India’s multi-dimensional challenge: From sociology to geopolitics

Alienation ought to be of great concern, more so at a time when war clouds loom.

ByDavid Devadas
India’s multi-dimensional challenge: From sociology to geopolitics

I am glad the defence minister and external affairs minister made back-to-back visits to Iran earlier this month. With the projected sensitivities of the White House in mind, Mr Jaishankar’s visit was billed as a “refuelling halt”, but enough time was made for lunch with Iran’s hard-talking foreign minister Javad Zarif. Good!

Developments in Afghanistan were supposed to be the chief topic of conversation, but recent news of an Iran-China pact was the backdrop. In fact, the real reason for shaking off the restraints of US sanctions to engage in both ministerial conversations may have been China’s reported agreement to invest $400 billion in Iran, from which it is to get discounted oil.

Iran-China ties are not new, but that deal is nothing less than a geopolitical earthquake. Given the current price war over oil, Iran’s discounts are no big deal. But that gargantuan investment would pull Iran out of the crushing isolation that US President Trump has imposed on it, and forced other countries, including India, to fall in line with.

It would change the power balance in West Asia, where the US is fostering a new embrace of Israel by Gulf countries. And if Russia were to get on board, it could even alter the balance between China and the US. Turkey, remember, is already aligned with the Sino-Pak axis.

The Kargil angle

The main reason I’m happy our ministers engaged Iran is not to do with the global balance of power, however. That’s important, sure, but my pressing concern is the situation in Ladakh. While the focus remains sharply on the face-off on the Line of Actual Control to the east of Ladakh, I am (perhaps the only one) equally concerned about trends on the western front, and within the Kashmir valley.

In case China and Pakistan engage in pincer-like hostilities, the mountains between Kargil and Pakistan-controlled areas could also heat up. Shias are predominant in the Kargil region and, through both Najaf and Qom, Iran has inordinate influence on much of Ladakh’s Shia population. So I sincerely hope the two ranking ministers got Iran to look favourably upon India in the context of the Sino-India conflict — or at least take a neutral stance.

The people of Kargil were a marvellous support for the Indian army when Pakistan’s Gilgit Scouts occupied bunkers on the heights at Batalik and farther west in 1999. Iran’s influence would be a welcome additional factor at a time when large sections of the population in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir have become alienated.

Of all the regions of the state, Kargil was once the most patriotic — even more than Jammu, according to a Pew survey a couple of decades ago. But its people have by and large been unhappy about Ladakh turning into a separate union territory. Muslims there fear subordination to Buddhist-dominated Leh, even though Muslims are marginally more numerous than Buddhists in Ladakh overall.

Widespread alienation

Ironically, the government has not been able to satisfy even Leh district’s Buddhists, who were projected last August as being delighted with union territory status. Most leaders of that community now want Ladakh to be covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. They believe that would guarantee their demographic stability and cultural heritage.

Nor, 13 months after the state was reduced to two union territories, are people in other parts of the sprawling former state upbeat, or pleased with their constitutional, political, or economic situation. The predominantly Muslim (Pahadi and Gujjar) population of Poonch and Rajauri districts has been terribly alienated, particularly since the horrific rape and murder of a child in Kathua, and the shenanigans that followed. Since the constitutional changes last year, they and many others further east in the Chenab basin have become further disillusioned.

That large numbers have infiltrated in recent months via Poonch, Rajouri, Tuleil and Kupwara are another indication that the largely Pahadi and Gujjar populations of these areas may now be less cooperative with the forces than many of them once were. Many friends in Kashmir tell me that a large number of infiltrators are in various parts of the valley, perhaps as many as during Pakistan’s failed Operation Gibraltar in July-August 1965. They have recruited large numbers of Kashmiri teenagers. Shelling has been extraordinarily intense over the past few days all along the Line of Control — mainly by Pakistan in the Poonch-Rajouri stretch to the south. Shelling is often a cover for infiltration. So, more may be arriving.

In tandem, one hears of arms being smuggled through the border southeast of Jammu, apart from the already reported smuggling via the Punjab border. Those arms appear to be reaching Kashmir, for one hears on the grapevine of larger guns having arrived. I heard of M-15s a couple of days ago from a villager who I didn’t think had any knowledge of guns.

Unity is of paramount importance

Alienation ought to be of great concern, more so at a time when war clouds loom.

Unfortunately, the home minister is unwell, or he too could have undertaken a bridge-building task in the union territories, like the defence and external affairs ministers accomplished abroad. The government must put its best foot forward to unite the peoples of the erstwhile state, of the rest of the country, and the entire political spectrum.

At present, even some of those in the valley who have been affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party feel frustrated. Some others feel frustrated and betrayed. Waheed ur Rehman Para, a once-powerful PDP leader, remarks that “I am seen only as a Muslim, even though I have never been a namazi (regular mosque-goer).” Many would-be leaders at the grassroots feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. “I feel that if I did not have protection, people would beat me on the road,” Abdul Majid, a municipal councillor in Ganderbal, told me last week.

Lieutenant-governor Manoj Sinha has been working hard to tone up the administration since he took over in early August, but there is no political outreach even to those who signed up to the BJP during Governor’s Rule in 2018. Some may see it as a rag-tag grubby bunch, but for whatever it’s worth, it is the governing party at the ground level. Those who exercise power must engage people at large, either through these workers or through other mechanisms.

Uneasy stand-off

As things stand, the success of Indian troops in capturing a string of heights south and north of Pangong Lake at the end of August appears to have given China pause. The courage and confidence of the Indian army at Galwan in mid-June and again at August-end seems to have surprised the People's Liberation Army.

What’s worrying, however, is that they remain dug in to areas they gained near “Y junction” just south of Daulat Beg Oldie, and other places along the LAC. In the first half of this month, both sides have done some sabre-rattling, signalling firm determination to stick it out.

The current wisdom among India’s security wonks is that the PLA is trying to push forward as far as they did in 1962. Powerful analysts seem to think they will stop there. My reading is that if the skirmishes at Galwan and since have not adequately warned them off, they might press on farther.

Amid this uncertainty, a two-and-a-half front war (as the possibility of coordinated hostilities from China, Pakistan, and people at large within Jammu and Kashmir has been dubbed) remains on the cards. It could happen in late October, a couple of weeks before the US elections. If, as some expect, mail ballots delay the results, the US administration may be out of the picture internationally for about three weeks from around October 20.

No effort should be spared to gear up during the next few weeks — on both frontiers.

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