Once a democratic system of governance has crossed an authoritarian threshold, every new action shifts it further from the ‘normal’ state. A new normal is soon established, and the painful transition either completely forgotten or left buried in the dark recesses of our memories. In the case of Kashmir, that threshold was crossed on August 5, 2019, when Article 370 was abrogated, and the state split and downgraded to two Union territories. Anuradha Bhasin’s A Dismantled State: The Untold Story of Kashmir After Article 370 traverses that journey of transition in Kashmir that has left the people of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in deep distress.
Bhasin, a renowned journalist who is currently a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, begins each of the 12 chapters with a powerful quote. But if there is one quote that encapsulates the whole book, it would be Milan Kundera’s “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Imbibed by this spirit of waging that agonising struggle, Bhasin has undertaken an exhaustive and painstaking recounting of facts in the book. In altering of Kashmiri landscape in unimaginable ways by brute force, the Indian state in grip of Hindutva ideology has tried to reshape the politics, society, geography, economy, identity, and religion of a region. By no reasonable yardstick can the Hindutva project claim success in Kashmir after three and a half years. Instead, the repression and subjugation have been unprecedented, even for a region that has witnessed much volatility and violence after the British partitioned the subcontinent.
Among the things easily forgotten today is that the only Muslim majority state in the country – rather, erstwhile state – last had a democratically elected government nearly four and a half years ago. When the non-BJP parties in the assembly tried to come together to form the government, the Modi government’s chosen governor in Raj Bhavan laid the blame for his blatantly unconstitutional behaviour on a non-functional Fax machine.
It is no secret that the BJP had been desperately trying to form a government with a Hindu chief minister, snubbing the ambitions of its close ally Sajad Lone – son of slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone – to get to the coveted chair. This is the party that has no Muslim as an MP, leave alone as a minister in the Union government under Narendra Modi.
Satya Pal Malik, a former socialist who later joined the BJP, was the governor. He was to later fall out with the Modi government over the farmers’ protest, claiming last January that home minister Amit Shah told him that Modi “has lost his mind”. He was to also allege corruption by BJP leaders in J&K and Goa as the reason for his transfer to far-off Meghalaya. In 2019, however, Malik as governor played the role of colonial British Viceroy to perfection in J&K. When a delegation led by Farooq Abdullah met him before August 5, 2019, he tried to mislead them about the real situation.
Malik was not alone in resorting to deception. When PM Modi met a delegation of top National Conference leaders on August 2, 2019, where he gave the Abdullahs and Hasnain Masoodi, an MP, an assurance that there would be no constitutional changes or tampering with the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Modi assured the trio that assembly elections would be held in the state by October 2019.
By approaching the Supreme Court, Bhasin was instrumental in getting the strict ban on telephone, internet and other communication means revoked. As with all issues related to Kashmir and Article 370, the role of the apex court was questionable in this important case as well. A judgment was produced after undue delay but Justice N.V. Ramana, who was to later become CJI, failed to ask the government to implement the principles his judgment was laying down.
It may have moved the needle forward, but many Washington DC-based analysts contend – as they have probably been told – that the full revocation of the communication ban in Kashmir, which happened suddenly, was directly linked to a proposed telephone call to PM Modi from newly-elected President Joe Biden. Even the meeting PM Modi convened with Kashmiri leaders in June 2021, which has seen no follow-up or substantive action since was reportedly staged to ward off Western pressure.
The geopolitical dimensions of the Kashmir crisis became even more pronounced after August 2019. China took a very strong objection, forcing Modi to despatch external affairs minister S. Jaishankar on an emergency visit to pacify Beijing. Beijing’s noises continued and many believe that the parliamentary vote, with home minister Shah vowing to lay his life to get back Aksai Chin, was a contributory factor in the assertive Chinese ingresses into Indian territory in Ladakh in 2020. Return of statehood and demographic protection were the two conditions that were reportedly agreed upon by the Modi government in talks with Pakistan, with the UAE as interlocutor, after the two sides agreed to reiterate of ceasefire on the Line of Control. Neither has happened.
But this book is not about geopolitics. It doesn’t make the error that most Indian writers make of conflating the domestic problem in Kashmir solely with external interference from Pakistan. Bhasin’s impassioned narrative is about the people of Jammu and Kashmir, those who have suffered the most in the past few decades. One of the highlights of the book is her detailed interaction with Krishan Dev Sethi, a veteran crusader of the Quit Kashmir movement, a communist leader, a former legislator and as of August 2019, the only surviving member of the J&K Constituent Assembly that had drafted the constitution of the state which was rendered meaningless in one stroke by the Modi government. He had been brought to the edge to see the razing of the edifice he had constructed, that too under the signature of his son, Achal Sethi who was then J&K’s Law Secretary.
Kashmir is replete with such ironies, but Bhasin shows that nothing is more ironical than the role of the Indian mainstream media which has abdicated its role to act as a watchdog of democracy in favour of being an active collaborator of the Hindutva regime. As the executive editor of Kashmir Times, Bhasin understands the intricacies of journalism and wields her scalpel with the precision of a surgeon to lay bare the noxious wound infecting India. Though Bhasin is more guarded, her comments on the higher judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court and various CJIs, are equally significant. She establishes that these two institutions have let the Kashmiris down the most during this period.
Meticulously researched, zealously argued and sharply written, A Dismantled State provides exhaustive and insightful coverage of the events of the last four years. It must be read by those who are interested in Kashmir but also those committed to India as a liberal, constitutional democracy.
As columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote on August 6, 2019, “BJP thinks it is going to Indianise Kashmir. Instead, we will see, potentially, the Kashmirisation of India.” Bhasin’s book is both a warning and a preparation for that eventuality.
Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.