In a popular move, the Modi government has scrapped Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution regarding the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and divided it into two union territories. Questions have been raised about the constitutionality of the move and will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court. It has also re-ignited the political slugfest of Nehru versus Patel in the context of the handling of the Kashmir issue immediately after independence. However, what should matter to us the most is its impact on the ground situation.
Pakistan reacted angrily, but its response has been characterised by the absence of effective options and a deep divide between Imran Khan and his political opponents, visible during their parliament debate. Pakistan’s duplicity in questioning the Indian move, even though it has unilaterally altered the status and demography of the parts of Jammu and Kashmir under its illegal occupation, is self-evident. Its retaliatory steps are largely symbolic, replicating those taken by India in the wake of some egregious Pakistan-sponsored acts of terror in the past. Its decision to suspend trade will hurt its economy more, notably by depriving its textile and pharmaceutical industries of cheaper cotton and bulk drug imports from India. The painstaking effort of putting in place some CBMs between the two countries has gone to waste, but there is nothing in Pakistan’s measures that India cannot live with.
The international reaction has been muted, largely confined to calling for restraint by both sides. Some pro forma references to the non-binding and outdated UN Security Council resolutions, including in the statement of the UN Secretary-General, would remain empty words. Any manoeuvres by Pakistan at the UN are not likely to get much traction from the international community, with the possible exception of China. However, even China’s statement on the Indian move focused on Ladakh in the context of its territorial claim.
Our J&K problem ceased a long time ago to be one of UN intervention and for many years now, one of international pressure, which India is eminently equipped to handle. It boils down to the following: (1) Pakistan’s continuous interference to unleash terror and mayhem in the Kashmir Valley and (2) the alienation of the local populace that has provided Pakistan a fertile ground for its nefarious designs. What would be the impact of the removal of J&K’s special status on these factors?
Pakistan’s terror card
Pakistan’s questioning of the accession of J&K to India did not stem from the existence of Article 370 and will outlast its scrapping. So will its terror card, which is the only way for it to keep its dubious Kashmir agenda alive. The proposition that the timing of the Indian government’s move was determined by Trump’s offer to mediate on Kashmir misses the point that the offer was aimed at humouring the Pakistani establishment in the context of the ongoing US negotiations with the Taliban, in the full knowledge that India would not accept it. The Americans were unable to impose a Kashmir solution on a much weaker India over the years. They would harbour no hope whatsoever of doing so today, with or without the existence of J&K’s special status.
Further, the adverse consequences of the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan for India’s security will not be mitigated by the scrapping of Article 370. With the FATF sword hanging over its head and the need for greater focus on the Afghan front, ramping up terror against India at this juncture will be a tough choice for Pakistan. This indeed may have been one of the considerations behind the timing of the Indian move. However, it would be unrealistic to expect an end to Pakistan terror till a change in the nature of the Pakistani state – the dominance of the army and its worldview – which is nowhere on the cards. Countering Pakistan terror would require a continuous effort on our part, quite independent of the end of J&K’s special status.
Immediate challenge facing India
Internally, India’s immediate challenge is to maintain peace in the Valley in the wake of the recent changes, but our goal remains the building of durable peace there. Use of force has repeatedly brought calm to the Valley in the past, only to be followed by phases of renewed violence. We have lacked political consensus on the steps necessary to build durable peace – the opinion ranging between the extremes of ‘the sky being the limit to autonomy under the Indian constitution’ and termination of J&K’s special status.
The Modi government has ended that debate by implementing the latter option. The prime minister has promised a new era of progress and economic opportunities to the people. The underlying assumption seems to be that after being denied the hope of any negotiation on the status of J&K, the people would buy into the development agenda and emotionally integrate themselves with the Indian union.
The scrapping of Article 35A raises the prospect of citizens from other parts of the country settling down in J&K and investing there. However, there are imponderables. Implementation of the new agenda in the Valley would depend upon the security situation there. Moulding public opinion in its favour would require a massive effort of engaging with the people in the Valley – something this government has shunned so far, with the exception of the ill-fated PDP-BJP alliance and a feeble attempt through its interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma. It would also require local agents of change who carry conviction with the people.
With the mainstream parties of Kashmir marginalised and the amorphous leadership of the violent mobs, the choice of who to engage with has not been easy in recent years. The government is now actively engaged in discrediting the mainstream parties, whose leaders have admittedly displayed weaknesses not uncommon to politicians in other parts of India, but which have also stood firmly by the finality of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. There is no clarity on who would carry forward the agenda of change. A sincere and incorruptible leadership, enjoying mass support and willing to carry forward the new agenda, will not emerge simply because we have scrapped Article 370. Any opportunists, wishing to ride to power with the support of the Union government as in the past, may prove to be just that.
Finally, any faltering in the maintenance of communal harmony in the rest of the country would add to the complexity of our task in Kashmir. The die having been cast, we must wish the government well in its endeavours to bring peace and progress to Kashmir. However, given the complex ground situation, the recent changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir remain a leap of faith. Their impact, particularly in relation to our goal of building durable peace, will become known only in the coming years.
Sharat Sabharwal is a former diplomat. Views expressed are personal.