The media and academia have been full of commentary about the loss of special status in the two years since the Narendra Modi government made changes to India’s constitution with regard to Jammu and Kashmir. Such analyses that focus on “special status” miss the wood for the trees.
First, the state of Jammu and Kashmir itself disappeared on August 5, 2019, on the floor of the parliament. There’s no point talking about “special status”, or any status, of what has ceased to be.
Second, the place that had been a state with special status was divided into two union territories, ruled directly by New Delhi.
Third, constitutional safeguards for the exclusive right of longtime residents of the state to live and find government jobs there went out the window as well.
The fourth thing that happened in tandem often goes unnoticed: the political class of the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir was sidelined. Not just politicians but lawyers, journalists, even merchant association heads were locked up. A range of leading political figures, including former chief ministers, were kept away from their people for several months, some for more than a year.
These things are far more important than the much-talked-about Article 370. That had been so hollowed out in the much-maligned 70 years that it actually gave the central government more powers in certain respects over Jammu and Kashmir than it has over other states.
It was an emotive shibboleth, though. The BJP and the RSS had promised their cadre – for those maligned 70 years – that they would do away with it.
Finally, Article 370 was little more than a shell. And ironically, the shell of Article 370 still remains in the constitution. A provision of the article itself was used to make it inoperative.
These moves had repercussions – international ones. I that the international situation – including China’s increasing closeness to Pakistan and the Taliban’s impending takeover of Afghanistan – should have given the government pause. Indeed, China took the matter to the UN Security Council almost immediately, and spoke of the “illegal” creation of the Ladakh union territory when Chinese troops invaded Ladakh the next spring.
The division of the state might possibly have been defended until China made it its excuse to invade, but it should be obvious in light of what has happened on the eastern border that full restoration of the state would be best. Less than three weeks after the constitutional changes, I for an alternative: devolution of powers, including a separate lieutenant governor for Ladakh, but all within the original state.
We have yet to see whether some of the Taliban might divert themselves to Kashmir after consolidating in Afghanistan, but there has already been a lot of military movement through Jammu and Kashmir, last year and this summer, as the army gears up on both boundaries.
All this should have made it amply clear by now that junking the state to create two union territories was a bad idea. It was evidently engineered with a sharp focus on domestic political gains, with the help of eager-to-please bureaucrats blinkered to international ramifications. The sort to whom it was not obvious that geopolitical and tactical moves by China and Pakistan in tandem could dovetail with street anger within Kashmir to make things very tough, as I have warned for a decade now.
In case hostilities increase, restored statehood would be vital for India to cogently press its case on international fora. The state constitution, drawn up by a constituent assembly in the 1950s, categorically makes the entire state an integral part of India. It also states that the borders of the state, as ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh, are inviolable.
That state constitution, and laws, also limited domicile. After the additional domicile guarantee in the Indian constitution (Article 35A) was removed two years ago, a domicile law was put in place in the union territory. That is a good thing. It may need to be strengthened, but there is no apparent need for domicile rules to be in the constitution of India.
In any case, there have been no reports yet of “outsiders” trying to settle there.
As for the fourth thing that happened – locking up the erstwhile state’s politicians – their people’s silence is eloquent. On this again, there has been inadequate media focus. But not only were there no demands for their release, many Kashmiris, particularly the young, were exultant that those political leaders were locked up, particularly when draconian provisions of the law were invoked against them.
One might assume this was because “mainstream” politicians were reviled. But then, even the firebrand Engineer Rashid, who tread a path close to separatism even as a member of the legislative assembly, seems to have been forgotten while he languishes in jail.
It was the nominees of established “mainstream” parties who got by far the largest share of votes in the Kashmir valley in elections to district development councils last winter. Turnout was substantial, and those elections were publicised as proof of a new beginning. The central government had encouraged new parties and fresh faces. The major new party spent a vast amount to campaign, but its performance did not quite match those inputs.
As things stand, the ground reality is that people miss representatives to whom they might reach out, but that wish has competed over these two years with memories of the corrupt and unresponsive performance of these politicians when they were in power.
Regions of the state outside the Kashmir valley had more reasons to resent the established political class. For decades, these largely valley-based politicians got vast funds from the Centre, but spent these mainly on the Valley. The difference in the number of bridges on the Jhelum and the Chenab is an indicator.
Extraordinary sociological diversity
With its extremely sharp focus on the valley, the media (and academia) tends far too often to ignore the tremendous diversity of the place. For context, it is important to understand that Kashmir is only about five percent of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir.
That state was formally established by a treaty of the East India Company in 1846, but the Dogra army had in the 1830s already conquered the vast territories of Kishtwar, Zanskar, Kargil, Skardu, Leh, and had even forayed into Tibet.
In terms of area, the valley comprised only a fifth of the total even just on the Indian side of the Line of Control before Ladakh was separated. But since the valley was extraordinarily fertile and relatively undulating, it contained a third of the total state’s population, and at least half the population on the Indian side.
As each ridge and valley of the Himalayas separated peoples of the region for centuries (except in the Kashmir valley), a wide variety of languages, religions, sects, and caste and tribal identities developed in the mountains that became Jammu and Kashmir. It’s arguably the most sociologically diverse region in the world – even more than the Balkans.
Many of these extraordinarily diverse peoples of the mountainous state have felt hard done by. To be sure, it is very tough to reconcile the aspirations of these disparate peoples. And yet, the irony is that a lot of people in different communities and parts of both new union territories are united today by unhappiness about what the government did two years ago.
Many were pleased in the immediate aftermath, particularly in Leh and Jammu, but uncertainties have grown since. These have a lot to do with the obvious absence of the transformation that was promised. And there are worries about “outsiders” getting property and jobs.
Decentralised governance is best suited for such a disparate set of peoples. Representative bodies at the grassroots have in fact been elected in Jammu and Kashmir over the past couple of years, which is a very welcome step.
However, these bodies need to be empowered. As things stand, they generally have scant resources – or even training – to meet the aspirations of people. Some of those elected are doing their best but, across the entire territory, it’s not nearly enough. Real power remains with bureaucrats and the police, much more so since the established political class was silenced. Many citizens complain of lack of access, or response.
The government should restore full statehood and use financial instruments to incentivise responsive governance at multiple levels.
David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.