The year 2019 began in Kashmir with cautious hope. It couldn’t be worse than 2018, the disputed region’s deadliest year in a decade, many people seemed to think. All eyes were on India’s upcoming elections, and the prospect of change.
But that attitude has taken a stark turn since Feb. 14, when a suicide blast in the disputed northern Indian state left at least 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers dead, the region’s deadliest attack in decades.
Analysts worried that the attack could have consequences rippling far beyond Kashmir – and those concerns appeared to escalate Tuesday, after India said it had conducted airstrikes over the border. New Delhi has long maintained that Pakistan supports Kashmiri separatists, and Indians celebrated their government’s claims the airstrikes killed “a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists,” as Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, referring to the militant group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack.
Did they? Over the border, a very different story played out, as Pakistani officials said the strike hit a wooded area, and had not caused any fatalities – but vowed to retaliate nonetheless. Some analysts have suggested India’s airstrikes were meant to fulfill Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of revenge, without forcing Islamabad to further escalate the situation.
The two nuclear-armed neighbors have already fought three wars over Kashmir. But what may make this flare-up particularly volatile is its timing, just two months before elections. In 2014, Mr. Modi rode into office promising to bolster job opportunities and development. As those promises flounder, however, he has increasingly stoked the Hindu nationalism of his party, the BJP. With patriotism riding high since the attack, a strong-armed response from Modi’s administration may look like a winning tactic on the campaign trail – but could sow deeper discord in Kashmir, not to mention between India and Pakistan.
Q: Remind me – why is Kashmir such a hot spot, anyway?
Kashmir has been disputed territory since 1947, when British India won independence and was divided into two countries, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, in India’s mountainous north, is far closer to Islamabad than New Delhi, and resistance to Indian rule runs deep.
A violent insurgency has worn on for decades, intensifying in recent years, and India accuses Pakistan of supporting the rebels. The conflict is estimated to have killed as many as 70,000 people.
Indian-controlled Kashmir is tightly militarized, with civilians living amid frequent checkpoints, internet shutdowns, and face-offs between protestors and police. Security forces’ use of pellet guns in recent years has left thousands wounded, particularly with eye injuries, further feeding anti-India sentiment.
Over the past decade, a new militancy has erupted, intensified by the death of Burhan Wani, a young militant commander who became the poster boy for the insurgency. His death in a shoot-out with security forces in July 2016 sparked an uprising, as public support for the rebels grew – and so did their recruitment. Last year, according to local reports, the number of active rebels crossed 300, the highest in a decade.
Gunfights have also increased, and security forces commonly encounter crowds of civilians, mostly youth, trying to help rebels escape, leading to deadly clashes. In 2018, more than 300 militants and Indian forces were killed, as well as more than 100 civilians, making it the deadliest year in a decade.
Q: What makes this year’s elections so important?
Kashmir has been under direct rule of the federal government since last summer, when the state’s coalition government fell apart. An alliance with local party the PDP had allowed Modi’s BJP into Kashmir’s state government for the first time, but the BJP removed its support in June after years of bitter disagreements. The mood further soured this summer, with the assassination of prominent journalist Shujaat Bukhari highlighting the growing violence. Local parties called for boycotts of local elections in October, and the BJP gained seats – which it touted as signs of its growing presence in the region.
When Indians begin general elections in April, the biggest difference in Kashmir may be greater reluctance to participate, according to Kashmiri analyst and historian Siddiq Wahid. The BJP aims to win more seats in order to join the next state government, but its restrictions in Kashmir have left deep-seated resentment. And elections are rarely peaceful in the Kashmir Valley. In April 2017, the last time Kashmiris went to the polls, eight people were killed and several injured during protests against Indian rule.
For general elections, on the other hand, the BJP’s “chances of winning 2019 elections have become much better than they were 10 days ago,” says Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Kashmir Times newspaper, referring to India’s response to the suicide attack.
As much of India cheers the airstrikes, the emphasis on national security could prove a boon for the prime minister and his party, who have portrayed the opposition as soft on terror. Frustrations with the administration’s past five years in office may fade in light of the attack, whose casualties he has extolled as martyrs.
“I want to assure you our country is in safe hands,” Modi told a rally on Tuesday. “I won’t let the country down.”
Q: Where is Kashmir headed in 2019?
Many Kashmiris pinned hopes for peace to Imran Khan’s election as prime minister in Pakistan last year, after Mr. Khan called for dialogue over Kashmir, and improved relations with India. But this month’s suicide attack on Indian soldiers, and the neighboring countries’ escalating tensions ever since, have again exposed the region’s fault lines and slashed those hopes.
In the aftermath of the blast, there have been several reports of Kashmiris living or studying in other parts of India facing harassment and violence, with hundreds forced to return. Last week, India’s Supreme Court ordered state governments and police to protect Kashmiris across the country.
The deep wedge between most of Kashmir’s citizens and the Hindu nationalist politics of Prime Minister Modi continues to grow, particularly over civilian killings and restrictions. A week after the attack, India prepared to dispatch at least 10,000 forces to the volatile region, and arrested hundreds of Kashmiris, making many civilians apprehensive about what lies ahead.
The most telling indication of Kashmir’s mood, Mr. Wahid says, is citizens’ solidarity about not wanting to be identified as Indian. He recalls a vegetable seller’s comment, when asked how he felt: “They have made Kashmir a living hell for us. Why should we be afraid of death?”
“There is a likelihood this will increase the space for radicalization in the Valley,” says Ms. Bhasin, referring to the harassment Kashmiris have faced in recent weeks throughout India, and the government’s crackdown in Kashmir itself. “It would probably give an upshot to militancy.”