Kashmir crisis poses major test for Modi

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Geeta Anand,
Hari Kumar

ESCALATING tension in Kashmir Valley is presenting a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who needs regional peace to reach his principal goal of economic revival there. But Indian citizens have been clamouring for a response to what they say is a provocation by Pakistan. The tension reached a boiling point on Sunday when militants attacked an army base in the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir and killed 18 soldiers, setting off a war of words between the two nuclear powers, which have fought three wars in recent decades. The situation not only risks economic growth but could also send two nations skidding into a nuclear war. “It could happen, and it would be catastrophic for both countries,” said Stephen P. Cohen, the author of “Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum.”
India and Pakistan have been locked in a feud — it began nearly 70 years began ago with their independence from Britain — mainly over the Himalayan valley called Kashmir. The dispute over its control, which has led to two wars, had appeared to be relatively dormant since 2010 as tourists returned to the scenic region and turnouts in elections were large. That led the Indian government to believe that turbulence of recent decades might be over, says Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of northernmost Indian state, Jammu and Kashmir. That thinking, it now appears, was a mistake.
There were warning signs over the last two years about rising unrest among young people in Indian-administered Kashmir. Small disputes with the Indian security forces stationed in the Kashmir valley often drew enormous crowds very quickly. The killing of a 22-year-old militant named Burhan Muzaffar Wani by Indian security officers in July touched off the latest protests. Now the India-controlled section of Kashmir is engulfed in a crisis. Since the shooting, the Indian-controlled area has been shut down, with curfews and strikes forcing the closing of schools, offices and markets.
The question now is whether Mr. Modi can defuse the crisis. “I think Modi has the political capacity to do it,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Tellis said Mr. Modi had two advantages: His Bharatiya Janata Party controls the lower house of Parliament, so he has the legitimacy to make a bold move; and his party’s strong Hindu nationalist roots allow him to take more risks without being accused of pandering to Muslims, who make up the majority in Jammu and Kashmir.
But those same roots make it hard for Mr. Modi to enact a policy in Kashmir that will draw the young protesters into a dialogue. “That must involve a conversation about the restoration of autonomy in Kashmir in a way originally imagined under the 1954 agreement,” Mr. Tellis said. He was referring to a deal struck by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that gave Jammu and Kashmir substantial political autonomy within India. That agreement has gradually eroded. “I personally think any attempt simply to treat Kashmir as just another Indian state is not going to work,” Mr. Tellis said.
Because Mr. Modi began his political career in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing extremist Hindu organisation known that strongly influences his party and has opposed more autonomy for Kashmir, Mr. Tellis and others said it would be extremely difficult for the prime minister to offer such a bold policy in Kashmir. “The RSS has the capacity for constraining even the prime minister on this question,” Mr. Tellis said. Even if Mr. Modi is bold enough to try, he will need to regain control of the streets of southern Kashmir first and find a leader to engage in conversation. So far, the Indian government has been unable to find anyone with whom to negotiate.
People close to the government, nevertheless, have been trying their hand at freelance diplomacy, including the guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He invited the father of Mr. Wani to his ashram and suggested that the elder Mr. Wani might serve as an intermediary. “Sri Ravi Shankar expected that I can play some role in bringing peace to Kashmir,” the father, Mohammad Muzafar Wani, said in an interview. “He said, ‘To resolve the problem, with whom should the talks be initiated? With you?’ I told him, ‘No.’”
— Courtesy: The New York Times