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No bugles pierced the silence in Srinagar perhaps, but the symbolism carried all the awe and solemnity of a world-historic transfer of power. A little after 7 pm on August 6, 2019, when Parliament passed the resolution that turned Article 370 into a dead letter, the office of Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik quietly removed the red state flag from his table, leaving the tricolour as the lone sentinel. It will be the same everywhere else in the two newly anointed Union territories—Jammu and Kashmir (a physically truncated, and staturally diminished version of the state that adorned geography textbooks) and Ladakh. If things go according to one plan—if the ground can be kept calm—a grander, more triumphal and full-size re-enactment may be expected on August 15, with Union home minister Amit Shah doing the honours right there on Lal Chowk.
That there exists a healthy quantum of doubt on that sequence of events, at least as we go to press, speaks of the other side of reality. The red flags that represented the ‘special identity’ of the erstwhile state may have been rolled up and removed, but it will probably be a long while before the tricolour can be unfurled without the presence of thousands of security personnel anywhere in the state—sorry, make that Union territory, a phrase that has gained a new depth of meaning in the last week. Over one lakh troops patrol Kashmir (unofficial estimates peg it at much more.) As you read this, tanks are out in the streets of Srinagar, and columns of heavily armed personnel file by in breathless streets. Section 144 is in place—so no assembly of five or more people. Schools are shut. Internet, mobile services, cable TV services, landlines: blocked. State political leaders: under house arrest. Even by Kashmir’s chequered and trauma-filled past, this looks to be a new chapter—and a long haul. There’s no timeline, as of now, for this total shutdown. Out on the LoC, Bofors guns are in readiness.
The momentous changes wrought by the government—steered by Amit Shah through Parliament—have starkly different technical and practical aspects. The virtual annulling of Article 370, the state reorganisation…all this has fructified on paper, but it has to pass other challenges. Experts feel its legal tenability may be suspect (see), and hard scrutiny may ask some very serious questions of it. There is the small matter of international reactions—China has made bristling noises, and Pakistan, besides expelling India’s high commissioner Ajay Bisaria on August 7, promises to approach the UN (see To Cash in on Kashmir). Over and above that looms the aspect that Shah will be keenly following: local acceptability, or want of it, and how that gets articulated. An internal MHA document titled ‘The Future Ahead of Kashmir’, accessed by Outlook, foresees a “long and bloody struggle”, comparing the situation to the US civil war! It says the people of India must go through such a “struggle” for the “integration of Kashmir”, seeking to invoke a kind of moral mandate, but in no way blind to the fact that the path will be conflictual.
Modi and Shah congratulate each other in Lok Sabha.
Tanks are out in Srinagar’s streets, and armed personnel file by. This shutdown has no timeline.
“There will be violence instigated…when the nation takes recourse to such action, but that cannot, and must not, deter the State from preserving the right to equality, enshrined in the Constitution,” the document says. “If it leads to a long and bloody struggle to preserve the basic character of the Constitution…we, the people of India, must go through with such struggle. We must remember that in the USA, the North went to war with the South over the issue of human rights and Abraham Lincoln won the day. For the good of the people of India and for the residents of J&K, Articles 370 and 35A must be repealed forthwith as it will pave the way for the development of the state and its total integration with the Union.”
In the first instance, the anticipation of mass protests led to the massive reinforcement of troops and what the New York Times called “an information black hole”. Sources say National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was closely involved in the process, visiting the Valley in the run-up and then again to take stock. “The precautions were taken based on his assessment. The government didn’t want to take any chances,” a top security official reveals.
How long the bandobast and the iron curtain will stay is unclear. A “volcano” is bubbling under the surface, says the official, waiting to erupt at the first sign of a crack…the moment security is eased, the Valley will go up in flames. “Shah intends to fulfil all promises about developing Kashmir, promoting tourism, setting up industries, modern infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and universities, and creating jobs. The new UT awaits the investors’ summit later this year as a litmus test to see how much interest businessmen and industrialists show in the wounded region. But bringing peace and prosperity to Kashmir is not an easy promise to keep,” he says.
