The Kashmir Conundrum

Apologies for being away for almost a week. I have missed you, hope you have too.

I had no realization of what significant events my brief interlude from blogging would bring. But while I have been away, Jammu and Kashmir as a state of India don’t exist the way it used to. It’s now a Union Territory with a Legislature. The state was also bifurcated to create an independent UT of Ladakh with no legislature. This also meant article 370 of the Indian Consitution, which conferred special status to the state of J&K, was modified. Before this, this special status allowed J&K to have its own constitution, its own flag and its own laws independent of the same in the union of India. Now, people from all over India can buy land in Kashmir, set up businesses and invest; Indian government’s welfare schemes, rules, and regulations will now be applicable in the state.

Before the bill to this effect was passed in Parliament, Indian Army troops moved into J&K, clamped down on the Internet and detained local politicians and separatists. There have been apprehensions of violence and unrest over the development. As we speak, this continues with an eerie silence from the international community with the exception of Pakistan and China. What’s evident is that most countries in the world seem to be viewing this exercise by the Indian government as an internal matter of India, recognizing its sovereignty in dealing with its internal affairs. Pakistan, however, thinks otherwise and has already reached out to the UN and a host of other countries to offer their support in condemning India.

A Contested Past

Unlike the differing viewpoints on Kashmir, there are thankfully no conflicting opinions on how J&K acceded to India. I particularly liked this academic EPW piece on the history of the troubled state. The main points in the piece can be summarised as below:

  • At the time of independence of India, Hari Singh, the then king of J&K was ambiguous about acceding to India or Pakistan. He brokered a deal with the British govt to stay independent. This state was not to be, as an attack by Pakistani pastuns compelled Hari Singh to reach out to India for help. India, in turn, sought J&K accession to India.
  • At the time of accession, India adopted the policy that in case of dispute over J&K’s status, the matter should be settled in accordance with the wishes of people. However, India also considered the accession a purely temporary and provisional arrangement, as stated in the Government of India’s White Paper on J&K in 1948.
  • J&K was conferred the special status via Article 370; you could read all about the provision in detail here. Briefly, this article limited the Union government’s legislative power over Kashmir to just three subjects- foreign affairs, defense, and communications. This in effect ensured J&K’s autonomy.
  • Further, to strengthen this arrangement, certain riders were put in place: the central government couldn’t make any changes in the article without issuing a presidential order, with approval of the state legislature, and only after the changes were incorporated in the state constitution.

Why The Scrapping of 370 Was Welcomed:

  • Home Minister Amit Shah, in his speech in Lok Sabha, said article 370 had for years separated J&K from India, with the provision misused by separatists and sympathizers of separatists in the state. Shah’s argument was in line with the BJP’s historic stand on article 370, which has also been on their poll manifesto for years.
  • Another argument highlighted the lack of development in the state because of the special status of J&K. Shah said because of the article, many of the central government’s schemes and benefits didn’t reach the people of Kashmir.Manish Sabharwal wrote in The Indian Express:

Historians warn against “presentism” and Kashmir’s history is too long and complex to belong to any party, community, individual or religion. But it would be foolish to deny that Kashmir’s last few maharajas were distracted and disinterested in development. Monarchies or hereditary leadership are ineffective because they think of citizens or voters as a necessary evil that must be tolerated, possibly patronised, but certainly ignored. Naya Kashmir — a memorandum that Sheikh Abdullah submitted to Maharaja Hari Singh in 1944 — outlined a plan to convert J&K from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy, called for universal franchise, freedom of expression and press, ability of women to work in all trades and professions, and a detailed economic plan. Much of what he sought is enshrined in our Constitution but his vision of social justice, economic progress and poverty reduction — which he couldn’t achieve in his lifetime — is highly relevant for Kashmir today….

India and J&K are tremendously and permanently intertwined. When one does well, the other does well. And when we both do well, we are unstoppable.

  • An overwhelming number of Kashmiri pundits rejoiced the scrapping of 370, arguing that with the provision gone, they would return to their homes in J&K from where they had to flee at the peak of separatist violence in the state.
  • Article 370 was acted as a shield for terrorists in J&K, who brainwashed Kashmiri youth against India and took undue advantage of their economic situation arising out of the poor development in the state.

Why The Scrapping of 370 Was Condemned:

  • Scrapping of 370 hits at the autonomy of J&K, many argued.
  • With the special status gone, outsiders can buy and in J&K. Many viewed this as a vicious attempt to engineer a demographic transition in the Muslim-dominate d state.
  • The move attacked the “Idea of India” and diluted Kashimiriyat. 

    Economist Haseeb Drabu, in this piece for Mint, argued:

For the people of J&K, the biggest benefit of the state having greater legislative latitude under Article 370 has been the radical restructuring of agrarian relations. It was the first state in India, much before the communist government in Kerala, to carry out non-compensatory land reforms.

… These land reforms along with a massive debt write-off undertaken over 20 years, from 1951 to 1973, transformed the lives of rural masses and underlie J&K’s better-than national average human development indicators.

Samar Halarnkar in this piece for Scroll, argues that the move marks the slow un-democratization of India:

Aided and approved by vast swathes of the media, the Opposition, the administration and the Indian people, the Kashmir deception is the most impressive feat yet achieved in the slow, gradual process of dimming the lights of India’s democracy.

India has been set on course towards the darkness for some time. Successive Congress governments deliberately allowed India’s democracy to be clouded by the continuation and deployment of laws – old and new – meant to be used by a ruler against the ruled.

We did not complain enough when thousands suffered the wrongful use of vaguely worded laws: against terrorism, criminal defamation, information-technology misuse and sedition, the last of which has been freely used over the years against sloganeering students, villagers protesting power plants and cartoonists.

What Now?

I can not help but talk about the continued media clampdown in J&K. It’s been a week and news from the state has been a trickle, not a storm, as one would expect. The manner in which the move was hurried through, raises these legitimate concerns:

1. Future of media freedom in India – because even as we speak, reports suggest that people in and outside of Kashmir can’t still reach their families, and journalists aren’t moving freely in the state to be able to send regular reports.

2. State of democracy in India – because, firstly, the state assembly had no role to play in this move, and the parliament didn’t discuss a sensitive provision such as this enough before the bill was rushed to voting.

3. Position of courts on the government move – National Conference party has already challenged the government move in Supreme Court, but legal experts say this may not be a cakewalk. Here is The Print report that explored instances in the past when Indian courts have ruled on Article 370.

4. Role and future of political parties in J&K 

5. Will this bring about peace or conflict in the region?

6. Implications for India’s federal structure – Louise Tillin wrote in The Hindu:

 This is not the first time that a Central government has used its powers to bifurcate a State in the absence of local consensus. This was also seen with the creation of Telangana in 2014. As in the case of Telangana, the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh does respond to a long-run demand in this region with a substantial Buddhist population. However, the decision to transform the remainder of J&K State into a Union Territory, at the same time as annulling Article 370, is a departure with profound and as yet unknown consequences in Kashmir, and wider implications for Indian federalism.

There are undeniably worrying aspects to the latest development in J&K. While there are no clear answers to this now, it’s important to say that the manner in which the government went ahead with scrapping of article 370, it should not keep us in any illusion about the state of the democratic process in India. We could only hope that good sense prevails and there is no repeat.

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