Modi govt looks set to implement a new strategy in Jammu and Kashmir

Is the Kashmir policy of the Narendra Modi government entering a second phase? Force against the militants appears to be increasingly accompanied by attempts to promote a new leadership in the Kashmir valley that could help transform the political landscape of the state.

The use of force has brought down militant activity in the Kashmir Valley. Infiltration on the borders has gone down as Pakistan is busy with other problems. There is also some realisation among the Kashmiri people that terrorism is not a productive path. Some say a sense of regret has grown, especially with the suicide attack in Pulwama which killed 40 security personnel.

But militancy will not end by use of force alone. Amit Shah’s  recent moves suggest that using the present lull the BJP may have initated an adventurous experiment. An experiment that aims to replace the separatist leaders and the traditional political parties in Kashmir with a new political leadership from below. 

Instead of engaging with traditional leaders, the Modi government wants to marginalise them.  Shabir Shah, of the All Party Hurriyat Conference and the ‘Joint Resistance Leadership’ – the troika of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Yasin Malik – are incarcerated. Geelani and Mirwaiz are under house arrest. Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik are in Tihar Jail, in Delhi. Malik was arrested after his organisation, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was banned in early April. The decks have been cleared to fast-track two thirty-year-old cases against him. One relates to the killing of Indian Air Force officers and the other to the kidnapping of the daughter of the then Home Minister of India, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. As hearings in these cases proceed, Malik could be in jail for the long haul. Other separatist leaders like Massarat Alam and Asiya Andrabi are also locked up.

The public image of the separatists is also being undermined by accusations of receiving terror funds from abroad. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Geelani’s son and grandson have been questioned by the National Investigation Agency in this regard. The highly publicised accusations about receiving funds from abroad will raise doubts among Kashmiris about how independent these leaders really are. 

A simultaneous eroding of the image of  traditional political parties has also begun. The public image of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) already weakened because of its ill-advised alliance with the BJP will crumble further as its leaders begin to face scrutiny by the government agencies. Hilal Rather, son of prominent PDP leader and former state finance minister, Abdul Rahim Rather, was raided by the Income Tax Department on the very day that the Union Home Minister made his maiden visit to the Valley.

One can be fairly certain that the National Conference (NC) and the Congress leaders will be targeted next. The Central Bureau of Investigation has registered a case against Farooq Abdullah of defalcation of funds to the extent of Rs. 113 crore from the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association. He is charged along with two office bearers of association for siphoning the money into bogus accounts with an accomplice in the J&K Bank.

The J&K Bank is itself is being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau of the state for a loan fraud of over Rs. 117 crore and for making 1200 irregular appointments during the tenure of the PDP-BJP government. The Bank’s chairman has already been sacked. Other government agencies may also begin enquiries into the bank’s irregular loan disbursements. Political heavyweights in the state would be publicly discredited by such corruption charges and their monetary resources squeezed. The NIA meanwhile is also probing the Bank’s possible role in terror-financing.

If militancy is restrained, separatists are jailed and delegitimised and traditional parties put on the back foot, who will fill the vaccuum in public and political life? There are indications that the Modi government has a plan. In his first visit to the Valley, Home Minister Amit Shah did not hold the usual meetings with political leaders. Instead he spent considerable time interacting with the newly elected panchayat heads.

In December 2018, the government organised panchayat polls in the state after seven years. These elections, though by no means perfect (with no candidates in some villages and uncontested elections in some others), resulted in the election of 25,000 local body representatives (Panch and Sarpanch). It seems that the Modi government hopes that a new leadership will emerge from these representatives. Some of them may be persuaded to contest legislative assembly seats, either as independents or by putting together a new political party.

This strategy would fit with the BJP’s avowed political aim to finish off the “three dynasties” in the state associated with the Congress, NC and the PDP. Voters in J&K may not be entirely averse to the emergence of new political leaders. If this political experiment succeeds then an election may produce a new assembly controlled effectively by Delhi. Should the BJP manage to cobble a majority and appoint its own chief minister, the Modi government can claim that the Kashmir issue has been solved.

The pre-requisite of such an electoral outcome would be a consolidation of the BJP vote in Jammu and a simultaneous fragmentation of the mandate in the Kashmir Valley. If the BJP manages to win about 29 to 30 constituencies from the 37 assembly constituencies in Jammu and two (Buddhist constituencies) out of the four in Ladakh, it will need an additional 10 to 14 seats in the Valley to form a government. There is little prospect of the BJP winning a single assembly segment in the Valley under its own brand. This is where the “new leadership” emerging from the panchayats will come handy.

However, public de-legitimisation of traditional political leaders and emboldening local body leaders to form a political organisation to fight state-level elections will take time. It is quite possible therefore that the government may extend President’s Rule when it comes to an end in December and hold the assembly elections only some time next year. 

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