New Delhi is rolling out the ‘three Ds’ to change J&K’s political/social map internally. It may even restore J&K’s statehood as a sop. But all amid a lockdown of opinions.
Jammu and Kashmir. These days, the words rarely evoke the torn edges of majestic mountains that garland it, beauteous gardens that recall imperial grandeur, swiftly-flowing streams that keep time for eternity or the spirit of Kashmiriyat immersed in Sufi spiritualism—all things that once marked India’s northernmost region.
Though it has never had an ordinary trajectory since 1947, the last three decades have seen the state—now reorganised into two Union territories—being defined by cross-border terrorism, curfews, distrust, separatists and security forces.
The BJP, nudged by its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had never couched its intention to do away with Article 370 that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Part of their core agenda, it found a mention in all their election manifestos, including for the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. For the BJP, abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A on August 5, 2019, was a fulfilment of their promise of greater integration of J&K with India. A promise of development, normality and end of terrorism; a promise that saw Kashmir’s historical aspiration for autonomy being set aside.
A year later, life in the Valley is far from normal, exacerbated now by the coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on mobile telephony and internet linger on. Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader and former chief minister Mebooba Mufti, who was part of coalition government with the BJP till June 2018, continues to be in detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA). National Conference leaders Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah were also in detention since the abrogation of Article 370; released in March this year, both father and son have since kept a low public profile, mocked by BJP leaders like Ram Madhav for not being accountable to people and “hiding behind their Facebook walls and Twitter handles”.
The BJP’s exertions, however, have not won approval among all nationalist parties—its former ally Shiv Sena has criticised the government, saying that like demonetisation in 2016, scrapping of Article 370 has failed to improve the security situation in J&K. “There is blood on the streets…and there is loss of innocent lives,” a recent editorial in its mouthpiece Saamna stated.
Geopolitical experts claim that the revocation of Article 370 unnecessarily managed to internationalise the Kashmir issue, something India had avoided for the past three decades. In the US, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has raised the rights of Kashmiris in his poll campaign. “A country like Iran that always supported India has, for the first time, criticised our handling of J&K post-370. Now it is getting closer to China and has kept India out of the crucial Chabahar Rail Project. It doesn’t augur well for India as it will also have an impact on Shias in Kashmir,” says a former foreign secretary.
The abrogation of Article 370 is definitely not a finished process—it is still work in progress, defined mainly by three Ds: domicile, delimitation and demographics. The new domicile rule, issued by the Centre to replace Article 35A, has come under criticism by Kashmiris, who see it as a ploy to change J&K’s demographic profile. Even Jammu residents, many of whom had welcomed the abrogation itself, have protested because government jobs are no longer reserved only for them.
The delimitation exercise—to redraw Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies in J&K, and in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh—is being pursued by a commission headed by Justice Ranjana Desai. This, too, is seen by some as something that aims at a demographic change in constituencies; the fear is of a possible increase in the number of seats in Hindu-dominated Jammu to benefit the BJP. It is only after delimitation is completed that elections to the UT legislature can be held.
Badri Raina, a commentator on politics, culture and society, is convinced about the attempt to change the demographic profile of J&K. “Hindutva forces believe that such change is the only abiding solution. They hope that the current delimitation exercise may yield an electoral majority for Hindu-dominated Jammu, enabling the installation of a Hindu chief minister in the next assembly. Now that Kargil is no longer a part of J&K but of Ladakh, the numbers of Muslims stand diminished,” he avers.
Strategists and security experts opine that the youngest UT should not remain bereft of political activity much longer. Also, there cannot be a long-term clampdown on fundamental and democratic rights of the people through internet curbs. For the avowed development of the region, economic activity—pace the COVID-19 lockdown—has to begin.
The UT has lost two consecutive seasons of tourism—the mainstay of its economy—because of the uncertain situation, while private investors have not shown any interest owing to the security scenario. Also, displaced Kashmiri Pandits—touted as some of the main beneficiaries of the abrogation—are still far from reclaiming their lost homesteads.
The fact that the abrogation of Article 370 was not marked by violent protests in the Valley is attributed by locals to the communication ban, the arrest of mainstream and separatist leaders and heavy security deployment.
