Kashmir: Pitfalls of Byzantine Strategy

    "…some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice."  From the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption’

                 Byzantine Empire’s occupation of foreign lands lasted close to 1000 years– longer than any other empire known to the human history. This unparalleled feat of several tortuous centuries, however, was not a result of its venerable military or economic prowess. Rather, it survived due to the vision of its strategists- – their calculated cultivation of a strategy to subdue their neighbouring colonies. Their strategy entailed selective use of superior military power, supplanted by a preponderance of "soft power"- – a strategy of changing hearts and minds through creative diplomacy.

                The only thing ‘soft’ about the strategy was that it avoided use of brute force to quell adversaries. This was achieved through a vicious cocktail of denial, deception, propaganda, mind control, bribery, and perception management etc. Byzantine Empire could easily boast of several of the likes of realpolitik maverick, Henry Kissinger, scheming CIA, or the ‘Smart Power’ theorist, Joseph Nye. They intimately studied their adversary- – their weaknesses, their strengths, and their follies; their social, economic, and political mores; and their personalities, aspirations, anxieties, and dissatisfactions. They converted the enemy’s weaknesses into opportunities for the State. Their philosophy, according to the Empire’s historian, Vegetius, was the epitome  of subversion: "To seduce the fighters from their allegiance and encourage them to surrender is of special value, for an adversary is more hurt by desertion than by slaughter."

                With  advances in military craft and counterinsurgency techniques, the use of  ‘Soft’ or ‘Smart Power’ had phased out of fashion, and had  been replaced with the use of overwhelming and  technologically driven "shock and awe’ military force  against the enemy. The returns, however,  have been often short term, and invariably counterproductive in the long run. While sometimes the battles had been won, the wars were often lost. With the use of brute force engendering repugnance world over,  the emphasis now has returned to  ‘soft power’ strategy, originally used by the Byzantine Empire to prolong its grasp on the territories under its expansive control.  The aims and objectives of the imperial or the colonial States remain the same, only the means of achieving those are different.

                The strategy emphasizes ‘winning hearts  and changing minds’ of the disaffected populations. The core of the strategy is to create an ‘alternative reality’ for the masses through smart and strategic deployment of overt and covert human, material, and economic resources through proxies and allies- – self-serving politicians, fifth columnists, intelligence agencies, and other organs of the State’s security apparatus etc. The objectives are to manipulate the dissenting voices, leading to a slow withering away of opponents will to fight. Packaged as the strategy is as sweetened treachery and deceit– doled out on the platter of democracy– it is believed to far more effectively achieve the colonial State’s aims.

                The strategy is by definition ‘soft’ and diplomatic – – not brutal or lethal. It is a systemic, systematic, institutionalized, and carefully calibrated means of achieving the same or even better results for the State. Perhaps more pertinently, it has gained far wider acceptance by the world powers, who will not be morally obligated to condemn the sinister use of this strategy by their “friends and allies.”

                 In South Asia, Kashmir has been subject to the brutal military suppression for decades without any end in sight for their resistance or the plight it engenders. While the Rights Movement has recently morphed into a more peaceful formulation, the State has continued to rely on use of brute force to quell the dissent. There, however, seems to be a change in the tactics now. After the brazen drama of death and mayhem on the Kashmir’s streets, and the colossal paralysis of the Indian State during the past couple summers, the State’s policy makers  have been mulling a Byzantine Strategy to contain- – and keep- – Kashmir.
                With all previous attempts at winning voluntary allegiance to the Indian Union having failed, the focus is now shifting to seemingly far more easily achievable goals: change of hearts and mind away from the Azaadi sentiment. The new aims and objectives are not to engender loyalty for India in the Kashmiri hearts, but to erase the Azaadi sentiment from their minds.
                There is a caveat in use of soft power strategy, for it thrives on several contradictions. In spite of their unparallel military might, their unsurpassed economic strength, their unmatched wealth of military and political geniuses, and their flawless intelligence gathering capacity, amply aided by some of their divided and fractious adversaries, the Byzantine Empire lasted long enough – only, in the end,  to fall victim to its own contradictions. The soft power of mass manipulation  is not an enduring substitute for justice, especially when a colonial State lacks the vital social, cultural, or political connective tissue to bond with those they colonize. Mass manipulation wears on people’s psyche; they eventually see through it.  

