By Ashok Bhan*
The sudden passing away of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has created a serious political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Governor’s rule had to be re-imposed within a little over 10 months of coming into existence of a Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government. For a meaningful forecast of the politico-security situation, the fallout of this sad event has to be assessed in the backdrop of the existing security situation; renewed attempts of terrorists to infiltrate into J&K; reports of increased radicalisation and fresh recruitments in local militant cadres; and the logjam in any forward movement in the Indo-Pak engagement.
The fractured electoral verdict of 2014 threw a formidable challenge in government formation in the state. The PDP received a resounding mandate from Kashmir valley, and voters in Jammu overwhelmingly supported the BJP. It took over two months for the now late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to take the “courageous but unpopular decision” to lead a coalition government of the PDP and the BJP, which he himself described as coming together of “north and south poles.” Mufti had the vision for the coalition to deliver. He hoped to begin with a developmental agenda, addressing the aspirations of different regions as dictated by the mandate, and then slowly move towards his party’s political and economic agenda. He had the stature and political acumen to try and create, in due course, a consensus around addressing “core” issues to meet the aspirations of the PDP’s support base, including the alienated section in Kashmir valley. Once having entered into an alliance, Mufti demonstrated his wisdom and capacity to “swallow” avoidable diversions of political nature raked by the coalition partner which disallowed smooth running of the government.
Mehbooba Mufti as the party president is deeply conscious of stresses and strains that her late father had to pass through in running the coalition of diametrically opposite political ideologies. There is debate within the party on the desirability of continuing the coalition. It is argued that if a leader of Mufti’s stature was distracted from pursuing the “Agenda of Alliance,” it will be impossible for his successor to make any meaningful progress. This, they think, will further erode the support base of the party in the Valley. The supporters of continuity, who are currently in a majority, feel that Mufti’s risk-taking experiment for peace and stability needs to be given more time in order to assess whether it can achieve the desired results and that it must not be abandoned half way simply because he is no more on the scene. This puts Mehbooba in a dilemma. On one hand she inherits the political legacy of her late father and on the other, she faces the risk of failure to deliver on the aspirations of the party supporters and losing their confidence. It may not be easy for an out-of-power PDP to prevent poachers from changing the arithmetic of the verdict. Despite the serious political crisis following Shri Amarnath Land row in 2008 and wide spread violence in the Valley in 2010, voters have shown faith in democratic institutions via the record turnouts in 2008 and 2014 J&K assembly elections. If Mehbooba’s fears are not appropriately allayed, the state may go through a period of political uncertainty, and such an eventuality will seriously erode the faith.
Four credible assembly elections since 1996, supplemented by the periodic Lok Sabha and Panchayat polls, had considerably narrowed the democratic deficit in the strife-torn J&K. Successive elected governments of varying complexions, in close coordination with the central government, have pursued a largely peace-and-development-oriented agenda since then. The ceasefire agreement with Pakistan in 2003, which held ground till late 2008, gave much respite to people in the border areas. Cross-Line of Control (LoC) travel, and later, trade, did attract the attention of alienated sections as useful Confidence Building Measured (CBMs).
Unfortunately, other attempts to address the political dimension of the problem, including the three Round Table Conferences at the initiative of the then Prime Minister in 2006 and 2007; reports of five Working Groups; and the report of interlocutors, have yielded no results.
It will continue to remain a question mark as to whether the people’s faith in democratic institutions can be taken to another level by initiating a dialogue between internal stake holders to address the political dimension of the problem.
The Pathankot terror incident underscores the vulnerability of targets in J&K where Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have much more over-ground and underground support base. There is a sizeable residual militancy, and infiltration of terrorists continue. In 143 incidents of violence in 2015 in the state, 37 civilians, 39 security personnel and 108 terrorists were killed. There are reports of over 200 militants operating in the Valley. 222 incidents of firing from across the border were reported in 2015, in which 16 civilians and nine SFs were killed. 36 terrorists infiltrated into the state during 2015. Fresh recruitments into jihadi tanzeems and reports of increased radicalisation of educated youth do not augur well for the peace process. Any sign of instability will not only have its political fallout but will also have serious security implications. It will give impetus to the separatists’ agenda of ridiculing democratic institutions.