Political analyst and veteran swyamsevak Seshadri Chari tells Outlook that earlier, whenever anyone talked about abrogating Article 370, there were ominous predictions that “the country will burn”. Nothing like that happened.
Chari compares it to the killing of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran in 2009. “He was a cult figure and had the support of major political parties in Tamil Nadu. It was believed that his death would not only topple the government in TN, but that people would set themselves ablaze, like they did after M.G. Ramachandran’s death. Nothing happened. Similarly, in Kashmir, not even 50 people came out to protest. Hurriyat Conference kept threatening that the day Article 370 is touched, Kashmir will become a part of Pakistan. Where is Hurriyat now? It’s finished,” he says.
However, for some, lack of protests signifies a tired acceptance by a people numbed by years of bloodletting and turbulence. Former Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha says the sudden announcement of revoking Article 370 left the Kashmiris numb in fear, disbelief and humiliation. Sinha, who has visited the Valley as head of a team constituted by the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, including two visits since August last, says he noticed a big change. “The last time I went there, in November, I didn’t meet even a single person who spoke for peace or for India. This was not the case earlier. People had hope before abrogation of Article 370,” he says.
Raina believes there were no visible protests as “a profound sense of resignation has gripped Kashmiris. It has disastrous psychological and pathological effects. Most think it’s best to keep their dear ones out of harm’s way, from both sides of the trouble.” According to him, the chief political forces in J&K, with a vested interest in Article 370, were the NC and the PDP, because they maintained allegiance to the accession, but only in those terms that were encoded in Article 370 with the consent of the Indian Constituent Assembly.
“By locking up their leaders, the Centre ensured that their mass base could not mount any major challenge. The Hurriyat, embroiled in internal divisions and corrupt practices, never had commitment to the Article, since their majority view was that J&K should go to Pakistan. As to voluntary citizen action, the overbearing presence of security forces, ready to crush the least expression of dissent, had ensured that most people were too terrified to even think of protesting,” Raina tells Outlook.
Geostrategy expert and former special secretary, R&AW, Anand Arni believes that such a “muscular clampdown” may reduce scope for violence and terror-related incidents, but it cannot work in the long term. “It is not possible in a democracy and must be rejected. It totally contradicts our stated positions. People need to vent and should be allowed. It is the safety valve,” he says. Or else, it would be easy for Pakistan to exploit the situation. “It is not difficult for Pakistan to create a new terror outfit in Kashmir. So far, it has not been in a position to do so, but ultimately it also has to answer to its domestic constituency,” he adds.
Former R&AW chief and advisor on Kashmir to late PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, A.S. Dulat says no violence followed the abrogation simply because the average Kashmiri wants peace. “Even I have heard these assertions that there is simmering lava that will erupt. I don’t buy that. Kashmiris can live with the abrogation of Article 370. They have agreed to it. Even Pakistan will accept it if the government talks to them. There is no Pakistani left in Kashmir now. The last standing Pakistani, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has also thrown in the towel. Now is the time to talk and take the next step following the abrogation,” Dulat says. However, he advocates a speedy revival of the political process. Acknowledging that there is only so much that the Lieutenant Governor can do under the controlling hand of New Delhi, Dulat recommends something like what late PM P.V. Narasimha Rao did when he announced elections in J&K after six years of governor’s rule in 1996. Rao had made the announcement in Burkina Faso in November 1995, paving the way for the historic elections. “Rao’s way was the best way. Kashmir needs it. Let the politics play out—whether it is a hung assembly or one party gets majority. Give that power to the people,” he adds.
According to him, the Centre is focusing too much on the security paradigm while handling Kashmir. “The larger problem remains that of the people,” he says. The bigger security problem, he points out, is in North Kashmir, where foreign militants, mostly the Lashkar, cross over from Pakistan. “South Kashmir militancy is more the result of radicalisation of local youth. It is the fallout of hopelessness about their future. The political vacuum weighs in, since there is no one they can approach for a redressal,” he explains.
