Kashmir is in lockdown. The special status of Jammu and Kashmir has been ‘scrapped’ as though it were a mere doodle, and not the only semblance of legal fiction that continues to tie India to Kashmir.
To be fair to the Bharatiya Janata Party, this had always been on its agenda. Writing in The Illustrated Weekly of India in June 1993, then-BJP vice-president and spokesperson K.R. Malkani had outlined his party’s solution for the Kashmir problem. Article 370 was “temporary and transitional” and “must go. But it can go only when there is a two-thirds majority for it in Parliament. That is going to take some time. And the BJP would avail of this time to convince everybody, and particularly the Kashmiris, that Article 370 is not good for anybody. It has only acted as a cover for corruption and irresponsibility. Once it is gone, Kashmir will have the same rights and responsibilities as Punjab and Bengal.”
Twenty-six years later, the BJP has the majority in Parliament to push through its solution for the Kashmir problem. But it has convinced no one in Kashmir, not even its erstwhile coalition partner, the People’s Democratic Party, whose leader Mehbooba Mufti is under house arrest. In fact, the BJP is so convinced about the lack of support for its move that it has brought in even more numbers of troops to maintain “law and order” and used the inspired device of shutting down the internet and all phone connectivity.
So monumental is the folly of the BJP that even the discredited Mufti has summoned the courage to call a spade a spade. Speaking to the BBC, she noted that this was to “occupy our land”, “reduce us to a minority and disempower us totally.”
Not a new day for Kashmiris
Kashmiris who experience daily humiliations at the hands of an extraordinary military deployment would point out that this too has been true for the last thirty years. Their lands – schools, colleges – have been taken over by the military, their bodies have been searched, concertina wires have taken over their pavements, and bunkers overrun their famed gardens. Kashmiris who come to India to study in schools and colleges will also point to the instances they have been harassed, picked up by the police, accused of terrorism, and detained for close to two decades on trumped-up charges. The idea of India as a site of diversity and respect for all religions died three decades ago in Kashmir. The silence of liberals on the situation in Kashmir, who otherwise routinely extol India’s democracy, has been deafening. Speak to Kashmiris and they will tell you they understand too well the meaning of that silence.
Historian Mridu Rai has noted the “resolute commitment” of most Kashmiris to remain non-violent thus far, “in the face of the gravest provocations.” In this, Kashmiris have been following the greatest example and export India has ever produced: Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, it cannot be foretold how this latest abandonment of democratic principles in Kashmir will play out. The strategic deployment of additional troops in the last week suggests that the government expects backlash on a large scale, and, will be more than willing, as usual, to set aside all norms of war to bring peace to Kashmir. “They make a desolation and call it peace,” as Agha Shahid Ali, Kashmir’s most famous poet, once wrote.
In The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce optimistically prophesies: “Though Narendra Modi … harbours Bonapartist traits, it is hard to imagine he would try to close down the system. It is still harder to see how he would succeed. So ingrained is India’s culture of noisy dissent and sheer pluralism that I would rate democracy as now safer in India than in parts of the West.” And then he adds that the “biggest thing India has going for it is growth.”
Kashmiriat not part of BJP agenda
What has happened now is that growth has diminished and Modi’s well-known Bonapartist tendencies, helped by the BJP’s longtime agenda, have come to the fore. The ‘scrapping’ of Article 370, without even the fig leaf of a debate, is Indian democracy’s most severe test.
In the conclusion to his 1993 piece, Malkani had suggested that as and when the Kashmir Valley is set up as a state, the language “Kashmiri must be introduced as the medium of instruction and administration…[to] strengthen and revive Kashmiriat and checkmate the appeal and influence of Pakistan.” The BJP of today has no interest in reviving any such idea of Kashmiriat; it only seeks to impose its idea of a Hindu Rashtra on what it imagines is a crushed and hopeless people.
Will the fifth of August be the day that marked the point of no return for Kashmiris’ divorce from India, or will it be the day that India’s hollowed-out liberal opposition finally found its voice? Where’s the evidence for India’s noisy dissent and pluralism?
Neeti Nair is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Views are personal. Read the article in Hindi here