Local acceptance would seem like a chimera at this point—what with mass anger having peaked the way it did since Burhan Wani’s killing three years ago. Politics of Kashmir has in recent years been largely set in the street; even the separatist pantheon in the Hurriyat appeared to be led by popular sentiment, rather than leading it. But the initial signals of a potential thaw and dialogue, just a few weeks ago, have encountered a sudden death—with Shah pooh-poohing the very idea. Forget the nuances about the moderate/hardline split in the Hurriyat, even mainstream political leaders—those traditionally seen as “pro-India” in the Valley—now seem to be persona non grata and redundant in New Delhi’s scheme of things. A leader like Mehbooba Mufti, who was CM in coalition with the BJP just a year ago, having to be put in house arrest means the whole formal political sector in Kashmir—the PDP and the National Conference—has been painted into a corner that they’ll share with the separatists, and beyond them, the militants.
Insurgency in Kashmir, of course, isn’t dead. A spike in militant killings was matched of late by an unusual surge in local recruitment into their ranks after years. There’s also the churning within that space, with elements espousing loyalty to the Caliphate-spouting ISIS bringing a new, disturbing colour to the palette of violent resistance. The spectre of global Islamist terror hovers close—Sri Lanka wasn’t too long back, and al-Qaeda supremo Ayman al- Zawahiri had made a direct pitch to Kashmiri mujahideen just last month. It was dismissed as rhetoric, but any quietus won’t be for want of precipitating circumstances now. A military flare-up, mercifully, is only a remote possibility, with Pakistan tied up on its own western front. But quiet frontiers are not to be taken for granted in the best of times; intelligence agencies have reports of Pakistan military contemplating a series of actions. And the UNGA in September will be a parallel theatre of war. Besides Pakistan, China has real stakes in the goings-on and is unhappy with the alteration of Ladakh’s status. Remember the Daulat Beg Oldi incident of 2013: that was on the edge of the 38,000-sq-km swathe of Aksai Chin. When it was pointed out that the new UTs seemed to omit PoK and Aksai Chin, Shah made a forceful rebuttal in Parliament, saying he would “lay down his life” for those territories.
“(But) now is the time for some diplomacy,” says an intelligence official. “The government is not just dealing with 10 districts of Kashmir but with three countries—Pakistan, China and the US. The euphoria isn’t going to last too long. It’s good the first step to integrate Kashmir has been taken but there’s no point in making jingoistic statements on PoK and Aksai Chin. Indian leaders need to temper their statements,” he adds.
The dramatic set of moves—some called them the most momentous since the Emergency—has also created zones of great elation. The mass populist appeal apart, one political sector has long worked and argued for the abrogation of Article 370. Among those for whom it was a life-long article of faith is senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, the first one to unfurl the tricolour in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk back in 1992, when militancy was at its peak—Modi, strikingly, was part of his retinue then. Often critical of Modi and Shah in recent times, Joshi calls these “historic and bold” decisions. “We have always held the Constituent Assembly decision to formulate Article 370 was wrong. My personal view is Nehru was somehow manipulated by the British to give special status to Kashmir without taking Patel into confidence. Syama Prasad Mookerjee was convinced there was a conspiracy,” Joshi tells Outlook. “The decision needs to be accepted by all and implemented with a positive and futuristic vision,” says Joshi, adding “we couldn’t do it when Vajpayee was PM only because we didn’t have the numbers in Parliament”.
BJP workers in Hubli celebrate with Modi-Shah cutouts.
Joshi also waves away concerns about Kashmir’s demographic profile being altered. “It cannot remain an exclusive region. Kashmiriyat will be restored only when Kashmiri Pandits can go back there, when others can settle there. Migrations happen in all parts of the country. It’s now the Centre’s responsibility to create harmony, bring development and establish law and order there so people can go and settle,” he says. That call goes right to the heart of the most cherished dream for another segment of humanity: the Kashmiri Pandits, who have spent three decades in a long exile. Activist Sushil Pandit says he definitely wants to return to “my land, my home, my temple…my pilgrimage.” The Modi government has joined them in their fight to reclaim their land, he says. “For 30 years, we had even lost hope. Now we see hope. No matter how much time it takes—even one more generation, or more—we shall win this battle, and go and live on our land,” he tells Outlook.
