SHOPIAN, KASHMIR – On this day last August, the Hindu nationalist Indian government, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), abrogated two key aspects of the Indian Constitution, legislation that had previously allowed Jammu and Kashmir to have a separate constitution, make laws independently from the Indian parliament, and bar Indians from outside the region from either buying properties or taking government employment. The region was also split into federally-ruled territories – Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir – an insult to the erstwhile princely state that was virtually independent when India and Pakistan were coming into being.
Since then, Jammu and Kashmir has been directly under the control of New Delhi, which wiped out the scope for any middle parties.
To avoid any reaction to the move, harsh months-long restrictions were imposed by the central government.
All modes of communication were cut off, and the region is still without high-speed internet a year later, causing many difficulties for average Kashmiris. About 7,000 people were arrested before and after August 5, 2019, including nearly the entire mainstream political leadership.
Before August 5, 2019, Kashmir was a nominally autonomous region. After August 5, it has become virtually a settler colony in the making. Kashmir thus became an annexed territory where all existing structures, the majority of them Indian-made, were dissolved so they could fit into the vision of India held by the ruling BJP, whose founding fathers were never comfortable with the unique constitutional status of the only Muslim-majority state.
Thus now, the media – whether local, Indian, or foreign — are effectively working in a new ecosystem, in which even the pretenses of freedom have fallen away.
A year has passed since the decision, which was justified as “rectifying a historical blunder” and justified as paving the way for prosperity, peace, and development in the region. But on the ground, the change not only divided the parts of the region along communal lines, but also gave free rein to the military’s heavy-handed approach.
During the past year, the BJP’s approach to Kashmir — that a muscular military response to dissent is the way to peace — turned out to be counterproductive. The BJP opposed any talks with Pakistan, which also claims the region, or pro-freedom leaders, further widening the gap between New Delhi and Srinagar.
Prominent economist and Jammu and Kashmir’s former finance minister, Haseeb A. Drabu told The Diplomat that Kashmir has changed in many ways. Policies like the domicile law (a new law that gives outsiders the right to become a resident of J&K), the media policy, and other new laws that are being flooded in from New Delhi were bound to happen.
“The whole contention of abrogation of Article 370 was to impose such policies in Kashmir. It was expected as they [the BJP] have been talking about it,” he explained.
Drabu predicts that this heavy-handed approach will not end. He senses that these decisions are far more significant for the party than even the abrogation of Article 370 in the first place.
“They are operating decisions and these are what [is meant] to change situation operatively on the ground. This is far more serious and has a greater impact.”
Raja Waheed, a foot soldier of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), expressed that snatching the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir was a “brutal step” from the BJP.
Hailing from the volatile area of Kashmir’s south, in Shopian, some 55 kilometers from the capital city Srinagar, 42-year-old Waheed’s political journey has been dead since last August.
He believes that the idea of the mainstream that was formed decades ago has been completely uprooted by the BJP. With no political activity visible on the ground, common people have been subjected to brutal policies thrust forward by New Delhi without any hindrance.
The “BJP created a choked environment for other parties here. They alone are running the show and for others, they have installed huge barriers aiming to not give space to float their activity. There is a visible autocracy,” Waheed said, in a pessimistic tone.
The “Agenda of Alliance” and Murder of the Mainstream
Drabu in a recent article with Outlook, expressed that, for local political workers, the BJP existed “neither in their territory nor on their minds. No political field worker or supporter saw the BJP as an opponent, let alone a serious adversary.” But that was in 2014, and as Drabu noted the situation soon began to change.
After the 2014 elections, the BJP made inroads as a coalition partner with the regional PDP, then headed by the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, to form a government, much against the wishes of voters who gave the PDP a mandate. It was a critical political development for Kashmir.
Back then, Drabu negotiated the alliance among the PDP and the BJP. The late Mufti knotted a bond with the BJP termed the “Agenda of Alliance” to address the long-pending Kashmir issue.
The main points of that agenda were that BJP will not make any changes in the special status of Jammu and Kashmir guaranteed under Article 370, and they will bring separatists and Pakistan to the table for talks.
With the death of Mufti, however, he was succeeded by his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti. The situation soon slipped out of her grasp.
On June 19, 2018, the BJP finally pulled out of the coalition government, claiming that “Mehbooba failed to handle the situation in the valley.” Pulling out of the coalition was followed soon after by the abrogation of Article 370, in direct violation of the previous promise.
With no elected government in the region, Drabu explains that there are only two things left in Kashmir now, “separatists and stooges.” He continues: “There is no mainstream now. India killed the idea of the mainstream in the region. So, how can anybody now even pick the mainstream? The middle ground has been obliterated and, as I see it, this was a major consequence of the move.”
Waheed thinks back to 2010, when he joined mainstream politics after working in the social sector since his college days. He was fascinated by the idea of the late Mufti, who emphasized the idea of “self-rule” as a way forward for the Kashmir problem.
“We worked hard to inject the idea of reconciliation and mainstream among people. It was a very difficult journey to make people believe in electoral politics,” he told The Diplomat.
But, in his telling, all that hard work proved to be in vain once all the promises and assurances that were made by the mainstream parties over the years turned out to be false. In Jammu and Kashmir, people are directly blaming mainstream parties for the abrogation of Article 370.
A majority of Kashmiris believe that the PDP paved the way for the BJP in the state by forming a coalition government with them.