                Regardless, the Indian State’s strategy in Kashmir is multifaceted and operates at several levels. It de-emphasizes or minimizes military operations and visible brutal suppression. The new focus is on creating an ‘alternative reality’ of circumstances for a common person. This is achieved through a mixture of denial and deception, and, disinformation and misinformation, prompting the Kashmiris to believe something that is not true. This engineered reality, the States hopes, would then prompt Kashmiris to respond to a new fictitious reality, and not to the reality of his or her actual circumstances. The resulting new ‘reality’ would, in turn, ensure not necessarily the brutal death of the adversary but the slow death of the resistance it espouses, or the Azaadi it demands.

                For example, the State will continue to use propaganda to discredit, dehumanize, and politically destroy the resistance movement and its leaders, or the youthful protesters and their motives. While propaganda, political maneuvering, counterintelligence operations, bribery, and military and paramilitary activities will continue to be the relied on as important tools, the newest and the sharpest tool will be the strategic diplomacy and diplomatic strategy. The aims and objectives will remain the same; the techniques will be adjusted and calibrated. While  talking of peace, they will continue to prepare for, and  launch, wars.
                 Overtly, the new strategy will continue to create the elusive “peace constituency” to the State’s liking by engaging selected women’s groups, targeted youth political groups, and unsuspecting schoolchildren in orchestrated social or political activities. The State will continue to exploit the vulnerabilities of the rural Kashmir: its dire needs of water, electricity, roads, schools, and hospitals. The ‘loyal’ and ‘conforming villages’ will be rewarded with some of the amenities to reinforce their ‘changed’ political behaviour. A school here, a road there, or a dispensary somewhere else will be provided, and an artificial stake created in conformity and silence. To create a perpetual dependency syndrome through vote bank tactics these amenities will be selectively rationed through the ‘mainstream’ politicians. ‘Exemplary punishments’ by will be handed to recalcitrant villages or conclaves within villages, through benign neglect.

                The State will continue to enact the drama of local and State elections and posit those as substitutes for self-determination. The dissatisfaction and the vulnerability of the unemployed youth will be exploited. Employment opportunities will artificially created only in selected services such as police and paramilitary services. To even up the overall statistics, conventional civil service employment opportunities will be sequestered to ‘non-conflict’ areas of the state– some three districts of Jammu province.

                Schools, colleges and the Universities will receive paramount attention by the State intelligence agencies. Teachers will be under the scanner, and moles implanted in strategic positions for intelligence gathering. In the name of national integration, the classroom curricula will be changed to ‘educate’ the impressionable minds about the virtues of the democracy and secularism. By playing up their mistakes and failures, a sense of distaste for the resistance activists will be created through well-crafted scandals.

                The  State has access to databases, documenting details on the personal habits, social and political activities, and personal and family needs of a wide variety of resistance activists. To buy their silence or submission, attempts will be made to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of some vocal, but easily corruptible religious figures, village leaders or political activists. These incentives will range from, but will not remain limited to, direct or indirect cash incentives, land plots for their families, employment for their kin, and bank loans or scholarships for their wards etc. Some among activists will be trapped into financial and carnal scandals, and then exploited into silence. Women will be increasingly used for intelligence gathering, and as honey traps. The spectacle of rented crowds – – listening to and cheering at politicians extolling ‘peace, progress and development’, and de- emphasizing political self-determination will be used to hoodwink the “war fatigued,” public to give up their chase for freedom. People’s genuine aversion toward conflict will be high- lighted, and blamed on “Pakistan-sponsored Hurriyat leaders and agents.”

