There is a Kashmiri proverb: “Nav kath che rozan navan dohan” (New talk remains fresh for only nine days). It’s over a month since August 5 and the new talk is just beginning to be heard.
For, the noise swirls around clampdown and lockdown, bifurcation and downgrade. And the questions revolve around what will happen if and when curbs are eased, who will do politics when even politicians who swore by the Indian Constitution are detained?
But the new talk is in hushed whispers, behind closed doors: August 5 will change the fundamental character of J&K, particularly the Valley.
That New Delhi decides policy unilaterally for Srinagar is an old script. This time, though, the abrogation of the state’s special status is being seen on the empty, angry street through one and only one prism: That of demographic change.
J&K’s Muslim majority fears that once the Permanent Resident Act is removed, it eases the plan to set up settlements amid massive military presence. The revocation of Article 35A removes all curbs on non-J&K residents and corporates. The Valley’s current population is around 70 lakh and while the cold logic of mathematics may suggest that any plan to organise an influx of people from outside the state won’t happen overnight, the fear is inescapable. The decision to abrogate special status is seen as a threat to the very existence of Kashmiris, and J&K’s Muslim majority.
That’s why it’s simplistic to interpret the reaction to August 5 by looking at earlier upsurges: 2016 (Burhan Wani’s killing), 2010 (staged encounter), 2009 (Shopian rape and murder) and 2008 (transfer of Amarnath land). In each of these, the anger was reflexive, raw. This time, it has coalesced around a real threat — that the state’s Muslim majority has been politically and administratively disempowered and the next step is to turn them into a minority in their own home.
This is what’s spelled out unambiguously as the Sangh Parivar’s civilisational project. The RSS has called J&K’s 68 per cent Muslim majority “coercive”, the conflict “a thorn in our flesh,” and a chronic “headache”. The Sangh sees the last seven centuries of Kashmir’s Muslim history and character as an aberration. It is the land, not the people, that matters in this scheme of things.
This ideological view is seen as the reason why Kargil was clubbed with Leh in a UT when the demand for a breakup was exclusively from a section of Buddhists in Leh. Or why Jammu wasn’t allowed to become a separate entity despite a long demand from the Sangh’s own constituency from the Hindu majority, especially the Dogras.
To this, add the fact that anyone with any following in the Valley is in detention. The separatist leaders and their workers were already in jail outside the state. Now many prominent business leaders, lawyers and civil society members too have been arrested and shifted to jails outside J&K. The entire pro-India leadership and their workers are detained. The BJP wants fresh political faces who subscribe to the post-August 5 arrangement, and follow the Sangh outlook on Kashmir. They won’t be easy to find. The Centre’s pet project of Panchayat empowerment hasn’t produced a crop of leaders who can replace the existing political elite.
When the future is used as a justification for action in the present, it is vital to draw from history. On November 2, 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told All India Radio that the fate of J&K “is ultimately to be decided by the people. The pledge we have given not only to people of Kashmir but also to the world. We will not and cannot back out of it.”
Nehru was PM of India and his assurances of plebiscite came after New Delhi secured a conditional accession of J&K to the Indian Union, thanks largely to Sheikh Abdullah, the state’s most popular leader at the time, who argued for J&K to throw in its lot with India rather than Pakistan. He even represented India’s case at the United Nations. “I and my organisation never believed in the formula that Muslims and Hindus form separate nations,” he said. “We do not believe in the two-nation theory, nor in communal hatred or communalism itself.”
Sheikh Abdullah’s words carried formidable weight, which is why the Valley, unlike other Muslim majority parts of J&K, didn’t rise in revolt against his decision. While British India was fighting for independence, Sheikh was leading a mass rebellion against autocratic Hindu Dogra rule. In 1932, he launched the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, which he renamed as National Conference seven years later to emphasise his faith in secularism and underline his rejection of the two-nation theory. In 1945, the NC adopted a manifesto called Naya Kashmir, which provided an inclusive roadmap for J&K.
His support, though, came with a condition: J&K was to have “special status” within India. It took Nehru, Sardar Patel and their team and Sheikh and his team around five months until October 1949 to negotiate its terms. The result was Article 370.
Parliament’s legislative power over J&K was confined to matters of defence, foreign affairs and communications. Any other constitutional provisions could be extended through Article 370 with prior concurrence of J&K’s Constituent Assembly, which dispersed in 1956, making the arrangement between J&K and New Delhi permanent.
Soon Sheikh was made to realise that his decision to challenge the basis of the two-nation theory and his unflinching faith in the constitutional guarantees for Kashmir’s special status were nothing but political gullibility, and lack of statecraft.
New Delhi repeatedly fiddled with the solemn compact with J&K: In 1953, Sheikh was arbitrarily arrested while he was the J&K PM. This followed stage-managed elections, and further disillusionment of a vast section of the Muslim majority, leading to the beginning of a resistance movement. In the two decades after Sheikh’s arrest, his party turned into Plebiscite Front seeking a referendum because New Delhi hadn’t kept its side of the bargain. After years in jail, Sheikh surrendered in 1974 and returned to the Indian fold after he was promised that J&K’s special status wouldn’t be further tinkered with. But once he died, the tinkering restarted. The rigging of the 1987 polls changed everything — and set the stage for militancy.
So, if the strife in Kashmir was born out of the erosion of J&K’s special status, how can its unilateral removal by New Delhi bring peace now? One government answer is that this is a solution to the Kashmir dispute and a way to improve the lot of the people. But if, indeed, New Delhi believes the decision is for the good of the people, then what explains the siege around every household, an unprecedented communication blockade, a record troop build-up and the detention of almost everyone who has a political or social standing in Kashmir?
The proposed UT government in J&K will have an eight-minister cabinet and a Chief Minister with hardly any powers. The real power will be with the unelected Lieutenant Governor chosen by New Delhi. Unlike anywhere else in the country, the new law has lifted the freeze on delimitation. This is being seen as an attempt to increase the seat share from Jammu’s Hindu majority areas and alter the political landscape. August 5 has already ensured the entry of West Pakistan refugees in the assembly voter list while removing J&K Resettlement Act, a law passed in 1984 to give the right to return home to the Muslims forced to leave during the November 1947 massacre in Jammu.
Over a month on, the only way forward for the Centre seems to be to continue the status quo: Keep political actors detained; continue the lockdown and the communication blackout to prolong the silence.
A recent tweet by a Kashmiri activist based in Europe, who is a harsh critic of Pakistan on J&K and intervenes in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to rebut any unfavourable report against India, sums up the situation. “Spoke to a friend in Srinagar after a two week hiatus and asked about the situation. His reply: There are only two Kashmiris left. One who feels betrayed & humiliated. The other, who tells the first one: ‘We told you so’. That was all we spoke. Both not knowing what else to say.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 9, 2019 under the title “Hearing the silence.”