Ten Conflicts to Worry About in 2020-ACLED  

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In 2019, the world witnessed a drastic increase in violent disorder that assumed many forms: protests from Lebanon to Hong Kong and Iraq to Chile; geopolitical competition in Yemen and Syria; dominant insurgencies in Somalia and Afghanistan; a cartel-insurgency in Mexico; and a diffuse, adaptable militant threat across the Sahel. Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) mentioned about ‘Ten Conflicts to Worry About in 2020’ in their recently published report. The following report narrates the India part only:

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is navigating a complex landscape of political discord involving long-standing international and domestic conflicts. Internationally, tension between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region escalated in 2019, as the volatile political relationship between the two countries was tested by militant attacks and frequent cross-border violence along the Line of Control (LoC). The imposition of strict security and communications restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) further strained relations with Pakistan and contributed to significant unrest within India. Internally, rising agitation against a controversial legislative measure sparked violence as the bill was eventually ratified as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). The CAA is criticized by some for being exclusionary toward Muslims. Others in India’s ethnically diverse northeast are opposed to the Act’s demographic ramifications, precipitating the threat of ethnic violence in the region. In central, eastern, and southern India, the ongoing Naxal-Maoist insurgency persistently threatens to subvert government authority and democratic processes in the region. Additionally, violent inter-party rivalries extend the schism between the numerous concurrent political ideologies which exist within the world’s largest democracy.

In February 2019, a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant launched a suicide attack on India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama district of J&K, reportedly killing at least 37 CRPF troopers. Following the Pulwama attack, Indian fighter jets launched strikes on militant targets in Pakistan. Pakistani forces responded by sending a sortie into Indian airspace and reportedly dropping bombs in J&K’s Poonch and Rajouri districts. These incidents culminated in an aerial battle between Indian and Pakistani forces, resulting in the downing of two aircraft in Pakistani territory, as well as the arrest of an Indian pilot by Pakistani troops. Pakistan’s return of the detained Indian pilot did little to de-escalate the conflict.

Tension in the Kashmir region was again aggravated in August 2019, prior to the J&K Block Development Council (BDC) elections, when the Indian government issued a presidential order abrogating articles 370 and 35 A of the constitution, thereby revoking autonomy for J&K, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The state of J&K, which had its own constitution and freedom to formulate its own laws, was reduced to a union-territory under the administration of New Delhi. Tens of thousands of troops were moved into the region (India Today, 2 August 2019), political leaders were placed under house arrest (Al Jazeera, 17 August 2019), and severe communications restrictions were imposed.

The events in J&K further soured India-Pakistan relations: in his speech at the UN General Assembly on 28 September 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan criticized the Indian government’s perceived anti-Muslim agenda and alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. He also stated that Pakistan would not back down from conflict with India (Business Recorder, 27 September 2019). ACLED records a significant increase in violent events across the LoC between Indian and Pakistani security forces in 2019 compared to previous years: 582 cross-border shelling and firing events were reported in 2019, compared to 349 in 2018. Cross-border violence in Kashmir led to nearly 180 reported fatalities during the year. Additionally, on call from the Pakistani government, nationwide anti-India demonstrations and Kashmir solidarity rallies were held in Pakistan throughout the end of 2019.

In October 2019, BDC elections proceeded in J&K amidst the ongoing controversy, raising questions about the legitimacy of the political process (Hindustan Times, 30 September 2019). Major opposition parties boycotted the elections citing detention of party leadership and security restrictions preventing their participation in political activities leading to the elections. Despite India’s ruling BJP having the freedom to campaign across J&K and contest unopposed by the state’s mainstream political establishment, independent candidates unexpectedly took 19 of 22 J&K districts at the polls (The Wire, 26 October 2019). The BDC election results were indicative of the growing dissociation between Kashmiri citizens and the BJP. Furthermore, strong opposition to the Indian government’s actions in J&K was reported across the country in the form of protests, violent demonstrations, and clashes with police forces.

