Recent Terror-related incidents in the Kashmir Valley, amendment of the Gilgit-Baltistan Order – 2018 and the idea of Jammu & Kashmir
The impression that Indian-Administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) had been simmering under the surface for the last few months has been perceptible for quite some time now. The unpredicted scale of India’s actions in changing the legal and administrative status of the region last August and the intensity with which it had moved to ensure seamless implementation of its decisions had stunned the people of the Kashmir valley. Such an environment, however, could not have endured forever, and much to the satisfaction of the Indian leadership, political activity has begun resuming hesitantly and cautiously in J&K over the last couple of months. A broad sense of acceptance of the new realities seems to be the order of the day among influential sections of Kashmiri politics. Of course, the outlook of leaders such as Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who continues to remain in detention along with some others, is yet not publicly known.
Meanwhile, the desperation and impatience in the Pakistani military establishment, which only seemed to cascade as each month rolled by without it achieving any major success in or vis-á-vis Kashmir, was more obviously palpable. The bloody incidents that have shaken Kashmir over the past week were directly relatable to this desperation. Incidents of terrorist violence in Kashmir since August 2019 had been few and far between, and even the ones that did take place were on a scale much smaller than what had gone before in the Valley. The resurgence in terrorist-related incidents was marked by a week in which at least 15 people, including 8 security personnel and 7 terrorists, were killed in a string of incidents.
On 2 May, a security team comprising Indian Army personnel and J&K policemen came under attack while rescuing civilians taken hostage by terrorists in a house in Handwara in the Kupwara district of J&K. Two senior Indian Army officers, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma and Major Anuj Sood, were among the 5 Indian security personnel who died in the gunfight that ensued, while two terrorists were also killed. Reports mentioned that a Pakistani national called Haider who was a commander of the Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) terrorist group was among the two terrorists killed. A Srinagar-based Army spokesman said that, “A joint operation was launched by the Army and the police on Saturday. A team comprising five Army and police personnel entered the target area occupied by the terrorists to evacuate the civilians. They successfully extricated the civilians. However, during the process, the team was subjected to heavy volume of fire by the terrorists. In the firefight in Changimul, Handwara of Kupwara district, two terrorists were eliminated and the team of five security forces personnel, comprising two Army officers, two soldiers and one police sub-inspector, also died”.
Just two days after this incident, a patrolling party of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) paramilitary organization was ambushed by terrorists in the Kralgund area of the same Kupwara district. Three CRPF troops and a terrorist were killed in the heavy exchange of fire that ensued.
While these two incidents were setbacks for the Indian forces battling terrorism in J&K, they soon got their own back through the killing of Riyaz Naikoo, the operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) in Kashmir, after a prolonged gun battle in Pulwama district on 6 May.
Naikoo, who was a school teacher by profession, had become the operational chief of HM in early 2017. He figured prominently on the list of India’s most wanted terrorists, and carried a Rs 1.2 million ($16,000) reward on his head. Known for his wide outreach amongst the youth of his home region, Naikoo has been credited with carrying out an effective recruitment drive for the HM that roped in hundreds of Kashmiri youth. As per data released by the J&K police, 54 residents of Kashmir had joined terrorist groups in 2010, with the next three years registering a steep decline in terrorist recruitment at 23, 21 and 6, respectively. This number jumped to 126 in 2017, the year Naikoo took over operational command of the HM, and further to 200 in 2018.
The well-educated, tech-savvy terrorist was also known to have a particularly cruel streak, as a consequence of which he had inculcated a certain ruthlessness into the HM similar to that normally associated with the LeT and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), two other Pakistan-backed terrorist outfits operating in J&K. Naikoo, for example, is believed to have sanctioned the killing of civilians suspected of being informers of the Indian government, and he even encouraged HM terrorists to target low ranked policemen, who were predominantly fellow Kashmiris, as well as their families.
Naikoo’s killing has been a major success for the Indian forces. Dilbag Singh, Director General of the J&K police, revealed that a special team of his force had been tracking Naikoo for six months, adding however that, “Every time we would get close to him, we would not be able to hit him. He had multiple hideouts, particularly in his own area where he would move from one village to another. For about 15 days, we were very close to him and we started working on him on a day and night basis. We were finally able to pick up some of the contacts who were very close to him and who were meeting his day to day logistics requirements - including food - and even the one who made the hideout for him. We were 100 per cent sure that today, we are on target”. It did turn out that way, and Naikoo, along with another HM terrorist, Adil Ahmed, was on 5 May cornered by Indian forces in a building near his home in Beighpora village of Pulwama district. The two terrorists were eventually killed the following day.
Naikoo’s death has led to disquiet in the Pakistan-based leadership of Kashmir-oriented terrorist outfits, as also their handlers in the Pakistani establishment. The HM’s chief, Syed Salahuddin, who also heads the alliance of pro-Pakistan terrorist groups called the United Jihad Council (UJC), in a statement decried Naikoo’s killing and warned India that it was a spark that could set off a fire.
The Pakistani military establishment would undoubtedly be waiting eagerly for the fire to blaze. Despite some incidents of stone pelting on security forces being reported in protest against Naikoo’s killing, the possibility of flames such as those that had erupted after the killing of another popular HM commander, Burhan Wani in 2016 may not re-occur this time around on account of a number of factors. The benefit of the lessons learnt in the aftermath of Wani’s killing would now be available to the Indian authorities. These would be factored into the preventive steps and containment strategies that the Indian State draws up. India also has a better understanding of Pakistan’s modus operandi in J&K. This understanding, for example, helped India to quickly see through Pakistan’s ploy of yet again rechristening the LeT as the The Resistance Front (TRF), thereby seeking to de-Islamicize the outfit and project it as home-grown.
