On August 5, 2019, the republic of India was supposed to have brought the bright light of Indian constitutionalism to Kashmir. Instead, it has created an even more ominous darkness. The light of Indian constitutionalism is itself dimming. The latest exhibit is the Supreme Court’s order in the petitions asking for restoration of 4G access in Kashmir. By referring the matter back to a committee led by the home ministry, the court has violated all principles of natural justice. It has created a new evil. It implies that the home ministry can be plaintiff, judge, executioner, jury in its own cause. It will not be held to account when it abridges the liberties of Indian citizens. But the order, and the cowardly lack of outrage amongst India’s legal luminaries and elites, will convince every Kashmiri — if any convincing was required — that Indian constitutionalism will not provide any redress. The judges were offensively inhumane. They also proved that, for Kashmir, the Indian Constitution is not a portal of hope, but the oppressive dead end.
The silver lining in the pantomime proceedings in the Supreme Court was this. The government’s case rested on admitting something we are rarely allowed to say out aloud: That our Kashmir policy is pretty much a failure. The government was itself, in effect, saying that Kashmir needs to be treated as if it were a war zone. This is the justification it gives for inhumanly depriving Kashmiris of 4G access, even in the time of a pandemic, when such connectivity is necessary for basic things like education.
In a democracy, there is one simple yardstick of moral success. The more control the state needs to exercise, the more repression it needs, and the more freedom it abridges, the more unsuccessful that state is. Kashmir is not the Potemkin paradise we staged for European diplomats. After the sullen calm that we falsely interpreted as peace, the ground situation is getting more precarious. Kashmir is being denied full digital connectivity. It is also, through formal and informal means, being denied freedom of the press. The use of the UAPA against journalists is a new low in a state where censorship has been the norm. The message the state wants to send out is clear. Even the slightest transgression from the line of the Indian state, and you will be treated like a terrorist. Think of the chilling effect it has on a profession where you could be branded a terrorist for simply doing your job, or worse, even an odd tweet. That the UAPA is now being used in other states is not a comforting thought; it is simply a reminder that the authoritarianism we perfect in Kashmir will destroy all of us.
The Indian government is itself tacitly admitting militancy is growing again, now in new areas like north Kashmir. But our narrative is Janus-faced: To pronounce domestic policy as a success we attribute the rise in militancy to Pakistan; to pronounce foreign policy as a success we say this is home-grown. All the old fissures are coming back again with a vengeance. A young man dies, ostensibly at the hands of the CRPF, and the Valley is teetering on the edge again. Although not being reported much in national media, sporadic citizens’ protests are erupting again. The COVID lockdown is being seen as a cover for the state. Militants’ bodies are being buried discreetly, but there is no credible independent confirmation that those being buried are in fact militants. Here, transparency and independent monitoring of human rights could shore up the state’s credibility. The idea that discreet burials will somehow break the cycle of youth being inspired to take up arms is proving naïve. Quite the contrary. We have given up the pretence that the deep and profound estrangement of young people in Kashmir can be addressed. There is no strategy to elicit trust. Our only strategy is fear, fear and fear. It does not take a genius to figure out that this will only deepen the seething resentment, and the death wish of so many young people in Kashmir.
There is no defensible articulation of our endgame in Kashmir. If it is to make available freedoms and rights of all Indian citizens, then censorship and constitutional humiliation communicate the contrary. If the endgame is engineered demographic change, through brute coercion, we are setting ourselves up for a long and violent war. If the endgame is a normal democratic political process, then we seem to be too clever by half. The Centre is trying to engineer “pro Delhi” political forces, perhaps backroom deals with older mainstream politicians. But so long as Kashmir remains a municipality of Delhi, the humiliation of August 2019 will continue to rankle. There is no autonomous political process in Kashmir, only Delhi engineered options. This is a game for which India has paid the price before. The BJP now defines the national interest as synonymous with being pro-BJP. So the range of permissible political expression in Kashmir is also being reduced. Kashmir does not have constitutional redress on basic rights, a political process that is free, or an administrative structure that is not an extension of Delhi. And then we are surprised that Kashmir is back on the edge, when the only future in sight is an opaque darkness.
Let us look at it from the government’s own yardstick, which is security. Will it achieve anything for Kashmiri Pandits, in whose name it continues to communalise a deep human rights problem? Ask yourself a simple question: Is India strategically more secure in Kashmir after the chest-thumping Balakot operation? The answer is: No. After all, the government is itself saying that the footprint of cross-border terrorism has not gone down. All indications are it is likely to increase as summer approaches. You cannot solve Kashmir without a Pakistan policy. Symbolic legal victories notwithstanding, we don’t have one. We made Pakistan’s job easier, not harder. But more ominously, China is also now pressuring India in the Ladakh sector. China and Pakistan may be perfidious. But our staged arrogance has also created a situation where we are now vulnerable on both fronts in a way that is unprecedented in recent times.
There are no easy solutions. But the triumphal silence in which we have enveloped the challenge in Kashmir is a measure of our delusions. The COVID lockdown may have been precipitated by a virus. But the intellectual, political, constitutional, strategic and moral lockdown with which we are imprisoning Kashmir will produce more violence. It is also a harbinger of the future of the rest of India.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express