Geopolitics of Kashmir and the Evolving Trends in the Insurgency

Kashmir Map
Credit: Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the entire history of mankind, it is hard to find a year without any war between groups, tribes, kingdoms or nation states. As the causes might vary in relation to different ages, the geopolitical objectives of nation-states and motives of the non-state actors generate the conflicts in the present era. This fact can be analyzed by scrutinizing the ongoing tensions in the geographical region of Kashmir. Although the region acts as a tool for igniting the nationalistic zeal in both India and Pakistan whenever required, the supreme significance of Kashmir lies in its strategic position. Moreover, the divergent ambitions of the three nuclear powers create a complex situation that has to be meticulously examined.

Perceived as a diplomatic and military battleground, Kashmir endures as a pivotal element concerning India’s national security and foreign policy. For instance, the direct access of India towards Afghanistan and further into Central Asia, Russia, and Europe is obstructed by the existence of Pakistan Administered Kashmir (POK) in the north. Alternatively, India has to embark on a tedious trade expedition via Iran to reach Central Asia. For ameliorating this trade path, India was involved in Chabahar Project in Iran, which would have served in bridging to Afghanistan. Once implemented, it would have operated as a strategic counter to Gwadar Port of Pakistan, thus attempting to thwart Sino-Pak motives. But India was ousted from this Chabahar-Zahedan railway project owing to the delay in work, according to the Iranian officials. On the contrary, the recently reported China-Iran deal encompassing $400 billion investment over 25 years might turn the tables further, having a perilous impact on India’s strategic vision. Analysts cite this as the main reason for India’s ouster from the project. The control of the Giglit-Baltistan area of Kashmir by India will change the power equation of the region, though it seems impossible in the near future.

Additionally, the glacial waters of Kashmir provide abundant water and electricity in India. Apart from these desirable factors, the intention of India to exert full control over the entire Kashmir region is due to the China-Pakistan nexus. Among the various projects and agreements between these iron brothers, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will have a remarkable impact on the geopolitics of the region. The CPEC will allow China to bypass the Malacca strait as well as the highly disputed South China Sea and finally arrive by road to the Gwadar Port in the Arabian Sea. Once operational, this will have tremendous repercussions that will loosen American grip over China in the maritime arena. Furthermore, the complete control of Kashmir by India will deprive China of the Pakistan border. As this will invalidate CPEC and other ambitious objectives of China and Pakistan, both countries will never let this happen. The sturdy alliance of two of its nuclear neighbors presents a substantial security threat to India, necessitating the country to reinforce its ties with the United States and other allies. When geography doesn’t favor a nation, the next customary behavior is forging a strong alliance. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as Quad), involving the USA, Japan, India, and Australia, is such a venture predominantly focused on containing Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific region. In November 2020, these four countries participated in the annual naval exercise known as “Malabar” that comprised aircraft carriers, submarines, frigates, destroyers, aircraft, and so forth.

Apart from safeguarding the CPEC which helps to strengthen its economy and upgrade its infrastructure, another major strategic priority of Pakistan is to secure its water. The Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab are the Lifeline Rivers of Pakistan, which do not originate there and instead flow into the country through India. The Indus River, which originates in Tibet passes through the Indian Administered Kashmir before traversing through the length of Pakistan. Although the Indus water treaty was made to secure the water and enable trouble-free sharing, the current political scenario makes these regulations fragile, in the long-term aspect.

Positioned in the north-eastern portion of Kashmir and bordering the Ladakh region, Aksai Chin is the Chinese administered area of Kashmir that retains considerable geostrategic importance. During the debate on Aksai Chin in Parliament, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously stated that “not a single blade of grass grows there.” A senior Congress leader, Mahavir Tyagi retaliated by pointing to his head and saying: “Nothing grows here, should it be cut off or given away to somebody else?” Tyagi’s remark has to be pondered in the present regional developments. Currently, the National Highway of China, which connects the remote provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet passes through Aksai Chin. The gravel track which was completed in 1957 was transformed into an asphalt road in 2013, thus solidifying the Chinese interests and threatening India further in the geopolitical tug of war.

Known as the “highest battlefield in the world”, the possession of Siachen Glacier faintly benefits India, even though the daily costs of maintenance are lofty. The strategic significance of Siachen is widely debated ensuing contrasting versions. Undoubtedly, the fight is against nature, not man. Soldiers die by extreme weather conditions and treacherous terrain rather than by bullets and artillery shells. ”This is like a struggle of two bald men over a comb,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a renowned US expert on security issues in South Asia. Rather than strategic and military advantages, Siachen is utilized for political and symbolic betterment. Retired Lieutenant General Manohar Lal Chibber, who led the Northern Command during the occupation of Siachen Glacier in 1984, remarked that “Siachen does not have any strategic significance. The strategic importance being talked about is all invention.” The argument of a combined Sino-Pak invasion of Ladakh over the Karakoram Range and Saltoro ridge, in case India vacated, is farfetched and lacks pragmatic understanding. As mere survival itself is incredibly challenging, the viability of a full-fledged military offensive is a sheer illusion. The suggestions of mutual withdrawal and conversion into peace parks by several experts appear to be an amicable solution.

