Field Notes The Kashmir Valley

The Kashmir Valley has been in the midst of an insurgency since 1990. Tensions spiked violently between pro-independence groups and the Indian government administering the territory. Tens of thousands of people — many of them civilians — were killed during the height of the insurgency, leaving behind a legacy of unrest and disaffection.

The region today is one of the most securitized in the world — more than 500,000 troops are deployed in and around the area.

Stimson expert Sameer Lalwani traveled to Srinagar — the capital of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir — to see firsthand the challenges that threaten this volatile region.

These are his field notes.

I arrived in the middle of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan during a very tense period. Ten militants and one protester were killed in the days just before Ramadan began, prompting the government to institute a curfew.

By the time I left, over 60 others, including militants, civilians, and security personnel, had been killed.

After the charismatic, handsome militant commander Burhan Wani was killed on July 8, 2016, unrest spiked and the Valley descended into a downward spiral of mass agitation, protests, and aggressive quasi-violent activity like stone-throwing.

Nearly 100 people were killed and over 15,000 injured during the 2016 protests that engulfed the Valley in the six months following his death.

Beautiful scenes of Srinagar’s Dal Lake remind visitors why the Kashmir Valley was once a top tourist destination for Indian and international travelers until the civil unrest and insurgency flared up in 1990.

Some remain concerned that the Valley is becoming increasingly radicalized and the ideas of the Islamic State and al Qaeda are creeping into the region.

On Eid, the final day of Ramadan, street protestors brandished signs supporting Zakir Musa, who recently called for an Islamic Caliphate and is alleged to have set up the first al-Qaeda cell in the Valley.

I met with several different stakeholders. This included a number of security officials, leaders of the ruling party in the state of J&K — the People’s Democratic Party — and members of opposition parties worried about the recent unrest.

There remains a large constituency that still seeks an independent country of Kashmir, and I spoke with separatists to better understand their objectives and bargaining strategy.

While today’s unrest is far different from the chaotic and bloody days of the 1990s, there remains a deep disaffection with the Indian presence and Indian government, as well as vast reservoirs of sympathy for separatist and even militant objectives.

Some suggest that New Delhi’s attempt to close off dialogue with separatists has unwittingly opened more space for violent extremists.

The India-Pakistan rivalry is one of the most unique and dangerous in the world. There are frequent regular cross-border firing exchanges between the two nuclear-armed powers.

I visited the Indian Army’s XV Corp to better understand the Indian Army’s perceptions of its threat environment, its risk calculus, and its strategies for managing crises and conflict escalation.

The interviews, data, and insights I, and the rest of my team, collect from our travels in Srinagar will be directly applied to our ongoing analysis. Through these visits, we seek to clarify risks and objectives so that U.S. and international policymakers may know what to expect and provide pragmatic ideas for paths forward.

It is my hope that by sharing these insights, more people can better understand the evolving unrest and its effects on the region. And that one day the Kashmir Valley will again be at peace.

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Created with images by The Economist; Kanksha Raina - "Shikaras on the Dal Lake"; BOMBMAN - "Shikara on Dal Lake"

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