By Radhika Marwaha
Before her arrest on August 5, 2019, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti (People’s Democratic Party, or PDP) expressed her concern at the increased deployment of security forces in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Mufti stated, “Such a big country has got frightened [of public expression and protest] … and made Kashmir an open jail so that no one can raise voice against the illegal proposal.” These sentiments came in light of a series of events that created a lockdown environment in India-administered Kashmir. An announcement was made on August 3rd, 2019 to suspend the much-celebrated Hindu pilgrimage of Amarnath Yatra due to intelligence collected on a supposed security threat. Following this, tourists, out-of-state students, and workers were evacuated immediately, after which a lockdown was imposed as Home Minister Amit Shah announced the revoking of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution that historically and crucially granted special status to the people of J&K.2 This rapid series of events left Kashmiris scared and trapped with no connection to their families or the world outside, in lieu of increased military deployment. With political leaders under arrest and neighbor nations expressing heightened concern, layers of development issues, religious conflict, and protest have multiplied in this highly disputed region.
Present-day Kashmir is divided between India, Pakistan, and China, with each controlling 45 percent, 35 percent, and 20 percent of the region respectively, with the state of J&K falling under Indian jurisdiction. Agitation towards the creation of a separate nation-state has been a long drawn challenge for the Indian government. During the Partition of India in 1947, all Muslim majority states were to become a part of Pakistan. However, J&K was under the Hindu Dogra ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, who decided that Kashmir would become a part of India in exchange for aid during an attack at that time. This move essentially extended Indian citizenship to the J&K residents without a referendum. Later, to account for this, the people were given a special status under article 35A and 370 of the Indian Constitution, which forbids Indians belonging to other states, from buying property or permanently settling in Kashmir.
In 1948, when India raised the Kashmir issue in the United Nations Security Council, a referendum was prescribed necessary in Indian-administered Kashmir. However, following an election in 1951, the Indian government claimed this plebiscite to be “unnecessary,” and in 1953 arrested the then J&K Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah in light of his pro-referendum stance.
Flashforward nearly four decades to January 1990 and the tension never fell away, with the Kashmiri Pandit exodus occuring that tore the already extremely stretched theocratic fabric of the state. In a mass overnight evacuation of Hindu Pandits from their ancestral home state, the anti-Hindu sentiment in this Muslim majority state only intensified. In the next few months, hundreds of innocent Pandits were tortured, killed, and raped. By the end of the year, about 350,000 Pandit escaped the valley and took refuge in Jammu and elsewhere. Only a handful of them stayed.
An account describes these threats as “Jihadi exhortations” that were meant to forcefully convert the Kafirs and bring “true Islamic order.” By labeling the Hindu Pandit and Sikhs as Kafirs, who are blind to the pure truth, the Islamist extremists created a new narrative. They presented the Pandit with three choices–“Ralive, Tsaliv ya Galive,” or rather, convert to Islam, leave the place, or perish.4
After the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, the Indian Government tried to curb militancy by increasing the deployment of armed forces in the region and protecting the Army from litigation in human rights violation cases. This defeats the essence of democracy by safeguarding perpetrators of mass killings, forced disappearances, torture, rape, sexual abuse and suppression of freedom of speech, under the umbrella of a nationalist cause.
And today, there has been a radical shift in the approach of the Indian government towards nationalism and pro-Hindu majoritarianism when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected in 2014. When they were re-elected in 2019, their election manifesto focused on the “One-India” Initiative, that would effectively revoke Kashmir’s special status. With their electoral vote given to the BJP in a landslide victory, Indians evidently expressed their approval of the initiative. However, this did not necessarily take into account the actual population in question: the people of Kashmir.
For over a month, the state of J&K has been under the jurisdiction of the Indian government directly. It no longer has the right to frame laws through its elected Chief Ministers and Legislative Assemblies. Critics are extensively debating the timing and manner of the revocation across regional and national media channels, being against the creation of the “emergency-like” backdrop for the arrest of key political leaders in the valley and blockade of communication/internet channels. Indeed, this comes across as an attack on Indian democracy.
While supporters continue to justify the lockdown as a means to promote peace in the valley, there is an undertone of suppression to the protests. For years, Kashmiri youth have adopted stone-pelting after Friday prayers to make their voices heard, defending their political expression against the police in that they do not fire bullets and cannot be labeled terrorists. When the Indian media boasts of peace in the valley, one knows that this is a result of the prohibition of political expression. The Kashmiris are not happy. The Kashmiris are being suppressed.
Statistics prove that Kashmir performs better than the national average in indicators like poverty rate and life expectancy. Yet government spokespersons are yelling across rallies and media channels to convince the country that this move will allow development through the influx of real estate groups and industries into the region. Financial experts though don’t think that businesses are going to jump right into investing in one of India’s most challenging to access, militarized zones.
Skeptics believe that abrogation is actually a move to help Kashmiri Pandits get their ancestral land back. Critics are worried that the One-India Initiative is not targeting Northeastern states that enjoy a similar special status because these are not Muslim dominated areas. However, the current priority should be that the lockdown is lifted to initiate dialogue between the different facets involved. As of now, one only hopes the lockdown is not serving as the lull before a storm of instability.