In addition to opposition within India to the situation in J&K, dissent against the CAA surged during the final quarter of 2019. Opponents of the law argue that it discriminates against Muslims (The Guardian, 13 December 2019), as it grants citizenship rights to undocumented non-Muslim immigrants, explicitly precluding citizenship rights for Muslim migrants. Other critics in India’s northeast contend that legitimizing undocumented immigrants would threaten the indigenous communities of the region. The northeastern region, which is home to a culturally and ethnically diverse population, remains somewhat excluded from the national mainstream and has a history of insurgent and secessionist activity. As the region is a focal point of immigration from Bangladesh, issues regarding immigration policy have been a continued source of conflict between the indigenous and immigrant populations. In late 2018, five Bengali Hindus were reportedly killed by militants in Assam. During the same time period, a leader of a faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a militant separatist group in Assam state, threatened a “massacre” of Bengali Hindus (Northeast Now, 26 October 2018) as a consequence of the passage of the CAA.

The eventual passage of the CAA on 19 December sparked violent demonstrations and clashes with police across the country, with at least 18 people reported killed as of 4 January 2020. Alarmingly, ruling BJP leaders admitted that the government did not anticipate the enormous backlash against the passage of the CAA beyond limited unrest among the Muslim community (US News, 25 December 2019). Such revelations from senior party leadership seem to be indicative of the myopic nature of the BJP’s popular Hindu nationalist/anti-Muslim posturing.

What to watch for in 2020:

Heightened tension between India and Pakistan surrounding the Kashmir issue, coupled with dissent against the perceived anti-Muslim nature of the Indian government’s policies surrounding Kashmir and the CAA, will perpetuate the environment of mistrust between Islamabad and New Delhi. Pakistan has recently adhered to a policy of vocal opposition to India. Mass demonstrations over the Kashmir issue and against the CAA are routinely organized within Pakistan, and Pakistani leaders have criticized Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tactics at international forums such as the UN General Assembly. With the ever-present threat of another militant attack looming over J&K, and the Indian government’s stance on Pakistan as a militant safe haven (BBC, 1 May 2019), 2020 is expected to be a perilous year for the future of India-Pakistan relations.

Citizens of J&K ended 2019 with a reduced right to self-determination, suppressed civil liberties and roadblocks to democracy following constitutional and security measures introduced prior to BDC elections. Although the Indian government has taken steps to scale back communication and security restrictions in Muslim-majority J&K, its policy towards India’s Kashmiri citizens has created more friction within an already tense relationship. Furthermore, such policies have amplified existing hostility between Kashmiri citizens and Indian security forces surrounding a history of ongoing human rights abuses in the region (Human Rights Watch, 10 July 2019). Violence between Indian security forces and Kashmiri locals could intensify in the coming year if the government neglects to take definitive action to curb human rights violations by security forces. Additionally, the continuing alienation of India’s Kashmiri Muslims from the mainstream could potentially contribute towards increased support for militancy, as well as violence between Muslim and Hindu communities in the region.

The recent passage of the CAA threatens to generate continuing violence between demonstrators and police, as well as violence between left-wing opponents and right-wing supporters of the law across India. Immigrant communities are faced with potential backlash by indigenous communities in the northeast region, as well as the threat of mass violence by ULFA militants. Admissions that BJP leaders were blind-sided by outrage against the CAA raise concerns about their ability to anticipate violent scenarios and prevent them from materializing.

Elections for state legislative assemblies and the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, set for 2020 will be important gauges through which to assess the fallout faced by the BJP in the wake of the Kashmir and CAA controversy. State legislative assembly elections will be held in Delhi and Bihar. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) hopes to make inroads in Delhi where they will face stiff opposition from the incumbent Aam Admi Party (AAP) and Indian National Congress (INC) as well as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Similarly, In Bihar, the NDA will have to contend against UPA as well as the incumbent Janata Dal (United). Meanwhile, the outcome of the Rajya Sabha elections will be important in determining the extent of the BJP’s influence in parliament. Despite the BJP’s increased numbers in the Rajya Sabha post-2014, the opposition majority has hindered the BJP’s ability to pass controversial bills (Money Control, 1 January 2020). Additionally, pre-election campaigning in Bihar, as well as in states like West Bengal and Assam where legislative assembly elections are slated to be held in 2021, can be expected to produce more political violence. Naxal-Maoist conflict in Bihar, the historic violent political rivalry between the BJP and Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) in West Bengal, and retaliation against the unpopular CAA in Assam all present significant law and order challenges.

Growing instability going into 2020 necessitates a reevaluation of policies by the Indian government in order to tackle the proliferation of discontent and conflict across the country. It remains to be seen whether the ruling BJP will be willing or able to adopt a more pluralistic approach to address accumulating governance challenges. It seems likely that Prime Minister Modi’s current tactics will unravel across India’s vast political landscape.

Reference: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)

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