(This story was first published on 14 February 2020 and is being republished to mark three years of the Pulwama terror attack.)
The February 14, 2019, Pulwama attack is seen by many as a critical turning point in the Narendra Modi Government’s counter-terrorism posture, as well as in its ‘Kashmir policy’, but this is deceptive. Pulwama was a watershed, no doubt, but in a continuing concatenation of events that began even before the electoral victory of 2014 that brought the BJP to Raisina Hill.
An examination of the sequence of developments in Jammu and Kashmir indicates that these are consequences, not of a considered security strategy, but of an ideology driven agenda.
By 2012, Kashmir Security Situation Had Improved Dramatically
The security situation in J&K had seen sustained and dramatic improvements after violence peaked in 2001, with 4,011 terrorism-linked fatalities, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database.
Crucially, by 2012, fatalities had dropped to just 121, with 84 in the terrorist category alone (official data, in fact, puts total fatalities at 99).
Very small pockets of militancy remained, with large parts of the State experiencing a level of normalcy that had not been seen in J&K for nearly two and a half decades. By all measures, the situation was ripe for slew of political initiatives that could have cut at the very basis of the insurgency.
Unfortunately, as the 2014 General and Assembly Elections approached, the BJP unleashed a virulent campaign of communal polarization and the demonization of the Valley population. This movement was quickly mirrored by Valley based parties and separatist groupings to mobilize their Islamist constituency against the Hindutva assault, driving up temperatures and reopening spaces for mischief.
- Pulwama was a watershed in a continuing concatenation of events that began even before BJP’s electoral victory of 2014.
- After peaking in 2001, fatalities had dropped to just 121, with 84 in the terrorist category alone (official data, in fact, puts total fatalities at 99) by 2012.
- Indices of violence resumed an upward trend once again, with a significant worsening of the ground situation once the BJP assumed power at Delhi.
- Every act of violence in J&K, particularly where lives of security personnel were lost, was an opportunity for the BJP to project its nationalism and demonize the entire population of the Valley.
- Pulwama attack helped reinforce public paranoia, legitimized the Balakot strike that gave Modi 2.0 an overwhelming majority in Parliament, and the consequent ability to change the game in Kashmir.
Under significant international pressure for some time, Pakistan’s terrorist handlers saw renewed opportunities to project violence in the State as an ‘indigenous’ insurgency, and quickly pushed the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen to the forefront of terrorist operations, holding Pakistani groupings such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad back.
Upward Trend in Violence After BJP Came Into Power in 2014
Indices of violence resumed an upward trend once again, with a significant worsening of the ground situation once the BJP assumed power at Delhi and sought to project its ‘muscularity’ through intensifying kinetic operations. The formation of the ideologically irreconcilable BJP-PDP coalition government towards the end of 2014 worsened the situation, as each of these parties sought to appease its own communal constituency.
Against this background, every act of violence in the State, particularly where lives of security personnel were lost, was an opportunity for the BJP to project its nationalism, drum up its rhetoric against Pakistan, and demonize the entire population of the Valley, a strategy that had demonstrable impact on a consolidating Hindutva vote across the country.
The Uri attack of September 18, 2016, which resulted in the death of 19 soldiers of the Indian Army (and four terrorists) brought in a dramatic escalation in these processes. The opportunity was quickly seized upon.
Retaliatory operations – a fairly routine response in the wake of direct cross border attacks against Army units – were repackaged as an extraordinary innovation, ‘surgical strikes’ across the border.
Several vaunting, but unverifiable claims of ‘large casualties’ inflicted on terrorist camps and their military handlers became grist for a hugely successful hyper-nationalist political juggernaut.
Rhetoric on the growing terrorist threat, Pakistan and, critically, the anti-national Valley population and their ‘libtard’ fellow travellers across the country, grew enormously. Events in the Kashmir, particularly in the wake of the killing of the ‘social media terrorist’ Burhan Wani on July 8, 2016, and rising ‘patherbazi’ greatly facilitated this growth.
Contrary to the Hype Created, Trouble in Kashmir Was Highly Localised
The disconnect with reality was, however, never entirely hidden, though misdirection was not difficult. Burhan Wani had, for months prior to his death, and since the appearance of his ‘glamourous’ social media posts, been projected by state Police as the ‘most dangerous terrorist’ in Kashmir at the time. After his killing, however, the same Police sources disclosed that Wani had never been involved in a terrorist operation.
Further, and significantly, despite continuous escalation in terrorist attacks and counter-terrorist operations, as well as stone pelting campaigns, the troubles were extremely localized, leaving most of State, and even of the Valley, outside the scope of this violence.
In 2016, just five of the worst affected Tehsils (out of 82 in the State, 39 in the Valley) accounted for over 58 per cent of all terrorism linked fatalities; for 42 per cent of fatalities in 2017; 49 per cent of fatalities in 2018 and 64 per cent of fatalities in 2019.
Similarly, just five tehsils accounted for between 60 and 71 percent of stone pelting incidents in each year between 2016 and 2019. Nevertheless, a media frenzy was orchestrated, claiming that all of Kashmir was on fire, and some ‘experts’ went so far as to claim that the country was losing Kashmir. Hysteria was being whipped up and actively promoted by official sources. The sense of loss of control was deepened with the collapse of the BJP-PDP coalition in June 2018.
How Pulwama Helped BJP Pursue Its Ideology
The Pulwama attack gave a tremendous fillip to this process and created an opportunity to magnify the post-‘surgical strikes’ jingoism to a new level. No element of the Balakot air strikes and the farce that followed with Pakistan’s retaliation and the capture of an Indian pilot, was subjected to any rational scrutiny, despite the fairly credible challenge to the Indian Government’s narrative. Instead, a veritable frenzy followed, giving the BJP an even larger majority in Parliament.
The Modi Government’s re-election in May 2019 was interpreted as a carte blanche to push the Hindutva agenda forward; the decisions of August 5, the dismantling of Article 370, the subsequent clampdown and acts of collective punishment in J&K – which produced a surge of schadenfreude in the majoritarian constituency – are all a continuation of this chain.
Through all this, the Government’s actions in J&K have been driven, not by any considerations of security or of considered strategy, but by a political commitment – reiterated in successive election manifestos and party documents – to remove Kashmir’s ‘special status’ – despite the fact that the surviving Article 370 was largely symbolic, since it had already been hollowed out by dozens of prior amendments and presidential orders.
Pulwama was a critical link here. It helped reinforce public paranoia and the false impression of a rising and grave crisis in Kashmir; at the same time, it legitimized the Balakot strike, and the populist triumphalism that gave Modi 2.0 an overwhelming majority in Parliament, and the consequent ability to change the game in Kashmir.
(The writer is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached @Ajai_Sahni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)