Coronavirus hits prospects for a revival in Kashmir this summer

For Kashmiris, who were hoping to come out of a long period of isolation after August 5, 2019 and subsequent government clampdown to ensure peace, the deadly virus has been a huge setback at a time when the thaw was beginning and restrictions easing, writes Brig Anil Gupta (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Brig Anil Gupta (retd) Mar 23, 2020
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The summer of 2020 in Kashmir will be different from the past, in many ways. It would be the first summer after the Narendra Modi-led government decided on August 5, 2019 to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution and subsequently reorganised the state. It will be the first summer without Ladakh since the state was split into two Union territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, according to the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019.

With the separate Constitution gone, only the national Flag (tricolour) will be flown throughout the state without another alongside. Summer 2020 de facto will be the first when one can proudly say that India is one nation, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Before the summer, there has been a relatively peaceful winter, with security forces enjoying an upper hand over terrorists, a prolonged period of no bandh calls or forced closures and a peaceful festival season. A majority of political leaders have been under preventive detention, hence very little political activity has happened and the Hurriyat is almost extinct.

It hasn’t been all that rosy either. The snapping of mobile internet services and other communication restrictions have hit the local economy hard, wiping out most internet-based start-ups and businesses. There has also been an increase in the radicalised population in Kashmir preceding the coming summer.

Kashmir starts humming with activity soon after the end of the traditional winter cycle of Chillai Kalan (extreme cold), Chillai Khurd (small cold) and Chillai Bachha (baby cold), which usually ends in early March. The annual Tulip Festival marks the beginning of the tourist season. However, this year, the onset of the deadly pandemic Corona Virus has dampened and delayed the season. For Kashmiris who were hoping to come out of a long period of isolation after August 5, 2019 and the subsequent government clampdown to ensure peace, the deadly virus has been a huge setback at a time when the thaw was beginning and restrictions easing, with the release of the political detainees. The changed environment the Kashmiris were expecting to enjoy has been denied because of Kashmir emerging as a ‘danger zone’ for the virus as thousands of Kashmiris who were either studying/working abroad or had gone for pilgrimages to the affected countries will return.

As far as the security scenario is concerned, this summer is different because all the important commanders, including the Indain Army chief, Northern Army commander and the Chinar Corps commander have recently assumed their charge, implying fresh thinking and new innovative ideas. The Army has already announced its Summer Strategy 2020. The Unified Headquarters is likely to have tighter scrutiny due to the changed organisational environment with close monitoring by the Union home ministry.

While the security forces would have carried out an in-depth threat analysis, it is going to hover around Pakistan sponsored cross-border terrorism. Apart from renewed and increased ceasefire violations, Pakistan would attempt to exploit the latent anger and increased radicalisation among the section of Kashmiri society to fuel homegrown insurgency. Unlike the past, it would not be as easy because of the reluctance of a majority of the local ‘awam’ (populace) to fall prey to Pakistanis and their agents because they want an end to the cycle of bloodbaths and random killings.

The youth are looking for a better and brighter future. The civil administration has an equally important role to play to complement the efforts of the security forces in negating Pakistani designs. The ongoing assault on the terror support network by the security forces would need to be intensified to completely break the backbone of terrorism and militancy. The Army would need to enhance its capability of looking over the hill, not only to counter the terror threat but also to put into practice its “Dynamic Response Strategy.”

With India maintaining its claim on Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK), the Army would need to project a “threat in being capability” to keep the adversary guessing.

Another factor that would affect the security environment in Kashmir is the threat from global jihadi terror organisations and the emerging situation in Afghanistan. The arrest of a Kashmiri couple owing allegiance to Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) cannot be brushed aside as an isolated incident. It has to be viewed with continuing anti-India activities by ISKP within Afghanistan after the signing of the US-Taliban Agreement in Doha. The agreement appears to be heading towards a failure.

Apart from ISKP, the threat from the Taliban, if they succeed in forming the government in Kabul would have to be vectored in. However, it would depend to a large extent on India’s Afghan policy and how it unfolds to meet the challenge of a changed strategic environment in Afghanistan post the US-Taliban Treaty.

In international relations there are no permanent foes and it is expected that India may open a dialogue with the Taliban to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan, which would also have an impact on the situation in Kashmir.

On the political front, activity is being envisaged during the summer of 2020, hopefully to be dominated by politics instead of militancy after a long gap. The release of lightweight political detainees followed by former Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah, the emergence of a new political amalgamation in the form of Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP) and the appointment of the Delimitation Commission has triggered hopes of a politically hot summer this year.\

Abdullah, the seasoned politician that he is, has kept his cards close to his chest, except for a few statements and meetings with his detained son Omar Abdullah and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, both former state chief ministers. The role of the Congress party in the emerging political scenario would remain ambivalent because of a vertical split between its Jammu based and Kashmiri leadership on the issue of revocation of Article 370. The hasty visit of Ghulam Nabi Azad to meet Abdullah after his release and subsequent press conference has only added to the confusion. Full-spectrum political activity is likely to commence only after the release of Omar and Mehbooba.

Will the Gupkar Gang unite to question the revocation of Article 370 and reorganisation of the state or would they join the realists to accept the new arrangement as a fait-accompli? This may also trigger some violence due to the eruption of pent up emotions.

The security establishment is anticipating it and would have plans ready to counter the challenge and prevent it from falling into the hands of dormant anti-national forces. New political equations would continue to emerge, old foes may become friends again and many may desert their old loyalties. The fight for political space in Kashmir this summer will likely be between the Bharatiya Janata Party, National Conference and JKAP; between the realists, led by BJP, and the idealists, led by NC.

Economically, the UT is set to take off as far as the holistic development is concerned generating jobs and employment. The recently passed budget of the UT with more than Rs 34,000 crore earmarked for development, apart from 100% funding of centrally sponsored projects and creation of 50,000 jobs, with a focus on infrastructure, tourism, horticulture, rural development, sports and health augur well.

The much-needed revival of tourism would depend on the duration of the corona threat and its after-effects. Meanwhile, the government would have to restore 4G internet and broadband services to boost the service industry and e-commerce. All eyes are set on the proposed Investors’ Meet and the response it generates. Therefore it is a very significant summer, as far as the revival of the economy is concerned, affecting not only Kashmir but Jammu as well.

With the nation and the entire world looking at Kashmir in summer 2020, this attempt at crystal gazing veers towards a relatively peaceful and politically significant summer.

(The author is a Jammu based veteran and a security and strategic analyst) 

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