On August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood, dividing it into two union territories. In this series – ‘One Year in a Disappeared State’ – The Wire will look at what the last year has meant and what the region looks like now.
A year since the unilateral decision to take away Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood, the Narendra Modi government’s record in Kashmir reveals a mounting set of failures.
In August 2019, New Delhi decided to read down Article 370 and abrogate all associated constitutional provisions such as Article 35A. The Indian state presented various justifications for this decision. First, was that converting the state into two Union territories would help stop Pakistan sponsored cross-border terrorism and break the influence of both external and local militant groups. A second rather flimsy claim was built on how the decision would usher in a new period of development in the state, bringing prosperity to the lives of Kashmiris. A third dubious claim was that scrapping Article 370 was vital to fully integrating Jammu and Kashmir with India. But the decision that these arguments were used to justify has actually ended up achieving the opposite. Above all, it stole from Kashmiris their identity – and their trust in the Indian state and its institutions, which was already built on weak foundations.
Having taken the plunge on specious grounds, the world’s largest democracy then embarked on a series of harsh, repressive and authoritarian measures. Not only were Kashmiris denied the possibility of participation in any democratic process, their leaders were imprisoned along with a vast number of unidentified youth who were simply picked up silently by the state, without due process, and transported to jails in different parts of the country where some of them still remain incarcerated, leaving their families with more questions than answers.
Among those detained in violation of the law were minors. Kashmiri journalists were threatened with bodily harm if they chose to criticise the government, while some were booked under anti-terrorism laws. An unprecedented communications blockade was imposed on the people of the state, cutting them off from the world. With no cell phone service or internet for months on end and no recourse to justice, most Kashmiris found themselves besieged in an excessively militarised environment. The security forces were given almost unbridled powers to exert their will on the people. This was, at times, achieved through torture and brutal beatings. A year on, 4G internet service is still banned in J&K.
J&K receives more international attention
Since the end of Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir has received far greater coverage in the international press, with frequent stories of the Indian state’s excesses laid bare for the entire world to see. Testament to the endurance of Kashmiri journalists was the ultimate award for their relentless bravery and coverage of the lockdown – the Pulitzer. The largest democracy, in contrast, appears fragile and weak in the eyes of the world. The United Nations has already convened twice since the lockdown, showing more interest in Kashmir for the first time in over 40 years. A series of human rights panels organised by the US Human Rights Commission has included testimonials from academics and activists. Prominent legislators in the US, from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar and others, have also repeatedly urged the Indian state to end the lockdown and restore normalcy. Perhaps not since 1947 has Kashmir received international scrutiny of this magnitude.
India’s political leadership has responded to this growing chorus of international criticism by denying facts or inventing outright lies. A façade of normalcy was maintained by inviting foreign delegations to supposedly see the situation for themselves. They were taken on glorious boat rides in beautiful shikaras on Dal Lake while a vast majority of Kashmiris remained confined to their homes without access to the internet or even telephones.
Breaking down the consequences
One year down the line, all available evidence demonstrates that the justifications presented in favour of ending Article 370 were a complete sham. Contrary to building a new, safer environment for Kashmiris, a continued state of siege with no end or accountability in sight has exposed a desperate state intent on controlling a defiant population by force. Let’s break down some of the consequences of that August 5, 2019 decision carefully.
First, militants were active in Kashmir before August 5, 2019 and continue to remain active in the region, blowing a major hole in the facetious argument that removing Kashmir’s autonomy was necessary to prevent terrorism. Far from reducing the threat of terrorism, the Indian state has, in fact, made the situation much, much worse. With no democratic recourse in sight, scores of Kashmiri youth are now determined to fight the Indian state at any cost. During the course of the lockdown, militants have killed laborers, launched grenade attacks killing civilians, and a series of encounters in 2020 alone have seen the deaths of several BSF and CRPF personnel. The months from March 2020 – May 2020 witnessed an increase in militant activity. According to a report published in Scroll, since March 25, 61 people were killed in violence inside the Valley.
Second, the Indian state’s reckless use of the military in Kashmir raises problematic questions about the conduct of counterinsurgency operations in the region. Senior officers in the Indian military have often argued against using the military in operations with no end in sight, urging New Delhi to use engagement and dialogue with various stakeholders rather than relying only on force.
Both General Dalbir Singh and Lt. General D.S. Hooda have argued that using the Army against its own civilians is dangerous for the morale of the Army. This also puts the Indian military in an awkward position. Soldiers are duty-bound to perform their job, keeping them locked in a deadly situation that only increases the risk to their lives. The Indian state, in effect, is using the military any which way, ignoring the larger purpose of these operations while eroding the professionalism of the forces. It is further weakening counterinsurgency operations by dismissing the recommendations of the military. While body bags keep increasing and India’s political leadership and nationalist media appear to stand in apparent solidarity with its soldiers, the reality is that India’s men and women in uniform and their families are nothing but pawns in a bloody game.
Third, the government’s “development” agenda is not visible anywhere. Evidence suggests that contrary to bringing economic prosperity to the region, the decision to end Article 370 has brought enormous economic ruin. Several reports indicate that the lockdown is destroying the region. In just four months since the abrogation of Article 370, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported that the Kashmir economy recorded a loss of Rs, 17, 878 crores. The lockdown has stifled innovation and led to a mass exodus of young people in search of new jobs. In the current COVID-19 environment, the economy has suffered another Rs 13,200 crore setback.
How does the state plan to restore faith?
Finally, how does the Indian state plan to restore the faith of people when political leaders and activists, including key figures among the mainstream, are still under detention a year later, without cause? The Public Safety Act, a severe and extreme piece of legislation, is frequently invoked for the purpose of maintaining law and order. But what is the Indian state so afraid of? Does it really fear Kashmiris like Shah Faesal – the same man whose father was killed by militants in 2002 and who went on to top the civil service exams before turning to politics?
Which Kashmiri is going to trust the Indian state when the government has broken the very foundations of trust? In the long-term, this poses a major governance challenge. A government that holds little credibility among the people and which has lost their trust by depriving them of their rights and civil liberties will find it very hard to maintain effective control of the region. The government’s assertion that it has now completed Jammu and Kashmir’s integration with India never sounded hollower.
Ayesha Ray is associate professor of political science at King’s College, Pennsylvania, USA. She is the author of The Soldier and the State in India: Nuclear Weapons, Counterinsurgency, and the Transformation of Indian Civil-Military Relations and Culture, Context, and Capability: American and Indian Counterinsurgency Approaches.