Indian intel may shrug off China's presence in Kashmir, but it may be worse than we think
It will be prudent for our policy makers to look at the China factor in Kashmir afresh, even as our straight intelligence sleuths may shrug off this development.
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's foreign policy chief, has announced the setting up a high-level committee to formulate a "doable and sustainable" policy to highlight the Kashmir issue globally. He made this announcement to the Pakistani Senate this week. As per the Dawn, this measure is for "reaching out to Indians who are opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's extremist policies".
The committee will comprise senior officials from the ministries of defence, interior and information, the military operations directorate, ISI and IB. The noteworthy point, however, is that the committee doesn't have any representation from Pakistan's foreign ministry. It is common knowledge that Pakistan's foreign ministry does not define or implement Islamabad's India policy, Kashmir included. It's the ISI that handles their foreign policy for India and Afghanistan.
So the newly formed committee would review why, despite its best efforts, Pakistan hasn't been able to wrest Jammu and Kashmir from India, and why the pro-Pakistan sentiment in the Valley is petering out, six months after the Burhan Wani killing. It would also figure out how to raise the proxy war in Kashmir to the next level, destabilise other regions of India and raise the Kashmir issue at every possible forum — though Nawaz Sharif has been doing a good job of this, sending special representatives to multiple countries to build consensus in favour of Pakistan.
Pakistan has also been linking the instability in Afghanistan with Kashmir, and has been distressed to find that the baseless argument didn't find any takers. However, developments in Kashmir are perhaps getting affected by happenings in Xinjiang, China's Achilles Heel. There are about 13 ethnic groups in Xinjiang, and over 20 million people, and they have been seeking independence against the Chinese government, which it considers "imperialist". Xinjiang declared independence in October 1933, forming the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, only for China to invade the very next year. Xinjiang again declared independence in 1944 as the East Turkistan Republic, but China again annexed Xinjiang in 1949, much in the same manner it also colonised Tibet later.
The Uighurs abhor Chinese rule, because China is overwhelming them by settling a large number of Han Chinese there (already 40 percent of the population there is Han Chinese), thereby throttling Uighur culture, customs and traditions. Exiled Uighur leader Rebiyah Kadeer has been raising voices against China's attempts to refashion the region's cultural identity and repressing their religious expression.
Among the resistance groups fighting for Xinjiang's independence is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has elements present in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Incidents of violence have also occurred periodically through the years.
China analyst Bhaskar Roy wrote in July 2009, "The fire in Xinjiang may be doused, but some embers may quietly remain to start another and large fire. The heart of the Xinjiang uprising may not be localised in the sense of one single issue. Restiveness is all over the country, and the leaders know it. Their intense consternation is not without reasons."
Former ambassador P Stopdan also revealed in 2009, "In Xinjiang, the Chinese have implemented a series of tough policies including the forced transfer of teenage Uighur women to China's Eastern cities like Tianjin, Jiangsu, Qingdao, Shandong, Zhejiang and others in the guise of providing employment opportunities. In 2006 alone, there had been 240,000 cases of Uighur girls being forced to shift from the Kashgar Region. The plight of these girls is reportedly miserable and they are also not allowed to return freely to their hometowns. This policy, aggressively pursued to bridge the economic gap by the authorities, has raised pent-up anxieties among the Uighurs, as these girls are often used as slave labor and sex workers in Chinese cities. Cultural assimilation was another motive apart from the sinister design to obliterate the size of the Uighur population."
China has been making efforts to integrate Xinjiang with the rest of the country through projects like the Tarim Basin Project funded by the World Bank, the Tarim Desert Highway, a rail link to western Xinjiang, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps with agricultural settlements, shopping centres, malls, department stores, additional roads linking cities like Urumqi, and now the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But these projects have increased the influx of Han Chinese, resented by Uighurs.
Chinese analysts and scholars admit Islamic fundamentalism is the most potent threat to China, one that defies all borders. But what they refuse to admit is that this threat and its directional guidance and support emanates from Pakistan's radical core. It is for such reasons that China wanted to establish its army bases inside Pakistan, and the reason why it has now managed lodgment in Gilgit-Baltistan.
On 30 December 2013, Chinese police in Xinjiang shot dead eight Uighurs who they said attacked the police station. But Dilxat Rexit, a Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, said they had gone to the police station unarmed to protest against poor treatment.
In July 2014, 96 people were killed including 37 civilians and 59 ETIM cadres in Shache County (called Yarkand by Uighurs) of Xinjiang in a week of violence. In November 2015, China claimed to have shot dead 28 ETIM cadres hiding in a cave. According to Radio Free Asia, this incident was preceded by an attack on Uighurs in the town of Aksu resulting in 50 deaths and more than 50 injured.
Apparently, Uighur resistance to China in Xinjiang is alive and kicking. China has been adept in irregular warfare since the Mao era. Beijing had established links with the Taliban on on Chinese soil before the US invasion of Afghanistan. By its own strategic calculations, China found it better to be friends with Pakistan rather than fighting terror emanating from there.
At the same time, China also decided to entrench itself within Islamabad's establishment; projects in POK-Pakistan, CPEC and Gwadar. Pakistani proxies have benefited from Chinese veto, and in return, Pakistan puts a lid on Chinese genocide in Xinjiang.
For some time now, intelligence inputs were indicating LeT was providing terrorist training to Uighurs. Concurrently, reports and photographs appeared of Uighurs fighting in Syria as well. On Saturday, reports showed a Chinese language diary found on the body of a terrorist killed on the LoC by India's BSF. This is a significant development, much more than the recovery of Chinese flags in Baramula and sighting of PLA soldiers on Pakistani posts along the LoC.
The reasoning for CPEC becoming the 'Highway of Terror' has been covered in these columns. It will be prudent for our policy makers to look at the China factor in Kashmir afresh, even as our straight intelligence sleuths may shrug off this development. But then, it was their insistence that Hurriyat separatists were "insignificant" that led to the current explosive situation in the Kashmir Valley.
The author is a veteran Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army
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