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Modi govt’s plan to empower Kashmir economically & disempower politically will cost India

Slapping of Public Safety Act on Farooq Abdullah only to justify his detention in Supreme Court clears any doubt about Modi government’s intentions.

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The drive from Srinagar to Shopian in South Kashmir on the sixth Friday since the nullification of Article 370 was calm. Barring a few locations, there are very few security personnel in sight. Shops and businesses remain shut, and people — mostly men — mill about. Even though a Friday — typically unpredictable and turbulent, and the area volatile, the uneventful drive makes it easy to believe that the tension we felt was perhaps more imagined than real.

However, it is precisely this contra-indication that lies at the heart of the story of Kashmir as it enters this new chapter that began on 5 August 2019. All shades of ideology and opinion in the Valley converge around a simple emotion — betrayal. The Centre’s decision and the manner of its execution to nullify Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status and privileges to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as to split the state into union territories — has struck at a sense of dignity and identity of the Kashmiri mainstream political class.

The loudest silence today is from them — the vanguard that kept Pakistan at bay and held on instead to the promise of autonomy or self-rule that they built their careers on. However, history is replete with examples of the mainstream’s failure to tackle political separatism — whether during the Vajpayee years, or during the Manmohan Singh years, and Modi’s move is as much a result of Delhi having had enough, as it is of an authoritarian, populist leader killing two birds with one stone. Effectively shown the door by Delhi, and abused by their compatriots for having been blind to India’s intentions, their silence today is borne out of humiliation. It is the ‘death of expectations.’

In Shopian, amongst a group of a dozen or so taxi drivers whiling away the afternoon, the reactions vary, but only slightly. The older men accuse the Centre of both — neglecting Kashmiri sentiments, and deliberately disrupting business during summer’s peak tourist season — which has come to a grinding halt. “India has shot itself in the foot with this decision.” Their MLA, from the PDP is in preventive detention like his party leader, Mehbooba Mufti — the former Chief Minister of a government in coalition with the BJP. These men have no love lost for their political leadership. In fact, they see their detentions as retribution for previous, doomed alliances with the BJP both in the Centre and in the State, and accuse them of bringing Kashmir to this pass.

But the absence of any representatives at all now is also unacceptable. The Centre’s action has seemingly collapsed the gap between the mainstream and the separatist, and an agitated younger man who joins the conversation, says: “This is the final straw. The fight for Kashmir will now be a fight to the finish — Azaadi — once and for all, no matter what the cost.” None of them is willing to give us their names or take pictures for fear of reprisal by the state.

Also read: The idea of Kashmiriyat is dead. So is India’s secular consensus

On the outskirts of Shopian, friends and relatives of a man who has been arrested and taken to Varanasi jail claim that he was taken in the middle of the night without reason or provocation. However, local police say Umar Bashir Naikoo is an overground worker – a member of the now-banned Jamaat-e-Islami, with links to terrorists and at least two open FIRs against him. He was taken on 7 August two days after the Centre’s announcement, to ensure he would not instigate protests or plan militant strikes.

Naikoo’s uncle, who has seen all his brothers, sons, nephews in and out of police custody for years, says Kashmir will never accept India’s laws. He believes Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan will speak on their behalf at the United Nations later this month. “Our religion binds us to Pakistan, that is why they supports us,” the uncle says, perhaps not realising it is precisely this sort of rhetoric that plays into the triumphalism around the Delhi’s decision. For him, the reinstatement of Article 370 is meaningless. In fact, Delhi’s actions are just more proof that India under Narendra Modi doesn’t care about Muslims, and even more reason for Kashmir to want independence. The millennials in the room, born after the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley at the start of the insurgency in 1989, know nothing of Kashmir’s syncretic history or its once-thriving Pandit population.

