Of the arguments made against the abrogation of Article 370 all of last week by a plethora of Kashmir ‘experts’, the one that irritated me most was the one about Kashmir ‘losing its identity’. Which one? The one in which Hindus and Muslims lived together in total harmony? The one in which Kashmiri Islam was so moderate that unveiled women prayed in mosques? Or the current ‘identity’ in which Hindus have been ethnically cleansed from the Valley and Islam prevails in its most fanatical form? Having witnessed the changes in Kashmir’s identity first hand, let me remind you of them.
The Prime Minister in his speech last Thursday spoke of a time when Kashmir was so popular with Bollywood’s filmmakers that almost not a single film was made without a romantic song being shot somewhere in the Valley. He urged filmmakers to return to Kashmir and spoke of how it had ‘the potential to become the world’s largest tourist destination’. That Kashmir existed once but no longer does. It was destroyed not by political problems and alienation but because of the advent of the new Islam that blew into the Valley in the Eighties, when money started pouring in from Saudi Arabia to groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami.
By 1989 came the armed insurgency and Pakistan got involved. Its Kashmiri agents ensured that the Hizbul Mujahideen stole the struggle for ‘azadi’ from the secular JKLF so jihadist Islam began to infuse a political movement. Soon Kashmir’s Pandits were ethnically cleansed from the Valley and in the streets of Srinagar appeared bearded young men who marched into liquor shops and forcibly closed them down by smashing bottles of liquor on the pavements. They walked into hotels and ordered bars shut. Cinemas were forcibly closed and women who did not veil their faces risked having acid thrown at them. A new ‘identity’ was imposed on Kashmir. Tourists continued to come but the magic of the old Kashmir was gone. Can it return? I am not sure. But, if anything can help bring it back, it is probably the abrogation of Article 370.
Personally, I did not like the manner of its abrogation. I think it is wrong and dangerous to impose political change by locking people up and denying them all means of communication. It should never happen. Not in Kashmir or anywhere else in India because it damages our democracy. But, I also believe that Article 370 was no more than a symbol of Kashmir’s special status. In reality Kashmir enjoyed hardly more autonomy than any other Indian state, but because of its supposed special status has been a playground for secessionists and jihadists.
It is not at all surprising that Pakistan is so incensed that Imran Khan virtually warned of nuclear war becoming a real possibility. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations appeared on Christiane Amanpour’s show to declare that it was the ‘human rights’ of the Kashmiri people that Pakistan was most concerned about. Ms Amanpour would have done well to ask her about the ‘human rights’ of the people of Balochistan, but did not. She would have done well to ask about the jihadist groups that have turned Kashmir into a killing field, but did not.
Kashmir’s identity today is that of an Islamic state in the making. The young men who now lead the insurgency make this clear every time they make a new ISIS-type recruitment video. India cannot allow an Islamic state. Kashmir cannot either. Its economy is almost entirely based on tourism, and tourists do not flock to jihadist countries no matter how beautiful they are, for the simple reason that religious fanaticism can turn even paradise into a kind of hell.
As for the fear that with the abrogation of Article 370 Kashmiris will lose their identity, that really is a stupid fear. India has allowed diversity to flourish to a fault. It is hard to find Indians who do not first identify the state they come from, then their caste and religion before they identify themselves as Indians. Kashmiris can be found in every major tourist destination in India, from the beaches of Goa and Kerala to the high mountain resorts in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and nowhere have they shown the smallest sign of losing their ‘unique’ identity.
The fact that so many have been forced to leave Kashmir for destinations where thousands more tourists go is because Kashmir lost its special magic when the jihadists took over. If they had not taken over and started laying the foundations of an Islamic republic, it is possible that Kashmir would already have become ‘the world’s largest tourism destination’. To use a sledgehammer to abrogate Article 370 was unwise and risky. But, if it can bring back the magic that Kashmir once had long, long ago, then the risk will be worthwhile.
This article first appeared in the print edition of August 11, 2019 under the title ‘Did Article 370 preserve Kashmiriyat?’