core, Kashmir is an international dispute between India and Pakistan over mutually claimed territory dating back to partition in 1947.

However, the domestic dimension, between Delhi and the local azadi (freedom) independence movement, is of far greater import here. For the majority of Kashmiris, most of whom are Muslim, the azadi movement represents a desire for peace as well as freedom from both India and Pakistan.

Yet, the azadi movement has been quelled for over two decades through a military occupation of Kashmir that has created one of the most densely militarised zones in the world. The few hundred militants co-opted by opportunistic terrorist groups allegedly backed by (or at least operating within) Pakistan are outnumbered by an army presence of 700,000. It is therefore unsurprising that 2018 saw the deadliest year in a decade in Kashmir and coincided with a rising trend towards youth radicalisation.

Kashmir is clearly a situation that is becoming increasingly harder to justify. Any hope of building peace between India and Pakistan involves addressing the complex web of motivations towards militancy.

This requires India’s skeletons to be finally taken out of its closet. The most pressing of which is the structural and direct violence imparted on Kashmiri Muslims by the Indian Army. This has manifested in forced disappearances, unmarked mass graves, extrajudicial killings of journalists, activists, and civilians, the blinding of youth with pellet guns, and sexual violence. Unfortunately, only critical academics, well-regarded Indian political activistshuman rights organisations, and the United Nations have taken up this task.

Though these well documented allegations are denied by India, they nevertheless continue to fight a political problem through a military approach that is anything but ‘restrained.’ Such institutionalised violence has long eroded India’s self-image as a benevolent, tolerant nation rising above aggression through passive resistance. Gandhi would be rolling in his grave.

This brings us back to Adil Dar: the 22-year old suicide bomber behind the Pulwama attack. According to his family, Dar’s violence was motivated more by retribution for harassment, abuse and arbitrary detainment at the hands of security forces than religious ideology.

While youth radicalisation and a growing culture of martyrdom are dangerous trends in Kashmir, they do not occur in a vacuum. Dar’s generation, who grew up under occupation, quickly learned that Gandhi’s brand of nonviolence has long been an ineffective avenue for demanding political freedoms and representation.

In order to make space for long silenced Kashmiri grievances, it is essential to distinguish between militaristic and political motivations towards azadi. Even (and especially) when they are not agreed with.

The 2014 election of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, sporting a radical brand of Hindu Nationalism, has also revealed the cracks in India’s thin veneer of cultural restraint. As well as being a key motivating factor behind youth radicalisation in Kashmir. It appears the Indian public has too grown tired of its doctrine of nonviolence through an emboldened Islamophobic discourse.

The wake of the Pulwama attack saw the Hindu-majority public whipped into a frenzy of war cries and violent backlash against Kashmiris. Innocent Kashmiri students were forced to flee their university campuses, fearing hate crimes by Hindu extremist groups such as Bajran Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

While India’s lackluster security institutions and a still-modernising army have naturally confined India’s tendencies towards militaristic passivity, Nehru’s foundational ‘unity-in-diversity’ visionhas also played an important part in cultivating India’s cosmopolitan image as a reliable and trustworthy democracy in the international arena. This, though, is becoming harder to recognise. Indeed, the idea of Kashmir as India’s proof of secular plurality increasingly seems like an India of the imagination.

Is a post-restraint peace possible?

With all eyes fleetingly on Kashmir, the international community has a rare opportunity to ask what a post-restraint doctrine would look like.

The only option is dialogue, both between India and Pakistan, and between Delhi and Kashmiris. This must be implemented on all levels—from the grassroots to the international—with all parties at the table, from civil society to diplomats.

To continue the current indiscriminate security clampdown in Kashmir will only add fuel to the fire. So long as Kashmir is politically alienated and militarily occupied, there will be no end in sight to ongoing cycles of internal and external state violence.

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