Far from providing a solution, the government’s recent move to turn J&K into two Union territories can only be counterproductive, both for the state and the country. The manner in which it has been done—by stealth and fiat, a security lockdown, violating our norms of parliamentary democracy—has already been widely criticised. I will not repeat those arguments, except to say I hope they are taken on board, including in the Supreme Court.
This is the first time I have heard of a state being demoted to a Union territory, and that too without any compelling argument. We are told there is a pressing security threat due to Pakistan’s plans for a major attack. The Pakistani military and militant groups could well be emboldened by a dawning US-Pakistan rapprochement over Afghanistan, along with President Trump’s remarks on mediation.
If the Taliban comes to power in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s backing, we can certainly expect an attempted repeat of the armed insurgency of the 1990s and should take pre-emptive action to strengthen our defences. But security was a Union portfolio even under Article 370, so how will turning the state into a Union territory help? All it will do is curb the political leadership, whom the Centre clearly mistrusts since it put them under house arrest. BJP leaders routinely accuse Kashmiri politicians of harbouring separatist sentiments. Given that Pakistan-backed militants have killed many leaders and cadre, the accusation is absurd.
This is not to say that Kashmir does not have its share of venal and opportunist politicians, who flout the law, play all sides and are indeed unpopular with the people. But that is an unfortunate condition across the country and no one says that all our states should be turned into Union territories. Indeed, what this move does is unite mainstream and separatist leaders along with their critics within Kashmir against the government of India. Will anyone now come forward to build bridges between the Union and the Valley?
For the moment, what we see on the ground is fear exacerbated by uncertainty, not only in the Valley but also in the Muslim-majority districts of Jammu, and Kargil in Ladakh. The government’s emphasis on select points—for example, that non-state residents can now buy land and settle in the state—leads many to wonder if their worst fears will be realised, of engineered demographic change and the destruction of the state’s identity. Fear and uncertainty offer a fertile field for militant recruitment, which Pakistan will certainly exploit. Our security forces will do what they can but will be severely hampered by public hostility caused by the government’s draconian imposition of far-reaching constitutional and administrative changes on the state.
If we are to fix the situation, there is only one course of action. The reorganisation bill, even if enacted by both houses of the Parliament, must be put on hold until elections are held in Jammu and Kashmir and it is thoroughly debated in the state’s assembly and upper house. If it is rejected, the bill must go.
That does not mean the issues of special status and devolution should be forgotten. Article 370 is indeed a temporary and transient provision and should have been abrogated, amended or made permanent decades ago. But the only way to do that is through the democratic process of consultation, debate and joint decision-making. The same applies to regional devolution. We need to persuade, not attack each other.
We discussed these issues in some detail in our 2011 interlocutors’ report and suggested solutions to them, along with the pending humanitarian issues of the return of Pandits and reparations, rights of west Pakistani refugees and other stranded communities, unmarked graves and disappearances in the Valley, as well as ongoing human rights violations. In each case we found that a concentrated mobilisation of local political and public will, through democratic dialogue and incentives, could offer the solution. Our government has done the opposite.