A year ago, on August 5, the Indian government abrogated the constitutional provisions guaranteeing autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. The Narendra Modi government contended that Article 370 impeded development, engendered corruption, and fanned terrorism. Ending autonomy for J&K would free its people. That seemed to be the argument, mostly for international consumption. The substantive reality was about the assertion of Hindutva politics.
J&K was sliced apart. Grief descended on Kashmir and some other parts of J&K. As BJP supporters and others celebrated across the country, secular India’s only Muslim majority state was no more. Kashmiris felt humiliated. As thousands, including the entire mainstream political leadership, were detained, a heavy security clampdown snuffed out any chance of large scale protests. As with so many other Modi government initiatives, this too was a “masterstroke”. The silence of Kashmiris was sold as acceptance.
The government imposed a harsh lockdown and blocked all communications. For seven months, people in J&K had no access to the internet. This became the longest internet shutdown in a democracy. Months before COVID-19 became the world’s collective nightmare, Kashmir’s schools and colleges remained shut. Basic health services suffered disruptions. The economy was a scene of destitution as business activity grounded to a halt. The poorest wage workers eked out a living with assistance from merciful neighbours.
For Kashmiris, there was no recourse. Most parties in Parliament delighted in the nationalistic project. Even those who portray themselves as champions of states’ rights, justified the unilateral dismemberment of a state. The votaries of cooperative federalism couldn’t contain their glee as support swelled for their destruction of constitutional federalism.
The Supreme Court refused to stay the government’s constitutional sleight of hand. It sat on habeas corpus petitions related to politicians, business leaders, lawyers and journalists. As this newspaper noted in a recent editorial (IE, August 1, 2020, “Barbed Wire”), “In case after case involving citizens’ fundamental liberties and alleged transgressions by the state, the courts seem to give the government the benefit of the doubt.” Who does one turn to?
A year later, the fog of perception management is lifting. Some of us had warned that the RSS and the BJP were elevating their political interest above the national interest. Perhaps it is because their idea of nationhood is not what Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and the other founders had in mind. The Sangh Parivar wants a different nation. Repressing Kashmiri identity is fuel for that project.
The government concocted a false narrative of Article 370 being anti-development. On a variety of development indicators, J&K was ahead of many other states. The poverty headcount was well below the national average. J&K’s human development was above the national average. Even the terrorism narrative was baseless. Article 370 had existed for decades without any terrorism in Kashmir.
Over the last year, the Prime Minister’s promise of development lies in tatters. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), in a recent report, put economic losses in the Kashmir Valley in the past year at Rs 40,000 crore. That is about a 50 per cent decline in Kashmir’s economic output (based on 2018-19 state GDP). Can you imagine what would happen if India’s economy declines by 50 per cent in a year?
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For all the talk of ending terrorism, the numbers tell a tale not significantly different from the previous years. Data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal will prove that. Images of an inconsolable three-year old on top of his grandfather’s lifeless body shredded the government’s propaganda. Even so, New Delhi continues to use an extremely heavy hand in Kashmir. The local media is intimidated, dissenting voices are silenced, and governance, if you can call it that, is outsourced to an unaccountable security and bureaucratic establishment.
A new domicile law in J&K is creating anxieties in Kashmir as well as in Jammu. Ladakhis are worried too. Fears that the government is working to change J&K’s Muslim majority character are justified. In its vision document, the RSS says that, “The state of Jammu & Kashmir, with its oppressive Muslim-majority character, has been a headache for our country ever since independence.” Hundreds of thousands of new domicile certificates have already been issued. Perhaps, the RSS and BJP are in thrall of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead of learning from the Chinese economic model, the Modi government is copying the Xinjiang model.
However, Kashmir is not Xinjiang. It has its own unique history and geopolitical character. The complications of J&K and Ladakh were laid bare by China’s recent intrusions across the Line of Actual Control. Since August last year, India’s global image as a pluralistic democracy has taken a beating. Kashmir is a big reason for that. Kashmir is in the grip of an undeclared emergency. But this anti-democratic virus is spreading to the rest of the country. The Gujarat model may have been a myth, but the Kashmir model is a reality and it is coming your way.
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For now, Kashmiris feel besieged. Anger and alienation are bottled up inside. Those who seek genuine integration between Kashmir and the rest of the country must understand that abusive relationships do not lead to love. As far as the RSS and BJP are concerned, their goal is not integration but control through the marginalisation of Kashmiris. In the short-term, they may succeed. Mainstream politicians are more discredited than ever. Even organised separatist politics is on the wane. However, a new separatism is emerging. It is a separatism of the hearts and minds, especially in the young Kashmiris. It is the future we must think of even as some claim pyrrhic victories today.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 5, 2020 under the title ‘The heavy hand in Kashmir’. Saifuddin Soz is a former Union minister and Salman Soz is deputy chairman of the All India Professionals’ Congress. Views are personal
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