Kashmir is Pakistan’s diversion from its collapsing economy and faux democracy

The constant scuffle.
The constant scuffle.
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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Kashmir is burning again! The violent aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death underscores the fragility of peace in the valley. And, as usual, the anger is directed at those who bear the brunt of failed policies, mis-governance, political machinations, and pay for it with their blood: the security forces.

Soldiers who were lauded months ago for saving thousands during floods are now denigrated as sadistic torturers and killers. Students attending schools a few years ago are elevated to CheGuevaric status and goaded into martyrdom. This is a familiar and oft repeated pattern.

A young charismatic lad takes up arms after an incident with security forces. The cause gets a face to a name. He becomes the rallying point for those whose growing reputation is grudged by the state (as well as other leaders of the “cause”). Stakeholders ranging from terrorist outfits, Pakistani sponsors, secessionist elements, and political fringes leverage this exposure; stoking the fire, egging on the youngster and conferring him with grandiose titles. Eventually the poster boy takes one risk too many and is killed. And all hell breaks loose. Claims of human rights violations, strident demands for removal of security forces, and leaders crawling out of the woodworks professing “solutions” to a six-decade-old problem.

It is déjà vu. This scripted frenzy hides the underlying dynamics of proxy war and the true motives of players far removed from brickbats, bullets, and bodies on the streets.

Kashmir is Pakistan’s diversion from its collapsing economy, civil-military power struggle, volatile internal dissent and most importantly, the charade of democracy its leaders have foisted on their populace. Since independence, Pakistani power play has been a cat and mouse game between the army and autocratic civilian leaders with no semblance of democracy. A comparison of the civilian-military relationship in India and Pakistan establishes the latter’s raison d’etre of keeping the Kashmir bogey alive.

The starting point of both the countries seemed alike, with respective prime ministers promising a secular democratic fabric. But that is where the similarity ended. While India was able to integrate hundreds of its states into a democratic union, through a largely peaceful process, Pakistan suffered sectarian, provincial and linguistic schisms from its inception. This was exacerbated by a leadership vacuum with Jinnah’s death within a year of independence and estrangement between West and East Pakistan which began with the imposition of Urdu as the official language on a nation whose majority spoke Bengali. Widespread protests were brutally crushed by West Pakistan which culminated in the Dhaka Medical College massacre in February 1952, when protesting students were shot dead by the police.

The subsequent years saw Pakistani civil and military leadership embark on a series of blunders which included the attempt to seize Kashmir, using their trademark farce of state soldiers in the guise of “freedom fighters,” followed by the first of many coup attempts in 1951 and the inability to control the persecution of minorities and severe rioting. Ironically, in 1958, the civilian leadership asked the military to take over by imposing martial law. This reliance on the army to obtain power and then help retain it, is a continual phenomenon displayed by successive Pakistani politicians over the years—for which their civilian leadership and citizenry have paid a heavy price. Pakistani army chiefs take over “reluctantly,” promise speedy transfer of power to the civilian government—and then decide to stay put in power after all. So despite the experience of Liaquat Ali Khan elevating a Brigadier Ayub Khan to the chief’s position who promptly seized power or Bhutto appointing Zia and being hanged by him or Nawaz Sharif selecting his nemesis in Musharraf, Pakistani politicians either don’t seem to learn or are incapable of anything but proxy governance by the army.

Comparatively, the civil-military relationship and civilian control of governance in India has been the bedrock of its democracy. Despite severe differences between the military and civilian leadership, chequered with several instances of the latter’s suspicion about the former’s motives and apathy towards the armed forces—throughout our history, the Indian armed forces have stoically resisted the temptation to take matters into their hands.

Nehru for instance, was distrustful of the army, interfered in military operations, and succumbed to civilian advice in 1948 just when the army was gaining initiative and could deliver far larger gains if they were allowed to do their job. In 1962, he trusted Krishna Menon’s assessment over the professionalism of his army chief even when Chinese troops were killing Indian soldiers. Despite the 1962 debacle, the strength of our civil-military leadership put India in pole position during 1965 war with Pakistan and notwithstanding major differences of opinion regarding the conduct of the 1971 offensive; two of the most charismatic leaders of that era—Indira Gandhi and General Sam Manekshaw, together, delivered a stellar victory. And in every war, gains paid for in soldier’s blood were frittered away by civilian leadership but the Indian armed forces deferred to their government’s decision.

They stayed true to their oath of loyalty to the government of the day, even during other opportunities of national turbulence like the Emergency or traumatic tasks like Operation Bluestar or ambivalent campaigns like IPKF. Even the extreme and militarily questionable constraints placed on Indian troops of not crossing the international border during the Kargil operations was obeyed in letter and spirit. Despite systematic denigration of the status of the armed forces and the lackadaisical attitude towards long overdue promises like OROP (one rank one pension), our troops swing into action at the behest of their civilian superiors—be it external aggression, internal security duties or aid to civil authorities.

That is the difference between India and Pakistan. The cliché that India has an army and the Pakistani army has a country, aptly describes the situation.

The conflict in Kashmir needs deeper strategic understanding in addition to operational deployment of forces. As a nation we need to be aware of the root cause in the form of a failed neighbour whose civilian and military leadership needs a façade to bolster their legitimacy and mask the fact that it has been deteriorating across every social, economic and developmental metric. The irony of a prime minister who is unable to stop foreign drones or militants from killing citizens within his own country, but is concerned enough to move the UN over atrocities committed in another country, is ludicrous. Couple that with the hypocrisy of separatist leaders who extol Kashmiri youth to fight unto martyrdom while their own children are educated abroad using the funds they extort from the intimidated citizenry. Or the duplicity of leaders who demand the removal of security forces from the valley but keep asking for more troops for their personal protection. Kashmir has become a conflict economy. There are many stakeholders with vested interests in continuing the conflict. And until we recognise that reality—we will continue this endless cycle in which Indian youth—both in and out of uniform, will continue to be fodder in the Great Game.

This post first appeared on Medium. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.