India, after its August 2019 reorganization of J&K, is also in tighter control over Kashmir than it has been for a long time. It has simultaneously placed serious limits to the extent to which Pakistan will be allowed to go in furtherance of its terrorist agenda in Kashmir. Pakistan has been made unmistakably aware by India that any major terrorist action in Kashmir would invite an embarrassing punitive response such as that seen in the Balakot air strikes of February 2019. The Balakot airstrikes hurt Pakistan so much that no less than its all powerful Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, recently ranked it in the ‘Pakistan Army Green Book 2020’ together with the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution by the Indian government as the two significant events that will leave a lasting imprint on the geopolitics of the South Asian region.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to any malevolent Pakistani design in Kashmir is the remarkable up-gradation and strengthening of the Indian intelligence apparatus in J&K in recent months. Pakistan’s valuable political and financial assets in J&K have all but been dismantled. Under pressure from Indian security agencies, some of these assets have reportedly provided a wealth of information about the Pakistan sponsored terrorist infrastructure, personalities and finances in J&K. Further, under what has been claimed by the Indian media to be operation ‘Jackboot’, the security apparatus in J&K has been empowered and galvanized to specifically target and go after prominent terrorist leaders. The restrictions placed on communications have prevented these terrorist leaders from receiving advance information from local sympathizers on the movement of troops on the ground, which has made slipping out before the arrival of the troops much more difficult. Local intelligence networks have been strengthened, and whether through coercion or inducements, those in the know of terrorist movements and shelters have begun singing. ‘Jackboot’, which targets terrorists in the south Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Kulgam, Anantnag and Shopian, as well as those crossing over from Pakistan-Administered J&K, was apparently conceived by India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and is directly being supervised by him.
Beyond terrorism, J&K was in the news for another reason this past week that is as worrisome as the recent terror-related incidents in the Kashmir Valley. The Pakistan government had approached the Pakistan Supreme Court with the plea that the 2018 Gilgit Baltistan Order had no provision for appointment of an interim setup and holding Assembly elections. The last elections in 2015 were held under the Gilgit Baltistan Order of 2009, and the current term of the provincial government is scheduled to expire in June. The Supreme Court on 30 April allowed the Pakistan government’s application to amend the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018 to set up a caretaker government and conduct provincial Assembly elections.
Gilgit Baltistan was and remains an integral part of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir, which had legally acceded to India in October 1947 after the British colonial rulers had left. Despite the accession, Pakistan occupied Pakistan-Administered J&K and Gilgit Baltistan and has forcibly retained control over these 2 parts of the erstwhile Princely State. Over the years, Pakistan has attempted to integrate Gilgit Baltistan through instruments such as the aforementioned Orders, the setting up of a “legislative assembly” there, and the January 2019 decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court which extended its own jurisdiction over Gilgit-Baltistan. India has protested vociferously on each occasion, and it has urged Pakistan to refrain from changing the status quo.
As the world battles the Covid-19 scourge and Pakistan finds itself slipping further into the abyss of economic doom, Gilgit Baltistan has become an extremely important region for Pakistan as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), on which Pakistan has pledged its economic salvation, enters Pakistan through this region. However, as the former Pentagon official, author and analyst Dr. Michael Rubin wrote in a recent article in The National Interest, “Gilgit-Baltistan may be the canary in the coal mine as locals suffer for the sake of Pakistan’s China partnership. It is one of Pakistan’s harder-hit regions. It has only one COVID-19 testing centre and can test only fifteen people daily. While there are reportedly nine ventilators in the region, local doctors estimate they need at least two hundred of them. Pakistani officials have long neglected the region, even while working to strip away its right to self-rule”. Describing Pakistan as China’s “colonial vassal”, Rubin added, “Pakistanis will soon realise – if they have not already – what a devil’s bargain their country has made. In China, Pakistan has tied itself to a country that is responsible for the incarceration in concentration camps of one million Muslims solely on the basis of their religion and it has partnered with a country that thinks nothing about killing Pakistanis and humiliating Pakistan”.
India’s reaction to the Pakistan Supreme Court’s 30 April ruling was expectedly prompt and sharp. In a statement issued on 4 May, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) averred that, “The Government of Pakistan or its judiciary has no locus standi on territories illegally and forcibly occupied by it. India completely rejects such actions and continued attempts to bring material changes in Pakistan occupied areas of the Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir. Instead, Pakistan should immediately vacate all areas under its illegal occupation”. The MEA reiterated that the entire J&K, including the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, were “an integral part of India by virtue of its fully legal and irrevocable accession”. It added, “It was further conveyed (to Pakistan) that such actions can neither hide the illegal occupation of parts of Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh by Pakistan nor the grave human rights violations, exploitation and denial of freedom to the people residing in Pakistan occupied territories for the past seven decades. Government of India’s position in the matter is reflected in the resolution passed by the Parliament in 1994 by consensus”.
Pakistan, in turn, responded by terming J&K an internationally recognized disputed region and drew attention to India’s August 2019 decisions pertaining to the region. This argument, if addressed to a reasonable mind, would not stand the test of logic or reason. India, by virtue of holding a legally sound title, should have the authority to decide upon matters pertaining to J&K subject to the limitations imposed by the conditions on which the accession was based in the first place.
Pakistan, on the other hand, can claim no such authority or legal basis.
As the wrangling between the two countries on J&K continues, each side would do well to carefully consider whether diluting the idea of Jammu & Kashmir, undivided as it stood at the time of accession, was really in its interest. After all, much to the vexation of the discerning residents of the whole of J&K - on both sides of the Line of Control -, it is this idea that is flying out of the window as J&K stands to become more deeply Balkanized.