It’s two years since the Modi government announced its decision to do away with the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and the reorganisation of the state into two Union Territories. On the ground, the implementation of these momentous decisions was done through an unprecedented use of the hard instruments of state power. Thousands of political activists and leaders were arrested, and three of the state’s former chief ministers — including one who is a sitting member of Parliament — detained for months, and slapped with the Public Security Act. Some political workers are still behind bars. Internet services were disrupted for nearly 18 months. Kashmir’s media organisations were crippled, a new “media policy” was brought in. The onset of the pandemic only exacerbated the situation. The government’s justification for these methods was that it had enabled the implementation of the reorganisation measures without loss of life.
But it may be a mistake to take the apparent calm for normalcy. Kashmir has seen such calm before, only to have it rudely shattered. By all accounts, despite the promises that the changes would bring in more private sector investment and create jobs outside the government, no such visible “development” has taken place. The loss of statehood and fears of demographic change, apprehensions and insecurities regarding ethnic and cultural identity, and spectres of jobs being taken away by outsiders, stoked by the new domicile rules, have served to keep people, in Kashmir, Jammu and even Ladakh, in uncertainty. Though the number of new militants has fallen steadily, young men continue to leave home and join militant groups. An impersonal administration run by bureaucrats of the reorganised UT cadre can only add to the grounds for alienation. The yearning for political representation, which the state has lacked since the PDP-BJP government fell after the BJP pulled out of the arrangement, was evident in the turnout for the District Development Council election. At the same time, however, those elections also served to show the limits of an imagination for Kashmir that depends on a new political class and a clean slate, minted in the corridors of power in Delhi.
This is why the meeting at the end of June between the leaders of the political parties of Jammu & Kashmir with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a significant inflection point for both J&K and the Centre. It signalled that the government is perhaps ready for political accommodation. The main outcome from the meeting was a forceful reiteration by J&K’s political leadership of the demand for restoration of statehood. The government must continue the process of engagement with the political leadership of the erstwhile state, and in consultation with them, must plan for Assembly elections at the earliest. After two years of heavy-handed measures, drift and political experimentation, this is the only way forward.