                The State will continue to make right noises for reconciliation with Pakistan through half-hearted diplomatic maneuvers. The State’s propaganda machinery will enmesh the Kashmiri society into complex diplomatic and political drama by the agents of the State, some of whom will increasingly rely on the fluidity of their tweeting wits. The top national leaders including the PM, the president, the Home Minster etc. will continue to misguide and beguile the public through affectionate and fawning speeches delivered through titillating rhetoric.

                The new strategy will be the emphasis on the ‘human and humanitarian’ aspects of the ongoing conflict. The quackery of the mainstream politicians will be deployed to manage the political dimensions of the new  strategy. Through calculated aggression in the assembly, the CM will attempt to hypnotize  Kashmiris by the ‘acession-not-merger’ semantics; in the Parliament, his father will entertain the ultra-nationalists through his ‘integral part’ melodramatics.

                Mass manipulation, however,  runs into its  own pitfalls- -its limiting factors. It draws on falsehood. Critical to the survival of this policy in Kashmir is the presumed validity of a set of fallacious assumptions of the policy makers. Among these: ‘India is written on every Kashmiris’ heart; ‘Pakistan sponsors Kashmir insurgency through its Hurriyat surrogates’; the protesters and stone -pelters are hallucinated drug addicts looking for quick money ‘etc. The success of this strategy is also based on the premise that people’s memory is short, and once the Kashmiris hear a couple smooth- talking interlocutors  promising sun-shine of the  paradise, they will forget  the darkness of their hell; They will forget their dead, their raped, their incarcerated, and their disappeared. A few hundred schoolchildren sent on a state -sponsored excursion,  while breathing freely in Delhi or Mumbai, will forget the suffocation of their parents in Bandipora and Sopur.

                As is self-evident, this strategy misses a cardinal point. India can keep Kashmir only through force.There is an unbridgeable gap between India and Kashmir. Kashmir’s past and recent history, its culture, its geography, and its social ethos are heavily at odds with the Indian history, culture, and social and political ethos. The Indian State lacks the vital glue, let alone the political genius, to make Kashmir as its integral part.There are more things common between India and Pakistan, than between India and Kashmir.  There, therefore, is a far better prospect of an Indo-Pak confederation, than of any India-Kashmir integration. If the Bollywood’s  ‘item number ‘ musicals are favorites with the Kashmiri youths, their counterparts in the ‘terror-exporting’ Pakistan are several notches up in this ‘loyalty’.

                If the villagers are demanding roads and water, and, schools and dispensaries, this is not in lieu of freedom, but because they have been denied these basic amenities of modern life for decades. Even if there were no freedom movement in Kashmir, there would undoubtedly be demands for water and roads, and, schools and dispensaries. If the youths are demanding jobs, and grabbing on to even odd  opportunities, that is because there are no alternatives provided by the State.
                Expression of gratitude by the schoolchildren  or their parents for sight- seeing tours in Delhi and Mumbai is not same as condoning rape, death, and custodial killings in Srinagar of Shopian. While they can breathe freely during the site-seeing tours in Delhi, they are entertained to their caged valley , and their curfewed homes on their return.  Which one of these ‘sightseeing’ events will leave lasting impressions: The awesome display of life’s drama on Mumbai’s and Kolkata’s streets, or, the terrifying cries emanating from the Srinagar and Bijbehra’s alleys?

                At display here then, is a contradiction of India’s own making- -a Catch-22 for the planners of the ‘soft power’ strategy. Brutal suppression generates more resistance, and ‘soft power’ does not extinguish the desire for freedom among the colonized. Due to its subversive nature, soft power can only postpone the inevitable; it cannot be a game changer in an ethnic nationalist battle. These realities will not change by sending to Kashmir a group of interlocutors, who are “‘willing to talk to anyone, any time, on anything under the sun, short of Azaadi”. The absence of roads, water, electricity, or employment does not force people to shout or die for Azaadi; Forced occupation does. Forced occupation of  Kashmir then is a deathtrap for the Byzantine’s manipulative  ‘soft power’ Strategy. It is doomed as much as its brutal ‘hard power’ predecessor.