One fallout of the dislocation of lives and services on account of the Covid-19 virus in India, or occasional riot-inflicted communication clampdowns, are social network memes about Jammu and Kashmir. These are on the lines of: Now you know what it means to be in Kashmir, as Kashmiris, since 5 August 2019.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Kashmir has remained in political quarantine for more than nine months now on account of majoritarian political plays. Its citizens have remained bereft of the inoculation that guarantees democracy and human rights—a bill of health that several hundred million others, elsewhere in India, take for granted. Telecommunication and internet restrictions still exist in Kashmir. There data speeds remain low, internet access to citizens remain severely limited, a limited number of sites continue to be white-listed by government, and all telecom and internet activity are monitored. All so that its massively policed citizens do not flare up in outrage at a series of measures that were imposed without any say whatsoever on their part. It is a curious way, as templated by wars in northeastern India from the 1950s to the 1980s, to attempt to ensure abiding loyalty to India.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir lost its status and was made a Union territory, with Ladakh hived off as another Union territory. While many agree with this hiving off, what hurt was the abrogation of Article 370. There was also revocation of Article 35A, which guaranteed preferential economic and land-ownership status to citizens of the state on the lines of similar provisions that still continue in nearly all North-eastern Indian states and several regions populated by tribal folk in eastern and central India. Essentially, Kashmir went from being part of a state of India with constitutional guarantees and safeguards, to part of a Union territory directly managed by the Union home ministry and India’s national security apparatus.
It is time to take stock and to see what, for instance, the release last week of Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister of undivided Jammu and Kashmir state, one-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally, signals for the future politics of the former state. Abdullah’s release from custody is undeniably a structured step to signal a slight thaw in New Delhi’s attitude, though his son, National Conference leader and also a former chief minister and former BJP ally and even a central minister in a BJP government, remains in detention.
So is Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister and leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Indeed, as recently as 19 June 2018, the day BJP withdrew its support from the Mehbooba-run Jammu and Kashmir government, the two parties were coalition partners. The BJP and the PDP had danced an uneasy tango ever since a fractured mandate in the assembly elections in late 2014 brought them together, with the PDP notionally the senior partner and the BJP assuming the role of over-arching deputy. Governor’s rule followed within two days. The assembly was dissolved in November 2018. President’s rule, which followed governor’s rule, was extended on 3 July 2019, a little more than a month after a new BJP-led government was re-elected to run India. Manifesto promises to re-engineer Jammu and Kashmir were transformed to reality in August that year. It is important to understand this chronology.
Farooq Abdullah’s release, which followed the sporadic release of some political leaders and activists after they undertook promises of good behaviour and to not rock the political boat, came close together with the much-publicized visit to Delhi of a newly constructed political grouping. Members of the curiously named JK Apni Party—literally JK Our Party, as if other parties aren’t J&K’s own constructs—met the prime minister and home minister in New Delhi. This was true privilege: After all, India’s leadership had steadfastly refused interaction with former allies. The prime minister and home minister assured representatives of this new party that Jammu and Kashmir would again be granted statehood.
This latest step in the Jammu and Kashmir political and economic re-engineering project is fraught with risk, as it continues to bank on rigidly guided politics, severe or-else controls, and the exhaustion of will of the local population after several months of political and communications quarantine. It’s a stew stirred with strong Chinese flavouring that is unlikely to go down well in a population hungry for freedom and speech and expression and free, secure lives. Democracy needs its own diet.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.