The Great Game of Kashmir

by Raghu Raman

Kashmir is burning again! The violent aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death underscores the fragility of peace in the valley. And as usual, anger and angst 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 months ago, were lauded 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 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. From 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 civil military relationship in India and Pakistan establishes the latter’s raison d’etreof keeping the Kashmir bogey alive.

The start point of both the countries seemed alike, with respective Prime Minister’s 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 imposition of Urdu as the official language; in a nation whose majority spoke Bengali. Widespread protests were brutally crushed by West Pakistan which culminated in the Dhaka Medical College massacre in Feb 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 inability to control persecution of minorities and severe rioting. Ironically in 1958, the civilian leadership asked the military to take over by imposition of 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 years – for which their civilian leadership and citizenry has 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 avoided the temptation of taking 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 Gen 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.

The Indian Armed Forces 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 tasking 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 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, our troops swing into action at 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 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 to move the UN about 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 intimidated citizenry. Or the duplicity of leaders who demand 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 interest 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.


The author is the Former CEO NATGRID and a former soldier. He tweets @captraman. Views expressed are personal

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.