As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prioritizes national security messaging as part of his reelection campaign, he's made controversial moves in the disputed Himalayan valley of Kashmir. That's raised fears of fresh instability in a powder keg region already prone to frequent eruptions of violence.
Modi, still vulnerable from December's narrow election victory in his home state of Gujarat, is likely looking to rally supporters ahead of a general vote next year. Taking a hard line on law and order is one way to do so, experts said.
"Now that Modi is beginning to campaign for another five-year term as prime minister — and hoping to advance his party's particular interpretation of a more coherent and unified polity — part of his campaign strategy is to embrace a tough approach to the insurgencies within India and burnish his credentials as a candidate firm on security," analysts at political consultancy Stratfor said in a note last week.
That's especially applicable in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where Indian soldiers have been engaged in a violent crackdown against militants.
The mountainous area is made up of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, a Pakistan-administered part commonly called Azad Kashmir and Aksai Chin, which is claimed by both Beijing and New Delhi. For decades, the entire valley has been plagued by violence amid territorial tensions between Pakistan and India that have resulted in regular exchanges of artillery fire, local independence movements and anti-India separatists. Complicating the matter are armed groups. Some, including Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba, are pro-Pakistan while others such as Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind operate on a pan-Islamic mandate similar to militant group al-Qaida.
But intensifying the military's crackdown in such a troubled area is inherently risky.
It "heightens the possibility of more draconian security policies carried out on the pretext of counter-terrorism," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.
Clashes between Indian troops and Kashmiris have increased recently. A rare ceasefire announced by New Delhi in May to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan didn't last long. Civilian deaths, such as the shooting of prominent Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari, continue to mount.
Modi's most recent maneuver is already expected to bring more trouble.
Last month, his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party exited a three-year old alliance with the People's Democratic Party — a regional faction in Jammu and Kashmir — amid concerns of growing terrorism. The collapse of the governing coalition pushed the state's chief minister to resign, leading the state to fall under direct rule by India's central government.
The BJP's move — "an act of panic, occasioned by the coming general elections," according to Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at New Delhi-based think-tank he Observer Research Foundation — essentially gives Modi's administration more freedom to control the state.
The governing coalition was believed to balance out the BJP's aggressive tactics in the conflict-ridden zone. While the PDP prefers to engage in dialogue with separatists, the ruling party typically resorts to what many call "muscular" policies that the United Nations has singled out as human rights violations. Those include excessive force against protesters, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, detention of families and children as well as enforced disappearances, according to the UN.
"Now, with the BJP unconstrained by the moderating tendencies of the PDP, it could become emboldened and resort to more of the heavy-handed tactics that have aggrieved Kashmiris," said Kugelman. "There's reason to fear that the end of the alliance could lead to an upsurge in violence."
Despite some strategic victories, New Delhi's hardline approach has not dented the expanding recruitment of local militants, which increasingly includes men, women and youth from middle-class backgrounds. Modi's team "requires a strategy to deal with the changing nature of the militancy," said Joshi. The government will be tempted to "physically liquidate militants" but that will only worsen the status-quo, he cautioned.
Still, New Delhi isn't seen changing tactics anytime soon.
Because Modi is positioning himself as a candidate dedicated to fixing the nation's security troubles ahead of 2019 elections, "this means he will revert to a tougher approach against the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, hence his party's break with the PDP," the Stratfor note explained.
Violence aside, the BJP's moves also threaten to derail potential peace talks.
With Jammu and Kashmir now administered by an official who answers to New Delhi, "the prospect of dialogue between the Indian government and [the state's] separatist movement will diminish," according to Stratfor: "That will make less space for India and its rival Pakistan to engage in talks to normalize their relationship."