Six months after constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, a faint outline of the political process being envisaged by the Narendra Modi government in Delhi has begun to emerge. In two interconnected moves, the Modi government booked former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti under the Public Safety Act, and released a few hand-picked former legislators. It would have been impossible for these chosen leaders led by Altaf Bukhari to attract others into their fold, and go to the people, if Farooq Abdullah (already under PSA), Omar and Mufti were free.
The charges against them in the PSA dossier, as reported in the media, would make every Indian proud of them. Omar and his National Conference (NC) colleague, Ali Mohammad Sagar, have been charged of “capacity to influence people” that reflected in their capacity to influence voters to come to polling booths defying terrorist threats. What else was expected of them, during elections or otherwise, other than to expose Pakistan’s designs before the people of Jammu and Kashmir?
Is this the treatment these leaders deserve, who carried Indian tricolour to every nook and corner of the state, at a grave threat to their life and limb from Pakistan’s proxies? If Altaf Bukhari is kosher now, why was the last assembly dissolved when the NC, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Congress had decided to back him to form a government? Will Bukhari also meet the same fate as Omar and Mehbooba, when he becomes politically inconvenient?
While all the outrage is focussed on the PSA slapped on Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, it is the release of these former legislators that reveals political green shoots. But will this move by the Modi government succeed? New Delhi’s past track record on strengthening democracy in Kashmir is murky. Any political process without people being given freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and without level-playing field will remain unfair and unjust. Its credibility and acceptance among masses will remain questionable.
Is history repeating itself?
There is an eerie similarity of these detentions with what happened in the night intervening 8-9 August 1953. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad refused to take an oath even after dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah and demanded that the latter should also be detained. It was only at 4:30 in the morning of 9 August after Sheikh was arrested that a nervous Bakshi could take oath of prime ministership administered by an equally nervous sadar-e-riyasat, Karan Singh.
The released leaders have met the Lieutenant Governor in Jammu on 7 January 2020 demanding restoration of statehood and protection for locals in getting jobs and land ownership. As per reports, they are likely to seek an appointment with the prime minister and Union home minister to press for these demands. With no mention of demand for restoration of pre-5 August status, one can be sure that there is some informal understanding with Delhi before the move. After raising political stakes, these leaders now can’t go empty-handed to the people and face their wrath, if even these demands are ignored.
What has emboldened the government to take this initiative is that it believes that its unprecedented steps taken just before 5 August have paid dividends and the situation was now ripe for political experiments. The comparatively muted response to the constitutional changes in the Valley could be deceptive. However, so far, one must acknowledge that most of the Kashmir watchers, within and outside the government, have proven to be wrong on this count.
Pakistan at the UN
Equally puzzled is Pakistan. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, had with full confidence warned the international community of “blood bath” in Kashmir in his address at the United Nations General Assembly on 27 September 2019. “Look, what is going to happen when curfew is lifted, (there) will be a bloodbath. …. they (Kashmiris) would be out on streets and what the soldiers will do? They will shoot them,” Imran had said, perhaps relying too much on the assessment given by ISI.
Pakistan’s only hope of restoration of pre-5 August status was to build international pressure on India. However, internationally, Pakistan received very little support. The Congressional Research Paper of the US (13 January 2020) has correctly summed it up by saying that Pakistan has “limited options” to respond to Indian actions and renewed Pakistani support for Kashmiri militancy would be costly internationally. The same paper has a caution for India as well. “Islamabad may stand by and hope that self-inflicted damage by New Delhi’s own policies in Kashmir, and more recently, on citizenship laws, will harm India’s reputation and undercut its recent diplomatic gains with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and UAE” it says.
As international criticism wears out and shifts away from Kashmir a little, New Delhi can move on to focus on paving a new political path.
Commitment to Kashmir
We must remember that India is suffering in Kashmir because of its manipulation of the democratic process beginning with 1953. By our actions, we have conveyed to the people of Kashmir that our commitment to secularism and democracy is only skin deep when it comes to Kashmir. The focus of the government should now be to reverse it rather than having new political experiments. Therefore, the need of the hour is to release all political leaders and remove all kinds of restrictions rather than passing fresh orders of PSA detentions. Otherwise, the initiative will lack credibility and will be rejected by the people.
The author a former Director General of Police in Sikkim and a former Intelligence Bureau official. Views are personal.