Adjacent to Aksai Chin is the Trans Karakoram tract or Shaksgam area, which was ceded by Pakistan to China in the 1963 Sino-Pak agreement. The Chinese control over Shaksgam provides them the opportunity to connect the eastern Karakoram highway in Pakistan to the Chinese national highway of G29 which passes through Aksai Chin. As Shaksgam is positioned north of the Siachen Glacier, some analysts suggest that a combined Sino-Pak initiative might jeopardize India’s position in the glacier. This threat is compounded by satellite images that detected the construction of military posts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and a road in the Shaksgam Valley. But, apart from these threats which might serve as deterrence, a large-scale military offensive through the snow-ridden mountains is highly unlikely and unrealistic.

Another crucial development in the Indian Administered Kashmir is the emerging transformation in the militant mindset. This shift began after the implementation of hostile policies of President Musharraf against the Kashmiri fighters, which generated confusion among them. Beginning with Burhan Wani, some fighters decided to switch their alliances and loyalties, resulting in a vigorous transition of views among the young fighters. While examining the history of Kashmir, we can figure out that the militant groups are either the proxies of Pakistan or fighting for an independent Kashmir. But in recent years, the young fighters staunchly for the first time proclaimed both Pakistan and India as their enemies. Islam is adhered as their sole ideology and Islamic Shariah is admired as their objective. Ansar Gazwath al-Hind (Helpers for Battle of India), a newly formed organization having a pro-Al Qaeda vision is primarily putting forth these ideas and recruiting youths into the new ideology. The group was created by Zakir Musa, who was the successor of Burhan Wani. While it is certain that the organization lacks arms and resources, the immense popular support yields a perpetual flow of recruits. Just remember the fact that Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s funeral in Tral was attended by two hundred thousand or more Kashmiri people, including teenagers, children, old men and women, some even travelling a hundred kilometers. Several funeral prayers were conducted owing to the large number of people arriving there.

The changes in slogans in the valley reflect the transition in the aforementioned militant ideology. The former slogan of “Kashmir Banega Pakistan” was replaced by “Kashmir Banega Darul Islam.” The earliest usage of flags of Pakistan in the protests and gatherings are reduced and instead replaced by black or white flags bearing the Islamic oath “La Ilaaha Illallah” (There is no god but Allah). Unlike the other groups who confine their militancy in the valley, AGH specifies their goal as liberating mainland India, as apparent from their name. Once the group overcomes its arms shortages by means of smuggling across the border, DIY techniques, and so on, the succeeding actions would be drastic for India’s national security. In the long term, Pakistan too will not be free from the turmoil caused by this mindset. In addition to losing their influence among the Kashmiri militant groups, it will also strengthen the insurgency in Pakistan as AGH consider Pakistan as a deviant state. Even though they are weak as a group now, the ideology has already influenced a huge segment of the Kashmiri population.

As several reports indicate the group’s secret alliance with Al Qaeda, the chances of their access to its network will then stretch from Afghanistan to Bangladesh. It is high time to consider this group as a regional threat and not entirely restricted to Kashmir. Concerning the claim by Jammu and Kashmir’s Director General of Police that the group was wiped out; many subsequent encounters with AGH militants confirm their existence. If adequate measures are not adopted, the conflict will escalate in Kashmir, resulting in a further spill over into India proper. If a war occurs between India and Pakistan out of necessity to divert attention from the internal problems of both countries, the principal beneficiaries would be the militants who will flow from Pakistan and Afghanistan into Kashmir valley and further beyond to the Indian mainland. We have to understand the fact that the pro-Al Qaeda militants are frequently being hunted by the Pakistani army and thus are having inconvenient times, thanks to the deep animosity between them. Therefore, an external blow to Pakistan will relieve the fighters who will then attempt to pursue insurgency in Kashmir. As the Taliban maintains both diplomatic and military strength in Afghanistan, the jobless foreign fighters associated with them too might flock into Kashmir in the future. Even though these ideas might sound fancier for time being, we can’t wholly neglect the possibility of their occurrence in the future.

Therefore, along with the geopolitical visions of nation-states that fuel the tension in the region, the recent shift in vision and ideology of non-state actors like AGH and like-minded youths will result in a prolonged conflict with increasing intensity. Only after realizing the conflict in its pure form, efficient counterterrorism measures can be formulated. The reason behind the huge support from the inhabitants has to be earnestly studied. The militants can be killed and neutralized, but the ideology persists among the population. The usage of social media by militants exacerbates the situation. Handsome images of militants posing with weapons are widely shared over many platforms, spreading their message far and wide. The solution to this conflict doesn’t lie in adopting harsh measures as this will only aggravate the situation by inviting recruits and further destabilizing the region. A pragmatic strategy with the potential to stabilize and pacify the region has to be evolved and enacted. For this, a clear mindset devoid of hatred and pre-conceived misconceptions is a prime requisite. 

Ahmed Sahal. K. P is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.