India has taken a bold stand in renewing the dialogue with Pakistan. The Pathankot terror strike has temporarily stalled the restarting of the “comprehensive dialogue,” with New Delhi seeking action on the perpetrators of the attack before proceeding on the foreign secretary level talks. However, engaging Islamabad is no guarantee against the use of their soil for terror attacks in J&K and elsewhere. Pakistan Army and the ISI will not miss any opportunity to exploit the leverage it enjoys with over-ground and underground support in J&K, particularly in the event of political instability. Pakistan Army is strongly opposed to promoting friendly relations with India if it is at the cost of J&K. The recent terror attacks in Jammu, and the neighbouring Punjab – at Rajbagh, Samba, Dinanagar, and Pathankot – reveal a pattern in the sneaking of terrorists from across the international border and targeting security force camps and police stations to cause maximum casualties. These have come in quick succession after the first such attack on the Hiranagar police station in Kathua, J&K, and an army camp in Samba, J&K. None of these could have been possible without active support of the Pakistan Army. The re-emergence of suicide attacks in some of these incidents is a grim reminder of the post-Kargil situation in the late 1999-2001 period, when a spate of such incidents led to a serious sense of insecurity.
Pakistan Army, by these incidents, has demonstrated its capability to take the proxy war to areas that are considered free from terrorist support bases. Such attacks are likely to continue irrespective of the public stand that the Pakistan government takes to keep alive the current dialogue initiative at a time when, according to former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, “Pakistan’s conduct and affiliation with terrorism has come under greater scrutiny and strictures internationally.” While we must engage with Islamabad, any bonhomie must not lead to complacence in our security apparatus. The answer lies in preparedness to thwart such attacks, an effective counter-infiltration strategy, and an urgent review of the coordinated intelligence-based operations to tackle residual militancy in J&K.
The central government has a decisive role to play in the predicted future course of events in J&K, not merely because it is led by the BJP, the most likely alliance partner of the PDP, but more importantly because of the bigger picture that the government can see, of the fallout of political instability on the security situation in the border states; and the fate of the much touted agenda for peace and development.
The country has paid a heavy price in terms of valuable lives (as many as 5,548 security personnel and 17,027 civilians till the end of 2015 ) and resources to bring the security situation to “manageable levels” as witnessed particularly during the past five years (with less than 200 incidents of violence per year). The government owes it to the people of the country to ensure that the situation does not slide backwards.
The peace process has to be taken forward. The residual militancy has to be tackled. The renewed dialogue with Pakistan is welcome, but we must upgrade our security infrastructure to prevent infiltration and terror strikes in J&K and elsewhere. The capacity of separatists to exploit incidents, particularly in a politically unstable environment, must not be lost sight of. Regional aspirations and harmony; settlement of Kashmiri migrants; radicalisation of educated youth; and engagement with the separatists are some issues that need urgent attention. These can be best addressed by an elected government with active support from the Centre.
Therefore, in the interest of peace and development, the Central Government (the BJP may have its own political compulsions) needs to allay Mehbooba Mufti’s fears in a demonstrative manner. Both sides would be well advised to focus on peace and development and refrain from raking up controversial political issues. The government is well aware that Mehbooba is the undisputed leader of the PDP, enjoying mass support base in the Valley. The PDP in turn is deeply conscious that fulfilling the developmental agenda without the support of the Centre is a distant dream. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his politically mature Home Minister Rajnath Singh and the knowledgeable National Security Adviser Ajit Doval will have to take a call as well as the initiative in this regard, rising above party politics. J&K must not be made to suffer in wait for the PDP to spell out its expectations from the coalition partner. Both sides will have to sit across the table and draw lines for engagement rather than converse via the media.
Will the Central Government walk an extra mile for the sake of peace and stability in J&K? In the absence of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the onus of hassle-free transfer of power and ensuring smooth running of the coalition in this sensitive state shifts to the statesmanship of Prime Minister Modi. There lies the key to the developments in J&K in the year that we have just entered.
* Ashok Bhan
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS; Former Director General of Police, J&K; former Member, National Security Advisory Board, India