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Jammu & Kashmir

Decoding the J&K puzzle

August 05, 2020 07:13 AM

COURTESY HT AUG 5

Decoding the J&K puzzle
A YEAR ON: India must bolster democratic project and hold free-and-fair polls while making it clear that separatism has no place

Paramilitary soldiers patrol during curfew in Srinagar; children head to tuition centres in old Srinagar; and a barbed wire laid out during curfew in the Sarie Bala area of Srinagar on Tuesday. AP/WASEEM ANDRABI/HT PHOTO


Prashant Jha

letters@hindustantimes.com

New Delhi : A year ago, on the morning of August 5, when home minister Amit Shah walked into the Rajya Sabha with a pile of papers, the Opposition, the media, and most importantly, the Kashmiri street, did not know what to expect. There had, of course, been intense speculation in the run-up to Shah’s entry into the House. The security crackdown in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), abrupt cancellation of the Amarnath Yatra, the detention of Kashmiri leaders, restrictions on telecom connectivity, and an advisory to tourists and outsiders to leave the Valley indicated that something big was in the offing.

But Shah surprised even the most astute of Kashmir-watchers in unveiling the political package of effectively nullifying Article 370 that conferred special status on J&K, removing Article 35A that enabled the state legislature to define permanent residents, dividing the state into two units of J&K and Ladakh, and converting both into Union Territories.

The decision was met by contrasting responses.

In Kashmir, there was, among political quarters, a sense of shock at the enormity of what had happened; there was apprehension about a possible demographic shift; there was resentment against what was seen as an effort to curtail the powers available to political leaders; and there appeared to be sullen anger at the disruption this caused to everyday lives. In Ladakh, there was jubilation and pride at having finally got the Centre to concede what was a longstanding demand — a separate administrative territory not under Srinagar’s control. In Jammu, where the desire for closer integration with the Indian Union is deep, the announcement was noted with relief and hope about a more equal and secure future .

But it was in the rest of India that the response was the most telling. There had been anger on the Indian street against what was widely perceived as the special treatment meted out to Kashmir; resentment against mainstream Kashmiri leaders for speaking a language of radicalism in Srinagar and of moderation in Delhi; hurt at the lives of soldiers lost and innocents killed due to terrorism. The decision, in this backdrop, was welcomed by the masses — with the hope that this would, finally, resolve the “Kashmir question”, long seen as a problem created by Pakistan, with its use of terror and patronage of secessionists.

And internationally, there was concern not at the decision itself — which was widely recognised as a sovereign right of Parliament — but at the restrictions which accompanied the decision, from arrests to suspension of the Internet, and at the implications of the move for the security situation in South Asia.

A year later, it is in these contrasting responses that the puzzle of Kashmir can be reviewed.

nationalism puzzle

The central question in Kashmir is one of nationalism. And here two ideas collide — the notion of Kashmiri nationalism and the idea of Indian nationalism.

The Indian State has. for long, recognised sub-national aspirations. Given India’s staggering diversity, the founders recognised India was best served as a union of states. As regional aspirations grew, federalism became stronger and states articulated their own aspirations and resentments. But sub-nationalist aspirations — for the most part — did not clash with the idea of the Indian nation. As a model of dealing with diversity, India achieved what was considered impossible, with the coexistence of multiple political identities within a constitutional, federal system. You could be a proud Tamil, a proud Maratha, a proud Gujarati, a proud Assamese — and you could be a proud Indian.

Kashmir, however, was unique, for here it was not just sub-nationalism. There was a strong strand of Kashmiri nationalism, which stood in contrast to Indian nationalism. This could be traced back to its religious complexion, the terms of accession, past agreements, the presence and role of Pakistan in its internal politics, the strong yearning for autonomy even among mainstream leaders, to a young generation radicalised by incessant anti-India propaganda, growing extreme Islamist influence, and excesses of the Indian State. You could be a proud Kashmiri without being a proud Indian.

The Indian State recognised the uniqueness of Kashmir and accepted the idea of an asymmetric federal mechanism — where Kashmir had its own Constitution, its own flag, its own laws. To be sure, these special provisions were gradually whittled down. And New Delhi made its own share of mistakes, including by arresting popular leaders, managing elections, and giving security forces an excessively free hand. But the overall sentiment in Delhi, for long, was that it was only by allowing Kashmiri sub-nationalism within the Indian Union that Kashmiri nationalism could be defeated.

Armed with a legislative mandate, and committed to its own core ideological beliefs, the BJP overturned this consensus. It believed that instruments which allowed Kashmir to be a unique case were the root of the problem, and the problem of Kashmiri nationalism had to be tackled with both a strong security offensive and a political re-imagination. Remove statehood — and send a message to those who wanted a separate country.

Remove Article 370 in effect — and make it clear that J&K was just another Indian State. Remove Article 35A — and ensure that every Indian had the same rights in Kashmir that they had elsewhere. Remove Ladakh — and ensure Kashmir’s political leaders cannot speak for sub-regions with distinct identities. Ensure central control — and stop anyone from putting political obstacles in the manner in which security forces operated.

The democracy puzzle

This strategy — of integrating Kashmir with the rest of India on the same terms — to defeat Kashmiri nationalism and the violence and terror that has often accompanied it, however, had one fallout , a democratic deficit.

The government, to ensure peace and quell the possibility of protests which could turn violent, detained political leaders, including those who participated in elections and committed themselves to the Constitution (a few prominent leaders remain locked in). It curtailed civil liberties, restricting political activity and protests, enhancing surveillance, and depriving Indian citizens in Kashmir of their right to connectivity (4G services have still not been restored). It held panchayat elections, but within a controlled environment where the space for open dissent was limited.

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