The outcome of Modi’s biggest political gamble is being held in abeyance by brute force, reports Ankita Mukherjee
Last July, the government sent additional forces into the heavily-militarised Kashmir valley in anticipation of militant attacks on Hindu devotees making the annual Amarnath Yatra there. The deployment took everyone by surprise including the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s local alliance partner, the People’s Democratic Party, and created a deep sense of unease among local residents.
They had reason to worry. On 5th August, the central government by presidential decree revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. These were the safeguards that guaranteed the state of Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy within the Indian union and had, for 72 years, been the bedrock of the territory’s union with India.
Article 370 granted autonomy to the state on all matters excluding defence, foreign affairs and communication while Article 35A prevented people from other states from purchasing property and benefitting from public employment there. In a further blow to the state’s unique identity, the government dissolved the elected state assembly and bifurcated its territory into two centrally-administered union territories, that of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. They arrested hundreds of politicians and activists, including leaders of Kashmiri parties, placed former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah under house arrest and shut down communication services across the state.
The clampdown on Kashmir has been widely condemned across the world, by members of the US Congress, the European Union and Islamic countries. Pakistan and China moved to censure India at the UN but diplomatic efforts by India prevented the matter from being discussed in the UN Security Council. Six months later, the situation remains as grim as ever. While basic (2G) internet services have been partially restored in the valley, the ban on social media remains. Most political leaders remain under detention and a sense of despair and disorientation pervades the state.
Says Radha Kumar, a historian and author of Paradise at War: A political history of Kashmir,
“Though 370 has been amended more than 40 times, none of the preceding governments touched Article 35A, which fell under 370 and conferred special rights, including to property, on state subjects. Moreover, a large majority of the previous amendments were made at the recommendation or with concurrence of the state government and legislature. The August 5 and 6 orders were made without the concurrence of the elected legislators or elected state government, indeed they were all put under detention.”
“Moreover the JK Reorganization Act divided the state into two Union Territories, again without consultation or concurrence of elected leaders,” she adds. “Thus the voiding of 370 and consequent actions violated the fundamental principles of democracy – the will of the people – and federalism – consultations with the elected government and legislature of states.” Dr. Kumar was on the 3-member panel of interlocutors set up by the union Cabinet Committee on Security in 2010 to seek the views of a cross section of Kashmiri political opinion.
For the BJP, Article 370 has always represented the last obstacle to a unified India and its removal has been part of its election manifesto. Union home minister justified the move telling Parliament, “I want to tell the people of Jammu and Kashmir what damage Articles 370 and 35A did to the state. It’s because of these sections that democracy was never fully implemented, corruption increased in the state, and that no development could take place.”
As Anand Arni, a former special secretary in Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency wrote in The Telegraph, “I can argue both sides with equal felicity and conviction – Article 370 had to go because it did not mesh with our democracy; it was a compact with a Muslim state that joined India and had to be honoured. And yet, I am filled with unease, not just about the subterfuge and the manner in which it was done, but for what lies ahead.”
Devika Prasad, a human rights lawyer in New Delhi, warns, “It is of grave concern, and for the nation not just Kashmir, that so many Kashmiris are under preventive and other detention, from political leaders to civil society leaders to ordinary citizens. The detainees outside Kashmir are reportedly facing greater difficulties in accessing legal assistance and to family and friends.”
Says Gowhar Geelani, a Kashmiri journalist, “Taking away J&K’s semi-autonomous status is problematic on several fronts. First, it was a compact between the erstwhile state and Indian union. It has been broken without any consent from the J&K Legislative Assembly and elected representatives of J&K. This is an argument by the unionists who do not question India’s presence in Kashmir but want restoration of autonomy, civil rights and guarantees about land, right to jobs and scholarships. Second, once the semi-autonomous status was abrogated, an assault was made on civil rights, human rights, with a communication blockade, no access to mobile phones, internet and SMS and WhatsApp.”
“How can such a unilateral decision and assault on people’s rights be justified on any count?” asks Geelani. “Imagine the entire population of Kashmir, eight million of them, are without tools of communication, internet, for six months now. At least one-and-a-half lakh youth with IT, tourism, have lost their jobs since August.”
Naqshab Bhat, a resident of Bangalore whose family moved to the city 35 years ago from Kashmir has extended family living in the Valley. “The night before the revocation of articles 370 and 35A was announced, we were unable to reach to our relatives as their calls were barred,” she recollects. “It was frightening because we did not know what was coming, it was impossible to get through and find the whereabouts of our relatives. Soon we were able to breathe a sigh of relief as we could reach police stations and talk to people of Kashmir. It was a task but a minute of conversation was a silver lining at that point.”
“If the challenges to the government’s actions are upheld by the Supreme Court, then there will be some relief and a glimmer of hope,” says Dr. Kumar. “Without any change in the present situation, the shock, horror and anger against the government and by extension the people of the rest of India, will continue. Perhaps there will be sullen silence, or perhaps a new armed uprising. As to controlling a situation, at present government control is by brute force and negation of civil and human rights, which is not control, it is repression. In the Valley view, the government has turned the army into a force purely of repression and it will take decades to overcome hatred of our security forces.”
The former R&AW official Arni too paints a gloomy picture. “The boys are sullen, they have no known leader as we have ensured that they are leaderless,” he explains. “Consequently, we have no one to speak to. There has been an intifada type of movement which we should have recognised as an outpouring of frustration. Being pelted with stones is, in many ways, a lesser problem than being confronted by armed brainwashed militants. And yet we balked from talking to them. An early election is next to impossible as there will be calls for boycotts and low voter turnout which will be embarrassing both internally and externally … Inevitably, there will be electoral violence and the distance between Hindu majority Jammu and Muslim Kashmir will grow.”