A video showing two dry-fruit vendors from Kashmir being thrashed by a group of hooligans from Vishwa Hindu Dal in Lucknow has gone viral. While this was shameful to say the least, two good things also happened, according to various newspaper reports. One, the locals intervened to stop the daylight mayhem. Two, the Lucknow police have arrested one of the ruffians in the video and are on the lookout for another person.
This attack on the people from Jammu & Kashmir happened despite a clear message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 23. Modi said people needed to distinguish between the “0fight for Kashmir and fight against the Kashmiris". The Prime Minister stepped in after hundreds of Kashmiri students faced physical, verbal, and even administrative harassment across India, particularly intense in Uttarakhand where educational institutes gave in to the protestors’ demand that no Kashmiri student be admitted to the next academic session.
Modi’s note of caution in this case has, like his intervention after incidents of lynching and attack on Muslims and Dalits by cow-vigilantes, came a little too late. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister probably sensed that the legitimate nation-wide uproar over the Pulwama terror attack was effectively building a nationalistic narrative around the Kashmir problem and that these incidences of harassment of the Kashmiri people outside their state, would help develop a counter-narrative.
To be sure, the Vishwa Hindu Dal is not affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the BJP. But from the video, it certainly looks and conducts itself like one of those loony outfits that have mushroomed under the vast and vague umbrella of political Hindutva and which draw their strength, among other things, from the climate of rampant Muslim-bashing in which some members of the RSS and the Modi administration are active participants. It is this climate as well as the RSS-BJP’s long-standing discomfort with Muslims in India that could determine how the BJP addresses the Kashmir issue.
For the RSS-BJP to be able to even understand the Kashmir problem in its entirety, it is essential that they identify the Kashmiri people, in the troubled state as well as elsewhere in the country, as a separate entity and do not look at the Kashmir problem from the simplistic Hindu-Muslim binary. This simplistic binary, evident in the generalized communal comments and innuendoes a host of RSS-BJP leaders keep making about Muslims, is itself a wrong template to apply to the Hindu-Muslim problem in India. But post-Pulwama and the Balakot air strikes, the general othering of the Muslim community that many in the RSS-BJP not only believe in but also practice could create serious obstacles for the BJP in understanding the Kashmir problem and orienting the political party towards a possible resolution of the impasse. This becomes important also because unlike the BJP of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani era, the BJP of the Modi-Amit Shah era has significant and direct political stakes in Kashmir. It was part of the ruling coalition till recently and it still wields enormous political power and influence in the besieged state through the agency of the Governor’s office. Also, a BJP-led dispensation, and most likely Modi-led as well, has the best chance of returning to power in 2019 and as such the RSS-BJP would again be controlling the levers of power and patronage in Kashmir.
On February 26, the Indian Air Force conducted air strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba terror camps inside Pakistan. The air strikes, while their impact in terms of the number of terrorists killed is being fiercely debated, clearly achieved key strategic, diplomatic, and security objectives that may have an enormous bearing on the Kashmir problem. As various commentators on security and international relations have pointed out, the air strikes have set a new normal in the India-Pakistan security equation. By going deep inside Pakistan, India has demonstrated for the first time that it won’t be deterred by the threat of a nuclear escalation with Pakistan if terror groups operating from the Pakistan soil challenged India. India also deftly deployed its diplomatic capital to isolate Pakistan at least in the post-Pulwama scenario and get a rare crystal-clear backing even from the United States to punish Pakistan. Finally, the Balakot air strikes are significant in terms of their possible impact on the Kashmir problem and may turn out to be the paradigm shift for any Indian government which is keen to make a progress on Kashmir.
Immediately after the Pulwama attack, the Modi government, through the office of the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir, and the National Investigation Agency and the Income Tax Department, launched a big crackdown on the separatist leaders. The NIA and IT department conducted several raids on separatist leaders associated with the Hurriyat. The government has also banned the Jamat-e-Islami for suspected links with terror groups and come down heavily on its activists. Except for the PDP and the National Conference, no political party has spoken out against the ban.
The crackdown on separatists, Hurriyat leaders, and the suspected cohorts of the terror groups could be a justified line of action in the post-Pulwama situation which prompted a political dispensation known for its hardline position on Kashmir to launch the air strikes. The impending elections also made a strong response to Pulwama a political necessity that Modi seems to have fulfilled by taking the political call to launch air strikes inside Pakistan. Led by Modi himself, the BJP and the larger Sangh ecosystem are exploiting the air strikes to build momentum for a presidential sort of parliamentary election in 2019. If Modi returns to power, the post-Pulwama situation has valuable lessons for the RSS-BJP that they must not ignore if they want to apply their minds and energies to the resolution of the Kashmir problem.
The most significant lesson would be to note and understand the nation-wide response to the Pulwama terror attack itself. Pakistan-backed terrorism in Kashmir is not a new problem but the nation-wide uproar and the wide-spread and generous sentiment of solidarity with the security forces after Pulwama was clearly unprecedented. Rarely before has the entire nation stood so unitedly against a terror attack in Kashmir. Apart from the protests by political parties and organisations, even ordinary people across the epic swathe of this nation came out on the streets to mourn the dead and condemn terrorism. What the RSS-BJP need to notice is that Muslims across India, through some organised efforts or by way of extempore reaction, also joined the protest. The simple reason for this was that a majority of Muslims in other parts of India are not invested in the Kashmir problem from the communal point of view. The general climate of Muslim-bashing and attacks against the Kashmiris outside their state, however, threatens to communalise the Kashmir problem beyond its political and geographical epicenter. This is something the RSS-BJP need to guard against.
While Pakistan’s efforts to internationalize the Kashmir problem have largely failed, the Pulwama attack did achieve an unintended objective. It truly nationalized terrorism in Kashmir and by extension the Kashmir problem itself. This is an important takeaway the RSS-BJP need to ponder.
As commentators have observed, the air strikes have created a new normal. In the same way, the Pulwama attack and the air strikes have the potential to create new rules of engagement in Kashmir. As the crackdown on the separatists and a host of related actions suggest, the government wants to approach the Kashmir problem from a position of strength. While talks among all stakeholders including a chastened Hurriyat are still the only way out of the imbroglio, the diplomatic and strategic gains India has made since Pulwama position whichever political dispensation that takes shape in Delhi post-elections in a position of strength that must not be squandered away by the callous communal polarization and othering of the Kashmiris elsewhere in India.