In 2017, Indian security forces (SFs) initiated a more focused approach to dealing with militants in Kashmir, resulting in the killing of 218 terrorists so far. Although these operations were hailed as a success, the high civilian deaths (218 militants: 37 civilians in 2017 compared to 165 militants: 14 civilians in 2016) however, have led to more resentment towards India and will almost certainly lead to further cycles of violence. To offset this, the government should intensify the carrot component of its carrot-and-stick approach particularly vis-à-vis the much ignored issue of alternatives for socialisation available for youth in Kashmir.
The July 2016 death of Burhan Wani sparked widespread protests for nearly half a year. After the protests had petered out by end 2016, SFs began Operation All-Out in 2017 – a more intensive approach that emphasised zero tolerance and immediate confrontation with separatist cells as and when they arose. Consequently, SFs have killed nearly all terrorists they have encountered, severely eroding the Hizbul Mujahideen’s command structure. For example, Wani’s successor Sabzar Bhat was killed shortly after Wani, leaving little to no room for knowledge and institutional transfer, thus disrupting the Hizb’s operational ability. However, this security success was accompanied by a 150 per cent increase in civilian deaths since 2017 began.
These deaths diminish the long term effectiveness of security operations as it creates downstream radicalisation, potentially feeding a new generation of terrorists few years down the line. Deaths alone do not lead to radicalisation. However, in Kashmir, these deaths combine in a toxic cocktail of injuries, genuine or perceived harassment by security forces, and a complex set of grievances along with the lack of non-political outlets for pent up rage.
While most Indians considered Wani a terrorist, many in Kashmir viewed him as a hero fighting for freedom against the oppressors. This highlights the fact that icons for Kashmiri youth tend to be violent and political. While there are many reasons for such rage, one important aspect that is often ignored is that much of this has to do with the absence of alternatives for socialising such as cinema halls, sports, etc. Social mingling takes place largely at the mosque, usually to a sermon laced with political overtones. This funnels the youth (who may not naturally be politically inclined) towards politics, which in Kashmir, leads to a bigger pool of disaffected individuals, and hence probability for radicalisation.
When youth spend a large chunk of their free time at politically active mosques listening to politicised sermons, radicalisation seems imminent. Optimally addressing this psychological issue would involve providing leisure alternatives for Kashmiris. Recreational activities like sports provide youth with both a diversion and a sense of community (and thus, alternatives for identity, peer groups and social validation structures). For example, Afshan Ashiq, a 21-year old disaffected Kashmiri with a history of pelting stones at SFs, and who was on a path towards radicalisation, chose an alternative when one was made available. She now leads the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state girls football team as captain and is seen as a role model by many. This potent ability to create role models in the region was something previously only achieved by ‘martyrs’ like Wani. When Kashmiri singers, sportspersons and actors emerge, they have the potential to replace militants in popularity among youth.
Recognising this, the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led coalition government in J&K has implemented some policies to address these sociological issues. There is now a heavy emphasis on sport as well as on making recreational activities such as rafting, hiking etc, more accessible to the public. Similarly, tentative moves have been made towards reopening cafes, cinema halls and other trappings of normalcy. Additionally, the government is also focusing on a variety of skill-building initiatives for the Kashmiri youth.
Sensing the danger of a shrinking recruitment pool, militant groups and their votaries have opposed these moves. However, this is not the only hurdle. According a PDP member interviewed for this article, progress on these initiatives has also been slow politically because these activities are primarily targeted at 15-18 year old youths – i.e. those who are ineligible to vote, and thus not electorally salient for political parties focussed on elections. If this argument has salience, it means an important demographic is being ignored due to its lack of a political voice. Addressing the socio-psychological needs of this demographic, along with educational, economic and other social issues, will be needed to reduce future disruptions in the valley.
While current operations may be temporarily successful in reducing militancy, the civilian administration must intensify their carrot approach to match the SF’s stick. These are not binaries and they in fact go hand in hand: the SF’s solving the immediate problem, and civilians ameliorating the medium to long term repercussions. It is therefore important that both the state and the central government recognise, fund and prioritise the baby steps taken towards exposing Kashmiri youth to normalcy. While this is but a small part of the jigsaw that is Kashmir, a balanced approach will go a long way in either ushering in normalcy or at least increasing the time gap between the peaking of violence.