Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jun 01, 2017
It is not who wins the war, but whose narrative finds maximum takers. It is important to find a narrative for Kashmir for it to win over the tactical battles.
Kashmir: Losing war of narratives to win tactical battles

In a first of its kind incident, terrorists in Kashmir recently killed a barely 23-year-old, unarmed Indian Army officer from the Valley itself after kidnapping him from a marriage function. The incident has pulled up a pall over Operation Sadbhavna (loosely translating to Operation Goodwill), under which Lt. Ummer Fayaz was trained by the Indian Army to join the esteemed institution of the National Defence Academy (NDA).

Not only did he join the NDA, the avid hockey player went on to join 2 Rajputana Rifles, presently operating in Kashmir; and all this despite being a Kashmiri Muslim. Rajputana Rifles is one of the most decorated units from the 1999 Kargil War. He was antithesis to the stone-pelting youth of Kashmir lacking jobs or a purpose in life — the predominant image from the Valley for several years now.

The audacious killing of Fayaz is played out for two sets of audience — the Indian satraps sitting in New Delhi and the Kashmiris. In a battle of dominance in South Kashmir, Fayaz's killing is meant to shock the Centre with its audacity, and displays the new-found confidence of the terrorists bolstered by the popular sentiment against the Indian state. Similarly, to Kashmiris, it is a message to not associate themselves with India and its state symbols.

Fayaz's killing comes after nearly three decades of insurgency in Kashmir and should serve as a wake-up call for both the parties. The present dispensation at the Centre, in a bid to win tactical battles, is losing war of narratives in the Valley. To come out as a strong government, the Centre is pushing Kashmir to the brink.  The South Kashmir (where the author has also travelled widely) does not have the writ of Indian political machinery. This is one of the main reasons that none of the politicians from either the state or the Centre reached to pay respects to Fayaz whose last procession was carried out by his compatriots wearing bullet-proof jackets.

Travelling with the Commanding Officer of one of the units of the Rashtriya Rifles across the area, one could see local Kashmiris demanding basic amenities like toilets and sports equipment in the schools from the Army under Operation Sadbhavna and not from the state government representatives.

Post a year of raging unrest in the Valley and this incident, it is imperative to do a bit of critical analysis of the government's narrative around Kashmir.

Narrative in conflict zones

Narrative in conflict zones goes beyond just convincing stories. Scholars like Michael Vlahos have termed it as "the foundation of all strategy, upon which all else — policy, rhetoric and action — is built." The Centre does have a narrative on Kashmir and it needs to be critically examined.

First of all, the Centre has been attributing the ongoing unrest to Pakistan's machinations, ignoring any real or perceived grievances of the denizens of Kashmir. Secondly, the constant posturing from the Centre has been to quell the unrest in the Valley with an iron fist sans any velvet glove (the Indian Army’s motto for a long time in Kashmir has been Iron fist in Velvet Glove). It has been manifested in the blatant use of pellet guns in Kashmir last year with not much willingness in the State to explore other options. The third pillar of the narrative is not to enter a dialogue until the protests die down. The Centre has also been displaying its helplessness in finding representatives of Kashmiris to talk to as they do not want to "entertain" separatists.

In its messaging, the Indian Government has also been harping on the development it has done in the Kashmir Valley as compared to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and that should have been sufficient to ameliorate the plight of Kashmiris.

The coming together of the PDP and the BJP had brought hopes of bridging the chasm between Jammu and Kashmir. However, the distance between the two regions of the State and that between Kashmir and Delhi has been at its widest. The narrative propelled by the Central Government has played an important role in hardening of stances on both sides — Kashmiris and rest of the India; Kashmiris and the Armed Forces. The hardening of positions means over simplification of the most protracted conflicts of the world today. Let us analyse the different parts of the narrative one by one.

Understanding the Indian Govt's narrative

Pakistan has always been present in the Kashmir imbroglio right when it started post partition. On many occasions, it has tried to fuel or take advantage of anger within the Kashmiris. The present season of protests started in 2016, following the killing of self-styled Hizbul-Mujahideen Commander Burhan Wani. His funeral procession attracted unprecedented crowds and soon the Valley was engulfed in a vicious circle of protests and violence. Pakistan lapped up this opportunity and immediately declared Burhan Wani "a popular leader." The season of protests was punctuated by provocative statements from across the border on a regular basis.

Here was an ill-managed incident by both the Army and the Central Government. Not losing the opportunity to do chest thumping to score political mileage, the dynamics of conflict-racked region was forgone completely. The PR managers of the Indian Government gave on a platter to Pakistan an opportunity to exploit the situation in Kashmir.

Second, the iron hand clamp down on protests using "non-lethal" pellet guns was a bad idea from the start. Hundreds of youngsters with an eye or limb lost due to pellet guns would be the poster faces of the protests in the Valley for years to come. With the lines between CRPF and the Indian Army blurred in the eyes of Kashmiris, the pellet guns are also one of the reasons for the erosion of the goodwill of the armed forces.

Third, the decision to not to talk to separatists need to be rethought. The strategists in the South Block are forgetting that the world over, conflict actors are the main stakeholders needed to be roped in to build a stable peace. The most recent example is Afghanistan, where the former fighters are also offered a stake in the government. The Government also needs to address the problem of political vacuum in the region. A genuine flexible democracy would not only make room for protests but would lead to natural emergence of new political leaders. One look at Kashmir and one would realise this is a far cry.

The narrative of development has been long undone. The multi-billion development packages given to Jammu and Kashmir have not given desirable dividends as the youth wielding stones on the roads of Kashmir do not have jobs. The lack of socio-economic development is one dimension of the conflict, and hence the development packages need to be more focused and result oriented.

Look beyond the horizon

The violence has been raging on in the Valley, albeit with varying intensity, for the last 28 years. Two generations of Kashmiris have grown up without ever knowing what peace is. For them, conflict is the new normal and it is a dangerous preposition for the Indian Government.

No studies have been undertaken to fathom how the long-drawn conflict has impacted the social fabric of Kashmir, changed the family relations, or changed the aspirations of the youth.

A step towards conflict resolution would need temperatures to cool down and a climb down from both the sides. The Kashmiris need to realise that in this conflict, whether in uniform or on the sides of civil unrest, those facing the bullet are from their ilk only. New Delhi needs to realise that they are looking for a military solution to a political mess.

In today's age, it is not who wins the war, but whose narrative finds maximum takers. New Delhi does not have a narrative for Kashmiris at the moment. The development story has been undone, and if it is hard for New Delhi to see that Kashmiri youth pelting stones on the roads do not have jobs and for that matter purpose in life, then the South Block mandarins need bigger binoculars.

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Ritu Sharma

Ritu Sharma

Ritu Sharmahas been a journalist for nearly a decade covering defence and security issues. She has worked with PTI IANS andThe New Indian Express. Ritu ...

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