Both Indian Democracy and Pakistan’s Militarism Have Failed Kashmir

What is happening in Kashmir is annexation by coercion, not union by popular sentiment and mandate.

“In future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself. These would meet in private and afterwards communicate their decisions to the others. The animals would still assemble on Sunday mornings to salute the flag, sing ‘Beasts of England’ and receive their orders for the week; but there would be no more debates.”
∼ George Orwell,
Animal Farm 

The dust has not yet settled on the Indian government’s ‘Orwellian’ decision last month to cancel Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status. In an attempt to seal Kashmir’s fate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sealed off the state and its people from the rest of the world.

We are living in times when populists and demagogues are ruling the roost from the US to UP and Islamabad to Italy, where civil freedoms and human rights are on the chopping block. Foul is increasingly becoming fair.

The Modi government’s actions were particularly heinous, however, in that they did not just flout bilateral or international agreements and declarations but actually trampled upon the Indian constitution itself.

Those of us from Pakistan are used to that country’s constitution being abrogated, held in abeyance or simply defaced by a slew of army dictators. But it was flabbergasting to see how the Indian government simply defied its own grundnorm. It reminded one of the Pakistani dictator-general Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s infamous slur:

“What is a constitution? It is a booklet with twelve or ten pages. I can tear them away and say that tomorrow we shall live under a different system. Today, the people will follow wherever I lead. All the politicians including the once mighty Mr. Bhutto will follow me with tails wagging.”

Article 370 of the constitution, which was grounded in the Instrument of Accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh – which forms the legal basis of the Indian claim over Kashmir – was wiped clean from the books on the pretext that it was a temporary provision. Even a cursory familiarity with the state’s accession history and subsequent constitutional evolution shows the contrary to be true.

The Article itself carries the provision of its scrapping, with a huge caveat that it is contingent upon the state’s constitutional assembly recommending it to the Indian Union’s president. What home minister Amit Shah et al glossed over was that the constituent assembly dissolved itself on January 26, 1957, thereby rendering the impugned Article permanent. And that has been the de jure position since then.

To bring the de jure standstill in line with the de facto power structure, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) introduced a perversion that the state assembly is a proxy for the now-defunct constituent assembly, and since there is no state assembly at the present time, the Indian parliament can arrogate itself that power – which was not its right ab initio.

Also read | Neither Abrogated Nor Removed: The Ploy Behind Centre’s Article 370 Move

In a most ironic way, foundations of an ostensible democracy are being laid on the bedrock of a mutation that has been introduced into the body of the constitution. In an ideal world, any Supreme Court worth its salt would throw a constitutional aberration – nay, flagrant violation – out swiftly and permanently. But those of us who grew up seeing the Supreme Court of Pakistan give cover to martial laws under what was termed the Doctrine of Necessity, wherein what is illegal is allowed to become legal for state’s necessity, won’t hold our breath.

It has to be the first democratic transition in history in which not just the constitution, but the people too were squashed. By arresting tens of thousands of Kashmiris, including their political leaders and shutting down communications and media, at gunpoint, an iron curtain was drawn down on the state.

Democracy is dying in darkness and the BJP government is trying to ensure that not a ray of light reaches Kashmir, or a peep comes out of it, while it buttresses its unconstitutionally constitutional gains. Historical wisdom has been that force ought not to be used to impose democracy but only to defend it. But in the current instance, the justification for unjust means has been sought in the ends. The proviso has been that democracies don’t go to war with each other. But in India’s case, the world’s largest democracy went to war with itself.

Kashmiris walk past broken window glass after clashes between protesters and the security forces on August 17, 2019, in Srinagar. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

What is happening in Kashmir is annexation by coercion, not union by popular sentiment and mandate. Another hallmark of populism is rationalising such actions in the face of a real or perceived conflict with others and outsiders.

Pakistan’s role

In Kashmir’s case, Pakistan has done plenty to provide a ready pretext to India for its actions. From militarising the issue from day one through a tribal invasion plotted and organised by its army, to introducing virulent jihadism and outright terrorism on both sides of the Line of Control (LOC), again under the army’s umbrella, Pakistan has undermined the Kashmir issue at many levels.

It sure did internationalise it, but for all the wrong reasons. The nationalist strands – both democratic and militant – of Kashmiriat were actively weeded out by Pakistan’s Kashmir planners, only to replace them with assorted Lashkars and Jaishes of jihadists.

The Pakistan army gained multifold benefits in Kashmir. It essentially justified its bloated existence and budget by creating the state of constant war at the LOC, kept the Indian military bogged down in the Valley and later on used the spectre of a nuclear standoff to gain hegemony in Afghanistan.

The net result was that Pakistan painted itself, and by extension the Kashmiris, into a corner. Thanks to Pakistan’s shenanigans, genuine Kashmiri grievances have not been felt even as a pinprick on the world’s skin. The ready Indian retort that Pakistan has deployed jihadist terror in Kashmir, has nearly isolated Islamabad diplomatically as the recent closed-door session of the UN Security Council indicated.

The military paradigm has shifted since the Uri and Pulwama attacks, and the Indian retaliation across the LOC after those. Pakistan is no longer able to wield nuclear blackmail as deterrence against limited conventional engagement. That Pakistan is under a virtual martial law, where opposition leaders – including a former president, two ex-PMs and a dozen parliamentarians – are under arrest, and the media is gagged, doesn’t help its position.

A Kashmiri man looks out of his house during restrictions after the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the government, in Srinagar, August 14, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Pakistan has virtually no options to counter Modi’s move. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Twitter ranting and an address to the nation betray a monumental failure and weakness, not strength. The sabre-rattling Pakistan army has restrained its rhetoric to “defending Pakistan” and its spokesperson – a major general – has been able to do nothing more than trolling retired mid-level Indian servicemen, journalists and celebrities.

Other than blowing some hot air and beseeching the US to intercede, Pakistan seems to have accepted Modi’s move as fait accompli. In a meeting with the Indian prime minister on the sidelines of the G-7 summit, President Donald Trump has already poured cold water over Pakistan’s expectations that had risen after his offer to arbitrate in Kashmir.  

Be that as it may, Pakistan’s domestic or across-LoC actions, or the international indifference are no justification for the Indian high-handedness. Curbing rights and freedoms is never an internal matter of a country. Human rights are universal and condemnation has to be universal too when those rights are abused.

Also read | There Is Only Fear and No ‘Freedom’ in the Northeast and J&K

Barring the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi – whose illustrious maternal ancestors were Kashmiri – from entering the region flies in the face of pledges to Kashmiris of easing off the clampdown. Every independent report coming out of Kashmir indicates that the region is seething with anger over the humiliation piled upon a people who have been proud of their distinct identity for centuries.

Large protests have already erupted in the Valley and the Indian response has been the same: curfew, concertina wire and troops. The debilitating pellet guns continue to be used. A report on Kashmir by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released last month notes that according to “Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, where most pellet shotgun injured are treated, 1,253 people have been blinded by the metal pellets used by security forces from mid-2016 to the end of 2018”.

New Delhi cannot blind people and ask them to look towards it, at the same time. The way things appear to be headed, both the protests and repression will increase. India, however, cannot mainstream Kashmir by locking up its mainstream political leaders. It is an untenable position, an indelible smear on India’s democratic credentials, and bound to backfire.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.