This is the third anniversary of the big constitutional changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. At the usual journalism schools, among the first things you are taught is the rule of three, or the three-example rule. Which means once you have three pointers in the same direction, your story is established. We are, therefore, looking at three things that have changed for the better since 5 August 2019, three that should’ve happened but haven’t, and three that have got worse.
But why are you going on and on about Kashmir? Who’s even thinking about it anymore, many of you might ask me. Which is precisely the most important change for the better.
If Kashmir has receded in our minds, and the third anniversary of the changes did not even feature on our media headlines or prime time discussions, nor trend on Twitter even for an hour, it means that dramatic — and audacious — move achieved something substantive.
Think about it calmly. For the past 75 years, barring one sizeable interregnum of relative calm between 1972 and 1987, Jammu and Kashmir has only featured on top of our minds and in our headlines as a chronic crisis.
The “our” used here is for public opinion all across India, and especially in Jammu and Kashmir. If it was seen as a perennially troubled zone in the rest of the country, those living in the state were direct victims.
That Kashmir as a crisis has fallen off our minds is the first big, positive change. The ever-looming cloud of Kashmir as a crisis weighed heavily on our politics as an easy connection was made between the Valley, terrorism, separatism, Islam and Pakistan.
It helped one side on our political wrestling mat define the national interest in a particular way. The founder of the Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, died in Kashmir, mysteriously for his followers, and thereby an eternal martyr for the cause. That is why decades later, in trying to get ahead in the leadership tussle in the BJP, Murli Manohar Joshi led that march in December 1991-January 1992 to unfurl the tricolour in Srinagar. It is besides the point that the face in that historic picture that grew the most in stature from that outing was one young, relatively unknown functionary then, Narendra Modi.
Armed insurrection in Kashmir, with an undeniable Pakistani connection, was built into our pan-national psyche from 1989 on and filtered down into popular culture. It sparked the flurry of the ‘Sunny Deol genre’ in Bollywood where, for the first time, the Muslim was mostly a bad guy, terrorist, and often a Pakistani stooge.
Now, that genre has faded.
Next, barring China and Turkey, almost no other nation of any consequence has even spoken about the Kashmir “issue” in the past three years.
All the Gulf countries, and the Islamic world elsewhere, seem relieved that this doesn’t seem an issue any more. The OIC statements no longer count. Besides other reasons, also because it not only keeps totally silent on the Uyghurs, but also invites the Chinese foreign minister as the most prominent guest at its summit.
And third, Pakistan. Imran Khan made the campaign of his life, but lost out as nobody paid him any attention. He ratcheted up tensions with India, stopped trade, let his economy slide, and today the nation with more nukes than India is praying for an FATF reprieve in the morning and an IMF bailout at night.
That the truce on the Line of Control came about, and has held, tells us that story. There will always be the odd terror attack, but Pakistan, at this point, counts for nothing on the Kashmir issue.
An important upshot of this wide global acceptance of the fait accompli is that the negotiating equation between India and Pakistan has shifted. The Pakistani establishment always believed they would get something by way of a gain if they could force India into negotiations. It was with this hope that they launched every operation, covert or overt, in the past decades. This is now over. No Indian Parliament would ever reverse what’s been done.
The first of the three failures to achieve what India should have by now is the resumption of a full-fledged political, democratic process. Both new territories continue to be governed directly from Delhi. This is both unfair to the people of Kashmir and dangerous for India.
BJP leaders take pride in having ended the era of the conflict entrepreneurs of the past, namely the Hurriyat leadership. But dangers also lurk in this vacuum. A fresh election needs to be held so the autonomy that every usual state in India deserves by right is restored to legitimately elected local leaders. Competitive space should open for existing mainstream politicians like the Abdullahs, the Muftis, and the rest. That New Delhi still nurses this paranoia after three years is a failure.
The second is a new communal injection within Jammu & Kashmir. Much of the political moves lately have been about widening the gulf between Hindu Jammu and Muslim Kashmir. It is perfectly legitimate for the BJP to dream of having its own chief minister in Jammu and Kashmir. But to do this through communal division is nearly impossible unless you want to resume the cycle of fixed elections and puppets as chief ministers.
That will set the clock back and take the Valley to the old normal. The gains of these three years will then be frittered away. The process to take everybody along has been delayed so long that it is now looking deliberate.
The third is the failure to deliver to the people of the Valley any substantive peace dividend. Local intelligentsia, journalists, and civil society live in fear. Many are hit with the toughest anti-terror laws and jailed for long, denied permission for overseas travel, and harassed in multiple other ways. By this time, the central government should have had the confidence to loosen up. It is unsustainable to keep a region so large and so chronically volatile under tight control forever. It is also counterproductive.
The biggest negative change over the past three years is increasing alienation among the young in the Valley. This isn’t the Kashmir youth of the 1960s. These young people are modern, usually better educated and more freely articulate than their compatriots in many other parts of the country, especially if I stick my delicate neck out and say so, the Hindi heartland.
They are also talented, ambitious, and global citizens in the networked cyberspace. The government’s failure or reluctance — or a bit of both — has left them angry. Ask any senior intelligence or Army leader in the Valley and they will admit to you how easy it’s now become for militancy to sustain itself indigenously. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed franchise their terror brand, export ideology and weapons, but manpower, and ultimately the bodies, sadly, will be all Indian. That’s a shame.
The second is the near total failure either to bring any visible investment or entrepreneurial activity from outside the state. There are many announcements, statements of intent, but very little on the ground. What this means is that the Modi government has still failed to convince entrepreneurs elsewhere that Kashmir is safe, stable, and like any other state in the country. That, after all, was the central, strategic and ideological intent of taking away its special status.
Third, I believe, as I had written when the Ladakh standoff began in the summer of 2020, that it was the change of Kashmir’s status that brought the Chinese PLA to our doorsteps. They are still there, as our greatest threat.
See it as the Chinese might. That Indians have split Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, which will now be centrally governed. Aksai Chin, in our control, is on the Indian map of Ladakh. The Modi government asserted in Parliament that it would take it back from us. Why don’t we then go there and remind these Indians that we are a party to the Kashmir dispute too?
I am not so delusional as to believe I can read the mind of the Chinese. Nor am I so stupid as to believe that the PLA brought 1,00,000 more soldiers with its entire array of weaponry to 15,000-feet plus because they wanted a picnic. This looks to be the most important and enduring downside of these three years.