A top international online newsmagazine recently focused on an issue rarely addressed earlier by any analyst in India or abroad. It noted that the assassination of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani led to a protest against his killing by the United States in a remote corner of India: Kargil. The local Shia Muslim population unsurprisingly took Iran’s side, taking to the streets on hearing of Soleimani’s death. Later, anti-US demonstrations by Shias erupted in parts of Kashmir, and a few days later even in New Delhi. Interestingly, it surmised that “if the US-Iran conflict keeps growing, the presence of pro-Tehran entities in a part of Ladakh could hypothetically emerge as an irritant one day”.
It’s a relevant observation and Shia dynamics in India would need to be analysed for correct deductions. Brief geostrategic and geopolitical observations would also be pertinent. Kargil district is a part of the new Union territory of Ladakh, famously known for the high-altitude infantry and artillery battles between India and Pakistan in May-July 1999 that led to Pakistan’s abject defeat. Passing through Kargil is the strategic highway linking Kashmir to Leh, Ladakh’s capital, through Zojila Pass. The highway was the objective of Pakistan’s 1999 misadventure. Its permanent domination by Pakistani observation and fire would have threatened Ladakh’s connectivity with the rest of India and indirectly of the Siachen Glacier, the other high-altitude, glaciated battlefield between India and Pakistan. Adjoining it in the north is the Gilgit-Baltistan sub-region of Pakistan-occupied Ladakh, and further east from Leh is Aksai Chin, part of which is illegally occupied by China. A restive Kargil district will always be a concern for India due to these factors.
Kargil has a population of 140,000 of which 100,000 are Muslim (77 per cent). Of these, 65 per cent are Shias. In the rest of India, it is estimated 15-20 per cent of the Muslim population is Shia, around 30-40 million, the second largest figure in the Islamic world after Iran, which has 66 million. Most Shias have deep ideological links with the Shia Islamic learning centres in Iran. Large numbers of Indian Shias flock to Mashad and Qom with a degree of trust that they are involved only in the pursuit of learning. A high degree of Islamophobia exists worldwide due to the numerous acts of terror involving radical Islamic extremists. Except in the case of the Shia Hezbollah, and that too limited to the Israel-Syria-Lebanon region, and some violent activity in Iraq by a few Shia non-state militias, there have been no transnational acts of terror involving Shias. It is well known that Iran remains focused in pursuit of its interests related to West Asia and is in confrontation with the US-Saudi-Israel trilateral through proxies. In no other part of the world do non-state actors operate with any linkage to Iran. Iran’s ambitions about the spread of Shia ideology have also been limited. However, deep ideological links exist with Shia populations. At one stage, think tanks in Israel were deeply studying how India’s Shia community had kept its Iran linkage without any effect on its patriotic orientation towards India. A classic example is the way Lucknow’s well-known Shia culture has kept its deeply Indian orientation along with its links with Iran’s centres of learning without a concern being raised; it is testimony to both India’s pluralism and Shias’ ability to manage the right perception about their sect.
It is with this understanding that one should approach the demonstrations of support for Iran in Kargil and elsewhere in India. It would be interesting to know that during the height of the early manifestation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its threats towards Shia shrines at Najaf and Karbala, a very large number of passionate Indian Shias volunteered to proceed to Iraq to act as foot soldiers against ISIS which had declared Shias as its enemy.
Shias’ involvement with politics in India is minimal, which makes them a poor vote bank. In many ways, however, this is their strength. The proxy war in J&K has seen negligible involvement of the community, which forms almost 12-15 per cent of the Valley’s population distributed in few pockets. Discrimination against them in Kashmir is one of the reasons why Kargil, an adjoining district to Kashmir’s Ganderbal, did not witness any support for Pakistan’s sponsored proxy war in J&K. Of concern, however, should be the fact that it was Pakistan’s mainly Shia Northern Light Infantry from the illegally-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan area that was involved in the occupation of the Kargil heights in 1999. Despite this, it got no support whatever from Kargil’s population and proxy war remains incubated in the Valley. There is so far no evidence that the Iran-influenced organisations in Kargil have any traits of being paramilitary proxies that can be used in a hostile way.
This could lead to the conclusion that demonstrations in support of Iran and the assassinated Qasem Soleimani, seen in Kargil and elsewhere in India, are only transactional in nature for the expression of solidarity. Yet Iran has admittedly demonstrated no solidarity with India over the recent developments in Kashmir. The nature of India-Iran relations has mostly been transactional, unlike the emerging relationship between India and the Gulf states, where a huge Indian diaspora resides with a major contribution to the Indian economy through remittances. Can the Iranian linkage with Indian Shias therefore turn against India’s interests? This seems unlikely as the history of the relationship proves that Iran has often taken such a stance without hurting the relationship. Its relationship with Pakistan too has never been too warm. India too, realising the strategic importance of Iran, maintains a neutral stance on the US-Iran standoff and continues to follow an interest-based relationship. It’s in the contingency that India is called upon by the United States to demonstrate the depth of the mutual emerging strategic relationship that it will be under pressure. It would be a difficult call, but India has so far weathered such choices well through its multilateral approach. The sentiments of Kargil and other Indian Shias appear to be yet benign. The Kargil Shias remain an important entity for India’s security of Ladakh and its approach towards Gilgit-Baltistan. The demonstrated Shia patriotism must be nurtured for our strategic interests even as a careful watch is maintained on Shia foreign linkages, an action which is always an ongoing exercise for the intelligence domain.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies....