“[Today] constitutionally, legally and morally, Kashmir [has] become an integral part of India,” declared Kashmir’s Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad in April 1954 while speaking at a rally in Bombay. India was just about to promulgate the first Presidential Order under Article 370, giving the Centre wide range of powers in Jammu and Kashmir. The mood was celebratory and newspapers published bold headlines touting Kashmir’s “integration” into India. Entry of Indian citizens into Kashmir was relaxed generating talk of boost in tourism and development of Kashmir’s economy.
This week, the BJP government under PM Narendra Modi promulgated the last Presidential Order under Article 370, abrogating the article itself. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been split into two union territories. Once again, the country is celebrating Kashmir’s “integration” into India and promises of Kashmir’s economic development abound.
The similarity between these two events, 65 years apart, is no coincidence.
Integrating Kashmir for over six decades
Modi government has taken the line that its Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 has somehow undone “a historic wrong” (presumably committed by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors). In fact, there is a through-line from Nehru’s Kashmir policy to Modi’s. The government’s steps this week should be seen as culmination of a strategy that previous governments have been employing since the 1950s. India has been “integrating” Kashmir for over six decades, by steadily eroding its autonomy and taking greater direct control of its governance structure. These moves have almost always been justified as attempts to solve the state’s intractable problems. Yet, after decades of pursuing this strategy, it is unclear what has been “solved” so far.
Now finally, in our quest for that integration, we have embraced the state so tightly that it has split into two territories that are not even states anymore. This is not to say that the current move is business as usual. In fact, its consequences are going to be far-reaching for Kashmir and India as a whole.
It will likely undermine mainstream Kashmiri leadership; further alienate Kashmiri people; give a new propaganda tool to the militants; and offer diplomatic ammunition to Pakistan. Moreover, the unprecedented conversion of the state into two union territories is going to put a question mark over India’s federalism for decades to come. Above all, the nation must now confront the morality of denying the people of the state their democratic voice. Surely, a crucial part of “integrating” Kashmir must be integrating Kashmiris into our democratic system.
Against this cost, what can be gained by this move?
As journalist B.G. Verghese once asked, “If Article 370 vests the people of Kashmir with a certain sense of identity and autonomy within the ambit of federal relations how is India diminished or endangered in any way?” In other words, how was the article hurting Indian national interest, specifically? After all, there has been practically nothing “special” about Kashmir’s “special status” for decades.
If nothing else, the fact that the Modi government could suddenly put the state’s former chief ministers under house arrest without any cause, shows how little autonomy the state truly enjoys. As for the oft-repeated argument of allowing land ownership for non-Kashmiris, given the volatility in the state, it is self-evident that investors are unlikely to rush in.
Eroding Kashmir‘s autonomy, one Presidential Order at a time
Even today, when Indian history is constantly manipulated, corrupted and turned on its head, the current narrative surrounding Article 370 must stand out as an exceptional instance of nation-wide self-delusion. The myth is that the article has allowed Kashmir to enjoy some sort of extraordinary autonomy for all these years.
In fact, New Delhi began eroding the state’s “special status” almost as soon as it was granted. Five years after the article was passed, the first Presidential Order was issued in 1954 to give more power to the Centre in Kashmir. This order was only possible because Kashmir’s previous Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah had been put behind bars the year before, generating enormous discontent in the state. Thereafter followed a steady series of Presidential Orders, each giving more power to New Delhi. Although technically the Centre couldn’t promulgate such orders since they needed to be accepted by the state’s Constituent Assembly, which was dissolved in 1957, New Delhi found a legal workaround.
Integration’s slow march was always rationalised as an attempt to endear Kashmiris to India. It was argued that since the lack of economic development was alienating them, financial integration was necessary; since election malpractices disillusioned them, Election Commission and other agencies needed to be brought in; since state’s maladministration and corruption was disaffecting them, state government needed to be put in greater check by the Centre. Yet, throughout this process, while New Delhi continued to gain greater control of the state, the people of the state kept drifting away.
Meanwhile, from the 1960s a steady drumbeat calling for a complete abrogation of Article 370 continued in the backdrop. It was endorsed by different politicians at different times, including those from the Congress, the Jan Sangh, the Janata Party and later the BJP. Their aggressive stance betrayed the real reason behind the call for “integration”. The process has less to do with winning the trust of Kashmiris and more to do with Indian identity. At its core, it has been about finishing the nationalist project. It is a completist obsession to see the nation actualised in a very particular way. Kashmir’s complete absorption could satisfy that hunger within Indian nationalism.
Abrogation of Article 370 was as sentimental and irrational an issue for some in the rest of India as it was for Kashmir. They felt that it was only by negating Kashmiri identity that Indian identity can be realised. For them, the “integration” is not yet complete, and likely never will be.
The author is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.