On the ground in Kashmir, one could easily sense there are no more hopes or expectations for mainstream leaders. All of them have lost credibility and are disconnected from the majority of people.
On the other hand, based on the statements of former senior political leaders, it seems they have also abandoned their hopes for a revival of the original journey toward mainstream politics.
“Is there any road map from any political party to overcome the current situations?” Waheed wondered. “We are living a life where one could easily see a bleak future.”
Collapsed Economy and Rise in Militancy
Sitting on the veranda of his two-story house, Waheed said that after the abrogation of Article 370, thousands of people were left jobless. The father of two expressed that the abrogation of the state’s special status not only jolted people emotionally, but it also had serious negative impacts on them – not at once, but gradually.
Kashmiris are yet to recover from the blow dealt by the Modi government on August 5. The evacuation of all tourists from the region and the lockdown in the abrogation’s aftermath ensured the crumbling of the business sector as well as halting the transport system in Kashmir. Work was difficult to find.
“This is what the BJP was aiming to do with Kashmiris – crush them economically and mentally and show the entire world that everything is normal in Kashmir,” said Waheed.
According to Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) President Sheikh Ashiq, Kashmir had suffered economic losses worth 400 billion Indian rupees (roughly $5.3 billion) since August last year. Talking to The Diplomat, he said that the economy is sinking and “nearing collapse.”
Professor Nasir Ali, a prominent Kashmir-based economist, agreed that Kashmir’s economy is in shambles. He expressed that for the last many years, there has been an unfavorable business climate in the region due to prolonged unrest.
“It worsens further after August 5. Every section is facing crises in the current times,” said Ali. The economic turmoil “will have grave social impact.”
The move also gave a new impetus to the rebel movement in the region. After the killing of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani, south Kashmir became a hotbed for new-age militancy. Now the muscular policy from the BJP and ill-treatment of locals by the Indian forces have widened militancy’s roots from south to central and north Kashmir.
According to a report by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a human rights organization working in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, the first seven months of 2020 have witnessed at least 347 killings in different incidents of violence, including the killings of 74 civilians.
From January 1 to August 1, more than 197 militants were gunned down in different counterinsurgency operations, of which 83 percent were locals. As per the official data, there has been a surge in militant killings compared to 2019, in which 159 militants were killed in the entire year, with 80 civilian killings.
The Diplomat spoke to locals, including rebel families in southern Kashmir, to understand the reason for rebel recruitment in the area. Most of them expressed that the ill-treatment and continuous harassment by Indian forces, in various forms, has given a strong reason to take up arms.
Many criticize the current government for giving a free hand to the security forces and neglecting any political dialogue over the Kashmir problem.
Waheed believes that the growing militancy – and, more importantly, the killing of militants — actually work in favor of the BJP government. In a disappointed tone, he wonders who is instigating the youth to join rebel groups.
“The BJP’s ideology is to instigate youth for militancy and present their killings as big achievements in mainland India. And it actually works,” he said sadly.
A Dangerous Silence
As counterinsurgency operations have surged, the valley’s internal politics are also in turmoil. The region has been torn apart politically since the fall of the government in 2018, when the BJP withdrew its support for the PDP.
As it turned out, the change in the BJP’s Kashmir policy not only prepared the ground for the abrogation of Article 370, but ensured no opposition from Kashmiri politicians. Being placed under arrest for months made most of them keep silent.
Waheed said that he sees no road map ahead for Kashmir politically. “As a political worker, I don’t see any future in the mainstream. The situation had already slipped from bad to worse.”
Drabu explained it in more academic terms in a recent article: “The August 5 abrogation has, in the words of Perry Anderson, destroyed their “seriality”—the social construct that underlies their political existence.”
“The limits of mainstream political leadership in [Jammu and Kashmir] have been brutally exposed. No wonder, in the last one year, no political formation has taken shape, despite quite a few failed attempts,” he added.
Drabu added that Kashmir’s relationship with India is now back again in conversation — hushed at the moment, but very much audible.
The abrogation, he argued, has only intensified separatist sentiments. “It has provided them with a renewed justification. But more than that, it has strengthened the sentiment of separatism among people. How this will find expression in local politics is a big imponderable. A year down the line, it appears that while slaying a shadow, the silhouette has been sharpened.”
Speaking to The Diplomat, Drabu predicted that the ultimate results of the move will not come out immediately. He cited a Kashmiri adage: “Anyone who eats beans does not show immediate results; the results appear later.”
“The picture of Kashmir is suffocating. There is anxiety, fear, concern, and uncertainty. I think this is the lowest ever psychological pressure that a Kashmiri is facing today. But it can’t go on forever like this,” he expressed sadly.
Experts believe that the silence of people about the drastic changes in Kashmir should not be ignored. Developments have been coming hard and fast: the abrogation of Article 370, the bifurcation of the state, a downgrade to a union territory, domicile law changes, delimitation of constituencies, notifying “strategic areas” for use by the army, a six-month political logjam followed by a pandemic lockdown, and a connectivity embargo. All these moves are fanning the flames of popular anger and it sooner or later it will burst out in a disaster. At the point, handling the resulting crisis would be an uphill task for New Delhi.
Kaisar Andrabi is an independent journalist from Srinagar. He was formerly with The Kashmir Walla and has contributed for Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, The Wire, FirstPost and others. He can be reached on Twitter at @KAndrabi