#Article370: Audacity of assimilation and its aftermath

None of this is easy.

WrittenBy:Sushant Sareen
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The audacity with which the Narendra Modi government has moved to assimilate Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union is breathtaking. No one could have predicted that the government would go all in to fulfil one of its core political and ideological agenda items with such assuredness and confidence. Not only was the contentious Article 370 made redundant, and the controversial Article 35A which had been surreptitiously inserted in the Constitution scrapped, the government also bifurcated the state by creating two new Union Territories (UT)—Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.

While the initial announcement by the Home Minister caused shock and awe in Parliament, the Opposition found itself completely wrong-footed. After its initial outburst of outrage, it found itself in a terrible bind. Opposing the government’s move would be political suicide, but supporting it would tantamount to endorsing what they considered a reckless move. The latter would only cement the government’s core constituency and raise its popularity to an unprecedented level. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Finally, most of the Opposition parties went along with the government’s step, and those who weren’t able to take a clear, unambiguous stand, saw themselves being split right down the middle on the issue—even to the extent of going against what appeared to be the party line.

The deed is done, there is now no scope for any backtracking. There can’t be and won’t be any reversal of the steps taken. Of course, legal challenges will be mounted, including by some Kashmiri politicians, but it is going to be fait accompli even for the courts, which anyway are inclined to be fairly conservative when it comes to overturning government decisions of such magnitude. The bottom line is that no real purpose will be served anymore by debating what has happened, why it has happened, whether it should have happened, and how and when it should have happened. What matters is what comes in the wake of this epochal change in the constitutional and political status and structure of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

In some ways, everything has changed in the erstwhile state, and in many ways, nothing has changed. There will be absolutely no difference in the lives of the people as far as their religious, cultural, ethnic, linguistic and regional identities are concerned. People will continue to live the way they have always lived. They will neither be swamped by outsiders, nor be reduced into some kind of Red Indians. There will be no large-scale, state-sponsored schemes to settle outsiders to change the demography of any of the regions of the erstwhile state. 

It is possible that some government-sponsored schemes to make colonies for ex-servicemen from the state could now be cleared, but these will be for people who are natives. Some civilian government officials employees who weren’t “state subjects” but had served in the state might decide to settle in the new UT, something they weren’t allowed to do in the erstwhile state. 

Forget anyone else, it is extremely unlikely that even the Kashmiri Pandits will return and settle down in their traditional homeland. Over the last quarter-century, since they were driven out by Islamist terror groups, most of them have managed to rebuild their lives outside Kashmir, and while they might still long for the Valley, they aren’t going to uproot themselves all over again.

There will, of course, be those from outside Jammu and Kashmir who will explore business and investment opportunities in the UT and those who will be interested in buying a summer home. But a lot will depend on how secure and stable the situation is in the UT, especially in the Valley. If the situation in the UT stays disturbed, terrorism spikes and violent street protests become a regular feature, then no investor is likely to invest in J&K. 

It is also important to bear in mind that land in Kashmir isn’t exactly available at bargain-basement prices. If anything, real estate is costly in Kashmir and will act as an entry barrier. The bottom line is that there will be no demographic invasion, nor will there be any assault on Kashmiri culture and identity. If the displaced Kashmiri Pandits could preserve their identity and culture despite having been forced to become the part of the melting pot that is India, there is no question of the Kashmiri Muslims losing their identity, either in Kashmir or in rest of India.  

What will change is the political dynamics and equations in the newly-created UT. Power will be distributed more equitably between Jammu and Kashmir, which might make people in the latter feel somewhat disempowered because they will no longer have the run of the place as they did over the last seven decades. 

Given the new power realities and political terms of engagement, Kashmiris will have to make adjustments. This will certainly cause immense heartburn, resentment and outrage. In protest against the reorganisation of the former state, the mainstream parties could decide to distance themselves from the political process. But this won’t be an easy choice to make because that will open the field for new players and could also lead to a marginalisation of the established parties and players. But participating in the political process too will not be an easy choice. These parties will have their work cut out for them in re-establishing their connect with their voters, many of whom will be seething with anger over what has happened. 

Although, it is too early in the day to say what will happen, the fact that Omar Abdullah has declared that a legal challenge will be mounted against what they see as a constitutional sleight of hand, and Farooq Abdullah announcing that he isn’t going to lie down and play dead, suggests that after venting their anger, the mainstream parties will join the political process. Of course, if all the Kashmir-based parties decide to close ranks and get into agitation mode, making common cause with the separatists, then things could turn south very fast and for very long, at least in the Valley. 