Whether separatist or pro-India, this sentiment echoes in the Valley. Most of its predominantly Muslim population, see 5 August as the date Kashmir was targeted by the naked bigotry of a larger Hindutva project aimed to marginalise Muslims socially and disenfranchise them politically. A project, which historian Ramachandra Guha argues, weaponised the pain and suffering of Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee when the armed insurgency first targeted their small community. Today, as Kashmir’s population reconcile this assault on their dignity with a new reality of full integration, the sentiment that the Modi government’s actions are dictated by nationwide anti-Muslim politics; by motivations far less benign than empowerment and development, is widespread. “The Gujarat Model,” an observer says — “they will give us economic empowerment and political disempowerment.”

But will India be prepared to pay the cost of this political disempowerment?

The truth is that no one really knows what happens next. Until 27 September at the very least, when PM Narendra Modi addresses the UN General Assembly, the message to security forces and the administrative machinery seems to be to ensure that no violent protests erupt and that civilian casualties are avoided at all costs. Given the growing chorus of international voices demanding that India restore communications, release political leaders, and ensure human rights are protected, violent protests will only bring more bad press to a Prime Minister who wants the world to like and respect him as a democrat, no matter how authoritarian his government’s actions and style of functioning may be.

Also read: J&K cops credit counter-insurgency ops that killed 388 militants for no violence since 5 Aug

So far, the government, hiding behind the cover of security compulsions, has refused to restore mobile communications, even though the administrative and police apparatus has advised them to open up communication lines. However, while mobile networks may be opened soon under growing pressure from the international community, there seems to be no hurry to release mainstream politicians from preventive detention. If there was any doubt about the Modi government’s intentions, the slapping of the draconian Public Safety Act (used liberally on stone pelters) on National conference leader, 83-year-old Farooq Abdullah, for no reason other than to justify his detention and house arrest in the Supreme Court, clears things up.

The confusion in Srinagar today over how to comprehend or adapt to what has happened or what direction this new paradigm for Kashmir will take, coexists with uncertainty, even fear, about what comes next. The shutdowns, communicated through whisper campaigns, are as much an act of voluntary civil disobedience expressing displeasure with Delhi’s decision as they are a result of militant warnings. Flyers ‘advising’ the public to remain at home are put up as quickly as they are torn down. Rumours of militant threats abound and security in the city is heightened after sunset. Schools are open, but parents are afraid to send their children. There is no curfew, but most shops and non-essential businesses stay shut. Militants have already killed a shopkeeper in Srinagar and an apple farmer in Sopore as a message to those exhausted with the impasse and wanting to resume the business of living. Apple picking time is approaching, and the government has announced a minimum support price to encourage them to sell but farmers say they have been warned not to pluck ripe fruit from the trees.

If India wants to show the world Kashmir is back to normal, the downed shutters, empty schoolyards, and unpicked fruit will make sure it hears a different story. For the betrayed mainstream, this is their only way to be heard, through silence. There is nothing normal here, except the normalisation of conflict.

Betrayal, uncertainty and fear make a potent brew. In the absence of a spontaneous reaction over the last several weeks, several police and intelligence officials fear a structured one — an uptick in violence over the coming months. While Azaadi and Article 370 have no common cause, Pakistan’s posturing is feeding the Centre’s playbook on Kashmir. The aftermath of the attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in February 2019 is proof not only that there is a paradigm shift in how the Modi government deals with provocations from Pakistan; but that in a majoritarian, communal climate across the country, ordinary Kashmiris — both within and outside the Valley — will end up as collateral damage each time violence erupts. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan will only fuel the Hindutva engine further.

Also read: Kashmir & NRC aren’t the Muslim issues of our time. But Mahmood Madani wants to make them

It is this fear of majoritarianism that India’s minority, Muslim population feel across the country that is taking root in Kashmir, particularly among those who feel let down by Delhi in spite of a lifetime of support. To them, the intent behind the Centre’s actions is far more dangerous than the act itself.