This “epoch-changing decision…completely reverses our response to the challenges in Kashmir,” says Pandit, embittered and angry by the years of despair, and fairly representative of how his community views the whole imbroglio. “Till now, the response was placatory, offering concessions and sops to our tormentors. We gave them autonomy, and understated the problem as some kind of alienation and disaffection. We lived in denial, while a war was declared on us. They expelled Kashmiri Hindus and we called them misled, angry boys. The country’s leaders would negotiate with them, invite them for breakfast and hug them,” says Pandit.
“We couldn’t do this when Vajpayee was PM because we didn’t have the numbers in Parliament,” says BJP’s M.M. Joshi.
He’s happy the paradigm has changed from “the strange notion of winning hearts and minds”, from the days when New Delhi would even pay for the treatment abroad of separatist leaders. “There’s a 180 degree shift. They had autonomy, immunity from our Constitution…and still wanted azadi. Now, after 30 years of blood, gore and genocide, they end up with all concessions withdrawn and as a Union territory,” he adds, with a touch of satisfaction.
Another Pandit, who left his home in Kashmir in the early 1990s and now a successful industrialist, is happy the Modi government has destroyed the status quo, but questions the presence of security forces. “How long will the army and paramilitary stay there? The separatists have changed the Valley in the past 30 years, and there’s no way we can go back. This revocation has come very late. Maybe I don’t want to go back because I have established a business, but I’m sure many Pandits are waiting to reclaim their land, so are many non-Kashmiris,” says the septuagenarian businessman.
One reason the government was able to capture the legislative space was, of course, the abysmal state of the Opposition. Many parties supported the move. Even the Congress, leaderless and rudderless, did not seem to know how to orient itself to this challenge. But despite some disarray in its ranks, it made some forceful interventions. Former J&K CM Ghulam Nabi Azad said the government had chopped off the head of the country, destroyed history, and betrayed people who had stood by India by not taking their consent. “Integration happens by the heart, not by legislation,” he said. Former home minister P. Chidambaram called it a “cardinal blunder” and a “fatal legal error”, and added darkly: “Future generations will realise what a grave mistake this House is making.”
The stated misgivings are broadly along three axes. There is, firstly, the question of democratic ethics: how can such fundamental changes be wrought to a people’s life and world without their consent? The second, the legal conundrum, partly flows from that. Is it not specious, and very risky for Centre-state relations in the long term, to say the governor is an adequate instrument to voice the people’s will? Also, more technically, was Article 370 not immune to being modified via another part of the Constitution (Article 367)?
Lastly, the deeply held apprehensions in the Valley also have to do with the spectre of a demographic takeover via settlements: the favourite strategy of state colonisation across the world. WhatsApp jokes proliferated from the first day about plots for sale in the Valley; and a real low was touched with sexist comments, including from a BJP leader in UP, about “fair Kashmiri girls” now being available for marriage. Before the internet went off in the Valley, Mehbooba had tweeted: “GoI’s intention is clear & sinister. They want to change the demography of the only Muslim-majority state in India, disempower Muslims to the extent where they become second class citizens in their own state.”
The MHA document, however, harks back to history to show Kashmir did not always use its powers in the past with democratic ethics in mind. In 1981, the state assembly passed the J&K Resettlement Act, opening the doors to those Kashmiris and their descendants who had migrated to Pakistan or PoK in 1947, to return as legitimate citizens and take charge of their ancestral properties. However, refugees from PoK and their descendants, numbering about 1.5 million today, have consistently been kept beyond the pale, been denied the status of “state subjects”, and never allowed to settle. (These communities have been demanding their right to the 24 assembly seats left vacant in the name of PoK.) “Ironically, Muslim refugees from Xinjiang and Tibet, who had migrated to Kashmir following Chinese occupation of their countries in 1949 and 1959 respectively, have been granted ‘state subject’ status, along with voting rights,” the document points out. “The communal agenda of previous state administrations was, thus, clear…. Article 35A was the instrument.”
Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the young BJP MP from Ladakh, adds another regional angle. “You talk of demographics? Do you know what happened in Ladakh? The Muslim population has increased and Buddhists, who were in majority, have gone down. Is this secularism?” asks the 33-year-old Lok Sabha first-timer, talking to Outlook. He’s happy Ladakh will now be liberated, no longer “overshadowed by Kashmir-centric politics”. Two happy sides will not complete the triangle, though. What’s missing in the Kashmir story, as of now, is Kashmir.