The apprehension that the BJP could be making a strong play to form a government in the UT will also act as a motivating factor for many mainstream players to not give their nemesis a walkover. They could decide to form an alliance to rout the BJP, not just in Kashmir but also dent the BJP in parts of Jammu. But they could just as well decide that the BJP has done what it wanted to do and there is hardly anything that the party can now do that would warrant their coalescing. 

If the BJP is sensible, it will allow non-BJP parties a leg-up when elections are held. The BJP has very limited stakes in Jammu and Kashmir. Whatever traction J&K has in national politics has already been cashed in by the BJP by making Article 370 redundant. The dividend of this step for the BJP isn’t so much in the reorganised UT—it has only five parliamentary seats—as it is in the rest of the country where it has over 300 seats. 

Everything will depend crucially on how the security situation evolves. Everyone is now braced for how the street will react once the blanket of security starts getting lifted. The authorities clearly anticipate some trouble, which is why extraordinary steps were taken—all civilians from outside the state were evacuated, all communication links were shut down, prohibitory orders were issued, and the security force presence was substantially beefed up. There are two possibilities going forward. The best-case scenario is that there will be few protests but by and large the people will reconcile with the new reality and give it a chance to succeed. In the event, things will get back to normal pretty quickly, and pave the way for New Delhi to deliver on the promises and assurances on development and good governance that have been made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. 

The worst-case scenario is that the Valley literally explodes in anger. There are widespread, violent protests which are then crushed with sheer brute force, which in turn will further fuel resentment, and the vicious cycle will spiral out of control with Pakistan doing everything possible—inciting and instigating people, carrying out a disinformation campaign and information warfare, pumping in weapons and pushing in terrorists, ratcheting up tensions at the Line of Control, and maybe even indulging in some military adventurism—to keep things on the boil. Basically, this means that the situation will be a lot worse than what followed Burhan Wani’s killing. If this scenario unfolds, it will unleash some unintended consequences. 

For now, there has been a pretty muted response from much of the international community. But if the situation blows up, then the reaction from most of the important and influential countries will be more intrusive and interfering. The only way this can be prevented is by preparing and equipping the security forces to handle crowds much better, and with greater sensitivity, than they have done in the past. While the international community will maintain a studied silence on anti-terror operations, they will almost certainly be forced to pressure India to ease up on the crackdown and take some political and diplomatic steps that otherwise India might not be inclined to take. 

The spiral of violence could also give a fillip to international jihadist organisations like the Al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS-inspired and linked groups. 

If a sense of desperation and hopelessness occupies the mind space of people, then the Valley could descend into complete chaos with tactics of other war theatres–Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, East Africa–being replicated. For now, this all seems a little alarmist and perhaps far-fetched. But to ignore the possibility of something like this happening would be leaving yourself to be caught by surprise. 

The jubilation and celebration over the passage of the J&K Reorganisation Bill, 2019, is understandable, but it is critical that members of the governing dispensation abjure anything that smacks of triumphalism. The very purpose of integrating Jammu and Kashmir with rest of the Indian Union will be defeated by loose talk which seeks to humiliate the people of J&K. There is a tendency among many people associated with the extended family of the governing party to put a foot in their mouth every time they speak about Kashmir. A conscious and concerted effort needs to be made to sensitise and if required censure, even penalise, people who shoot their mouth off on this sensitive issue. 

Alongside, the government will need to work double-time to demonstrate by actions and not merely statements that the new political and constitutional arrangement is for the benefit of the people of the erstwhile state. There needs to be engagement and political outreach which cuts across party lines. The economic activity needs to be kickstarted and the government needs to facilitate private sector investments in partnership with local residents. Public-private partnerships need to be encouraged and promoted. A lot needs to be done very quickly to ensure that a visible change is brought in the lives of the people which makes them develop a stake and instils confidence in them that all that has been done is for their benefit. 

None of this is easy. There are decades of baggage and suspicions that colours the perceptions of people and this won’t change overnight, or even in a few weeks or months. But now that the government has taken the plunge, the only option for it is to land safely is to deliver, and fast. Otherwise, things won’t end well, an outcome that the detractors of this government within India and outside are fervently praying for and will go to any length to ensure.


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