Six weeks into such a tectonic shift, with no attempt by Delhi to reach out, address this sense of betrayal and humiliation, and engage the mainstream, the alienation is only deepening. The longer it waits, the harder it will be to address a three-way challenge — of reconnecting with Kashmir’s isolated, pro-India mainstream, ensuring the promised rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits into their original homes and working towards a lasting peace. Today, Kashmir is silent — its mainstream defeated, its separatists on edge. But as the Modi government revels in its ‘victory’ over Muslim Kashmir, it will be wrong in more ways than one to mistake this silence for acceptance.

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. Views are personal.

This article was first published on ORF.

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  1. Ah! NDTV Maya Mirchandani? I know what will be written on Kashmir.
    A biased, one,-sided view on Kashmiriyat
    (Islam based) with no acknowledgement of the Hindus who were made to flee.
    It is this sort of balderdash that Modi, Shah and the BJP have dismantled. We will support them for the very reasons that make people like Maya Mirchandani shed copious tears in Print. It is time Kashmir is integrated fully and its Hindu heritage is acknowledged and Kashmiris get the same rights as other Indians – no kowtowing or pampering.

  2. ‘Today, Kashmir is silent — its mainstream defeated, its separatists on edge. But as the Modi government revels in its ‘victory’ over Muslim Kashmir, it will be wrong in more ways than one to mistake this silence for acceptance.’ So then we go the other way. Do we roll over and play dead as Pakistan try to make it as islamic state (ISIS). The people of Kashmir have to decide if they want to be a part of a Progressive Hindu state or a backward shariah loving, ISIS Islamic state. There are no other way out of this.

  3. This kind of article is repeating the same, failed narrative of 72 yrs like a broken record. If there was no solution for decades and will not be there for coming decades, so be it. At least,there is a new approach.
    No Muslim appeasement policy is acceptable any more. Why special status for J&K? Why not to other states? They are a huge drain on our resources anyway. As an Indian, what are we getting by having Kashmir with India? As of now, Indians are firmly with BJP and will add a few percentage points of votes to their kitty in the next election.

  4. Who does the government empower politically in Kashmir? The Muftis , Abdullas , Hurriyat or Congress all of whom have had an illustrator records allegedly for benefiting selves and their cronies. If at all a cost has to be paid, let it now be for empowering Kashmir economically, surely that will be much less than what has been paid over 70 years by trying to empower Kashmir politically through the freebooter..

  5. The minority of India including Kashmiri Muslims are a belligerent lot. The meek and tolerant Hindus had enough. I think they only understand the language of intimidation and Modi is God sent gift.

  6. If this article is the sort of warning to the Indians of things to come in the few districts of the valley, then let it be understood that to maintain the law and order and security, the current clamp down will continue much beyond September. The people from the valley can never get ‘azadi’ whether it is from India or Pakistan, as there was never an option of independence. But the Kashmiri politicians let India down badly over the years. And hence the final decisive action by the Modi Government. So it is nice of Maya to bring us voices of crying souls from the valley but please also understand how the situation has come to this pass. And having taken hard decisions, we will deal with the consequences as we go ahead.

  7. I don’t understand the hype and fear mongering when the actual affected area is just a few districts in the new UT. I think we have learnt to live with a few dissenting voices.

  8. Economic empowerment is easier said than done. It has not been possible to bring the Kashmiri Pandits home during the last five years, despite the government being so powerful. So one cannot envision large outside investment and settlers coming to Kashmir soon. Whether in fact corporates or others will be able to buy land is uncertain. Except for tourists who bring in money from outside, Kashmir remains an agricultural / horticultural / pastoral state. Unsuitable for industry, certainly not the polluting units that have created a cancer epidemic in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh. Its public finances overly dependent on Central support. Not Switzerland, for sure.

        • Jews are more practical. Therefore they are surviving among ocean of Arabs. In contrast Indian secularists leaders like Nehru were monkeys and afraid of nation 1/6 of it’s size and until recently unwilling to take on without foreign support.

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