6 August 2020 12:40 PM



Centre Has Opened a Pandora’s Box in Kashmir

What now?

Union Home Minister Amit Shah has done the unthinkable. After days of rumours and trepidation in Kashmir, and with over 43,000 troops in the Valley alone, he has scrapped not just Articles 370 and 35 A but also abolished the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has been a quick surgical execution that allows the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government to applaud itself for delivering on one of its long standing promises --- a goal that had at one time left it fairly isolated in the Indian polity but not so today where the government has been embraced by most of the Opposition as well.

As former Minister Yashwant Sinha said on television later in the day, if elections are held tomorrow the BJP will get over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha. But added, “that is different from the future of the nation and what will happen to India.”

Kashmiri political leaders, even those who embraced the Indian Constitution and supported the BJP in different ways, were placed under house arrest. Later both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti were arrested. The Valley is under curfew and likely to remain there till August 15 at least. Internet links have been snapped. And there is a soldier to almost every five Kashmiris.

The very fact that the Valley had to be brought under siege to execute these decisions is a telling message in itself. And again as Sinha said he shudders to think what will happen to a now completely alienated Kashmir when the curfew is lifted.

It is true that for the short term a strong government, such as that in power today, can keep the protests down with fear, action and more violence than the civilian population is capable of facing. But this is at best a temporary approach as it will not be easy for a nation like India, with its diversity whether we want it or not, to reconcile to a Gaza in its midst without serious impact across the board.

New Delhi controls a federal nation where states take tremendous pride in their autonomy. It is not a country like Israel where a cohesive approach is easier to formulate, and where people have since its inception believed that their own existence is under threat. Besides the government that seems to be impressed with the Israeli approach towards rights and justice, might do well to remember that Gaza has a population of 18 lakhs as against the Kashmir Valley with nearly 70 lakhs,

Besides Kashmir has borders with Pakistan and China, countries we have had wars with. And of which one claims Kashmir as its own, while the other has territory that was also once part of the larger Kashmir before it was divided and sub divided during and after Partition. And is a Valley in a huge diverse country, inhabited by different communities and castes and cultures.

The reason why previous governments despite their shameful track record on Jammu and Kashmir hesitated to challenge the status quo was from an understanding of the strategic importance of Kashmir, the long term implications of force such as is visible today including the impact on federal India that has become increasingly possessive of its autonomy. A strong centre has appeal only for some of the north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh that has little regional aspiration, but always regarded with deep suspicion by other states such as the North East, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and even Andra Pradesh that has suffered in the past from Central misrule.

Kashmir has always been a toy to play with in Delhi. Barely understood because of its unique culture and of course because of its religious identity, the Valley has always been regarded with deep suspicion and made the fall guy for political manipulations in the rest of India. Even before the decade of militancy, with leader Sheikh Abdullah imprisoned for 20 years and elected governments toppled by the Centre. Self serving Kashmiri leaders perhaps did the most damage to the Valley in the centre’s quest for power and desire to control the Valley at different levels since Independence. But more of that later. Suffice it to say that all in all the people ---hospitable and warm in nature---were let down by the political system (Srinagar very much included) over and over again. Innocents had to pay for terrorism, facing the gun from both sides.

The moves now where the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir is to take place, where it is no longer a state but bifurcated into two union territories (Ladakh without an Assembly, Jammu and Kashmir with an Assembly), scrapping of Articles 35 A and 370, have opened a Pandora’s box that might prove very very difficult to close. That Home Minister Amit Shah executed the agenda with remarkable speed and presented it as a fait accompli to a divided House has to be commended from the point of the BJP and the RSS. But clearly so caught up is the government with the goal, that it has failed to assess the consequences that could change the face of India more dramatically, albeit at a slower pace, than this has done.

For one, the gradations and differences that more nuanced governments had always used in their approach to Kashmir ---between the terrorists and the separatists, between the separatists and the regional political parties wedded to the Constitution have been erased in one shot. The message thus is that New Delhi now looks on all of the Valley as one, and sees little difference between say a Syed Salahuddin across the border and a Mirwaiz and Omar Abdullah. Even Mehbooba Mufti whom the BJP had installed as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir is not to be trusted. As such the government has erased not just the state, but also the possibility of any kind of support and help from the known political players.

And that too in a scenario where every one of the 70 lakhs in the Valley can now be seen as deeply alienated. The Centre has recognised no friend, dubbed all as foes. The realisation that they have been painted with the same brush and locked in the same space has penetrated the psyche of the traumatised population, including the political leaders as is evident from the statements of even the moderate Mufti and Abdullah. This does not make for strategic soundness given the location of Kashmir.

The government has left itself with little option but to control Kashmir by force. Seen as a macho option by hard line supporters on social media. But unfortunately for them the world does not exist in cyberspace. And as any senior military or intelligence officer will tell you, this is now a nightmarish situation as no Army or paramilitary in the world can carry out such surveillance without a high degree of fatigue. The sheer weight of controlling Kashmir and an alienated population will create serious difficulties.

Pakistan is breathing down the borders, angry, miffed and with moderate Prime Minister Imran Khan under severe pressure to ‘act’ as Kashmir remains an emotional issue across the border. His future is in jeopardy if he and the Pakistan Army do not come with a militaristic ---the hardliners there are yelling for this---or a strong diplomatic response. Khan is clearly working the phones as reports in the Pakistani papers suggest and has to formulate a plan of action that is able to convince the Pakistanis that he means business. Or else the hardliners waiting in the wings will reassert themselves along with that section of the Army that has never really given up on terrorism.

Pakistan has three options. One, to respond militarily. Two, to use the diplomatic levers of a supportive Donald Trump plus United Nations and other friendly nations to pressure India in a manner that will make New Delhi listen. Here Khan has already warned Washington that the strategy on Afghanistan has been jeopardised with this. And three, to activate terrorism against India. The first India can retaliate to of course being stronger, but might work for Pakistan if the world decides to take notice of Kashmir. The second India will counter strongly too, but the government will come under pressure if Trump decides to make it a cause. The third  will inevitably impact on the citizens of India gravely. Needless to say the next weeks will be spent by New Delhi in tackling Pakistan and not our economy that is also showing signs of dire distress.

That the decisions taken by the government on Kashmir are against the law and the Constitution is meaningless as clearly the BJP has decided to reinterpret both and move ahead. It is highly unlikely that the courts will intervene in what is a done deal that will work very very favourably for the party in the forthcoming Assembly elections. The ease with which the decisions sailed through the Upper House where the BJP is essentially a minority is indicative of this.

There has been a consensus building in the country for decades now, urged on by the Congress party as well under Manmohan Singh, that Kashmir is a pampered state and needs to be settled. Shah has settled it, and is the hero today. For in the final solution today has taken precedence over yesterday, and the morrow.

The yesterday is always important for the lessons it carries. Without this the morrow becomes highly uncertain. Federalism will pose yet another challenge for the government with states --judging from the responses of political parties from Tamil Nadu and Punjab---straining at the leash. The uneasiness that has always marked Centre-State relations will surface under an increasingly authoritarian New Delhi in the regions of India that have experienced insurgencies and separatist movements.

When a government acts against its own, it sets off a chain reaction that needs more than force to control. Ireland is a case in point where force could not work, and only dialogue and heavy concessions finally brought in a semblance of normalcy. The irony here is that till just a few years ago --before the use of pellet guns in the Valley---Kashmiris had started embracing India against Pakistan but today the clock has been turned back to 1989.

But all said and done, for now the BJP has emerged victorious. Will India as well, remains the moot question.

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