He urges the local police, “who are doing a very good job”, to try and reform these youth, instead of conducting only punitive action. While foreign militants in North Kashmir should not be spared, killing local youth who have picked up the gun doesn’t help much. “You kill one, four more angry youths will come out and get killed by security forces. In the 1990s, the lifespan of a terrorist used to be two-and-a-half years. Now it is maximum two-three months. My fear is that Srinagar might get trapped between North and South Kashmir and witness some big terror incident,” the former R&AW chief warns.
Congress MP Manish Tewari also fears that the UT may see increased violence. Among the few who opposed the Narendra Modi government’s move to pass the bill in Lok Sabha, Tewari says there is certainly no let-up in alienation of Kashmiris after the abrogation of Article of 370. “The classical curve of extremism has three stages—alienation, radicalisation and violence. Alienation has only increased. Even in Jammu, murmurs of discord have started. The security situation is hardly any better. You cannot have the territory under curfew and then claim improved security situation,” the Congress leader tells Outlook.
It is for this reason, he says, that private players are not likely to invest in the strife-torn UT to set up industries. “Money is a coward” and it goes to the safest harbour, he says, quoting former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “Rumsfeld talked about the ‘gate test’. Open the gate and see which way the money flows. Given the security situation of the UT, who is going to go there and invest?” asks Tewari.
Yashwant Sinha talks about the “silence of the graveyard” in this context. An investor would want to ensure that things are in order. “J&K is far away from it. Even the planned investor meet did not happen,” he points out.
Let alone investments for new projects, even ongoing projects under the PM’s Development Package (PMDP) for J&K are progressing slowly due to the uncertain security scenario. In the five years since PM Modi announced the Rs 58,627 crore package in 2015, only 49 per cent funds have been utilised, as per a review done by the UT administration earlier this month. Of the 54 projects, only nine have been fully completed and eight “substantially completed”. The rest are either in the “ongoing” or “slow moving” category.
According to Raina, most people in the Valley are also sceptical about investors wanting to come in any big or lasting way—at least not for such time as locals remain hostile to the Centre. “Jammu too will be cautious in this regard, if it impacts local economic interests,” he says.
Himself a Kashmiri Pandit, Raina does not see many from his community going back to reclaim their homeland. Though Ram Madhav asserts that the government is committed to bringing them back with “dignity, honour and safety”, Raina says that Kashmiri Pandits, by and large, remain estranged from Kashmiri Muslims in general. “The sort of iron-clad guarantees they ask for may not be deliverable, and it will be a while before a rapprochement is either desired by them or attempted. In short, the prospects of them returning to the Valley continue to seem negative,” he says.
While most are convinced that abrogation of Article 370 is there to stay, the lawyer in Manish Tewari still believes it is not a done deal yet. “The matter continues to be under judicial scrutiny. It was something not thought through. The Constitution of India, for example, does not envisage one high court for two UTs,” he says.
The Congress leader may be unreasonably optimistic about turning back the clock on abrogation of Article 370; however, the possibility of restoring J&K’s statehood is quite high. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav also confirms in his interview to Outlook that as per the Union home minister’s announcement, restoring statehood will be the way forward. “I am sure necessary steps will be taken at an appropriate time,” he says.
Dulat, a veteran Kashmir hand, believes that the BJP-led government will use restoration of statehood as a bargaining chip with the Kashmiris. “There will be a price for it. In return, Kashmiris will have the sense of getting at least something back,” he says, reiterating that Kashmiris need to be the government’s focus area. “The government should open communication channels with the people. There are always two sides to a story. The government has one. It won’t do any harm for it to hear the other side too by talking to people like Omar Abdullah, Sajjad Lone, Shah Faesal and even the Mirwaiz,” adds the former spy.
Sinha concurs. “The only solution is through dialogue. The government must identify stakeholders and depute someone to talk to them, giving that person full authority to take decisions,” he says. Raina weighs in: “I do not see that anything definitive by way of resolution is in the offing. Not until some fundamental issues are addressed through open and sincerely democratic procedures.”
All serious debates on Jammu and Kashmir invariably underline the need for a reasonable dialogue with the people—the ultimate stakehol-ders anywhere.