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Echoes of China: Unpacking the Mythology of the End of Article 370

The narrative peddled by Modi and Shah ignores the political aspirations that have been at play in the region.

If the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine had to choose one model for Kashmir while contemplating the abrogation of Article 370 earlier this year, they probably thought of Tibet and the Chinese template of ‘development’ to combat disaffection.

In an eerie pre-echo of Prime Minister Modi’s rousing August 8 speech, Chinese announcements described development programmes worth $97 billion last year, as bringing prosperity to the “backward” Tibetan Autonomous Region. With Special Economic Zones, high altitude trains and 25 million annual tourists, China proclaimed, “Tibet is in the best period of its history!

Demographically drowned by Han Chinese immigrants bit by bit, its traditional architecture overwhelmed by an irreversible building boom in Lhasa, its monasteries disbanded, Tibet cannot refuse this “best period”.

Yet no matter how ‘best’ China makes Lhasa, its resistance to Chinese domination makes it a security nightmare.  Tibetans are the ghosts of their town, their homes and monasteries controlled by a ‘grid management system’ of neighbourhood surveillance in case they erupt in defiance. Han Chinese own the majority of their businesses. In a disorienting world of bars, tourists, checkpoints and control, owning a picture of the Dalai Lama is a state security crime. Media reports call Tibet a ‘Giant Open Prison’ but China says it “fully respects the rights of the Tibetan people.”

Also read: China Paying Taiwan Media For Favourable News, Finds Report

In the celebratory euphoria surrounding the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A and the WhatsApp memes that ask if you need a car or house loan to buy a houseboat on Dal Lake, similar contests of development and resistance will form the core of what unfolds next.

A careful mythology has already been crafted and received an unquestioning, rapturous public welcome. The simple equation constructed by Amit Shah in parliament is this: Article 370 equals autonomy equals lack of development equals poverty or joblessness equals terrorism. His solution is: Tibet-style overwhelming development equals prosperity or jobs equals peace.

Two different realities call the Shah narrative into question. 

Kashmir in 1978. Photo: Nick/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Kashmiris have embraced several Centrally funded development projects for years under Article 370, like the Srinagar-Anantnag rail line, the Taj Hotel, the modernised Banihal Tunnel, the Srinagar-Poonch Mughal road project, to name just a few. Over 70 years, subsidies and Central government grants or schemes have dramatically improved their lives.

Yet this development has not translated into a ‘loyalty dividend’ for India nor has it prevented young recruits to militancy and pelting.

Also read: This 17-Year-Old Was the First Pellet Victim of the ‘Union Territory’ of J&K

Secondly, since 1990, when the general manager of the massive state-run HMT Watches factory in Srinagar was kidnapped, killed and thrown out of a car, no large-scale outside industry has willingly set up shop again in the Valley despite repeated investor summits that included Ratan Tata, Kumaramangalam Birla and so on. 

Yet the lack of modern industry has not downgraded the Kashmiris’ life in any way. They have, paradoxically, emerged more prosperous in the last 30 years of insurgency.

Besides Central aid and subsidies, Kashmir has been well funded by the activities of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB), pumping funds in the state.

Its economy – stabilised by the 1949 Abdullah land reforms made possible by Article 370, giving land to the tiller – ensured land for all.  Its booming fruit and nut orchards and craft economy of shawls and carpets remained undisrupted by violence and crackdowns. Add supply chains for militants and armed forces (porters, food, guides) and remittances from thousands living outside Kashmir and anyone will understand how the Kashmiris have thrived without modern industry for three decades.

For them, the political questions of identity hold a colossal priority over the economic. The Shah narrative is not ideologically willing to address these political questions.

Kashmir now stands to lose much of its political and ecological uniqueness. Photo: Kunal Mukherjee/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The uncomfortable truth is that the Kashmiri has always had enough ‘development’ to suit him. Secondly, it has always existed side by side with terror. Its stone pelters can be pelters by day and embroiderers by night. Its militant sympathisers can be degree professionals who have studied at Delhi, Bangalore or Kashmir.

Also read: There is No Wisdom in Turning All Kashmiris Into Antagonists

The abrogation will not change this because Article 370 is foremost about Kashmiri identity and not development. A euphoric public led by Shah and Modi might believe it is the magic switch off but removing the ‘offending’ Article solves nothing because the political problem doesn’t go away. It’s an ostrich head in the sand approach.

So why was this myth created? It is impossible that Shah or Modi did not know that Jammu and Kashmir has good development indices, well above other states. Or that under Article 370, its selective land lease arrangements have worked well for outside investors. Or that Nagaland has similar autonomous arrangements and Himachal has similar property restrictions.

The moral standard of equality quoted by Shah that justifies bringing Kashmiris at par with others by eliminating their ‘unfair privileges,’ masks the ideological loathing of a Muslim majority state existing with constitutionally binding provisions within a Hindu majority state.

The eager swallowing of this myth by an elated middle class is a classic ‘bait and switch’ that veils the political nature of this abrogation by focusing on what feels good to a public feeding frenzy. The myth makes the public feel it’s “unfair” they can’t buy property in Kashmir but doesn’t recommend the same standard for Nagaland.

A view of Pahalgam. Photo: Saad Akhtar/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Undoubtedly, the fuel for making this ideological agenda the ‘new normal’ has been provided by the Kashmiris themselves – by the Islamic radicalisation of their conflict, the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits and the Kashmiri-centric nature of governance in the state.

Yet in five years of Modi rule, public anger at Kashmir has been skilfully taken by the BJP to a different level altogether; where even the extremes of twisting the constitution, repression, stealth, the arrests of mainstream leaders and blatantly reneging on a binding, international commitment are wildly cheered on as ‘necessary’.

Barefaced, the ideological goals of the Shah narrative are property ownership, demographic change and what the international media is calling the ‘Hindu’ equivalent of Sinicisation and Islamisation in Kashmir.

Without Article 35A, Kashmir will be stripped of its sole protection against the Chinese model of demographic change to speed up the process of ‘mainstreaming’ that will obliterate his culture. Shah challenged this idea but cited Maharashtra and Gujarat, approximately seventy times larger than the Kashmir Valley (135 km long x 32 kms wide, probability of perception 7m). Jammu faces the same danger with its sensitive border areas, Ladakh with its ecology.

Also read: From Kashmir and 370 to Partition, BJP’s Hatred of Nehru is Fuelled by Falsehoods

The fragile architecture, lifestyle and culture of these regions, just like other protected hill societies (Himachal, Nagaland and so on), cannot withstand a mass influx of private or government settlers nor a giant surge in tourism. This was well known to the actual architects of Article 35A – the Kashmiri Pandits (ironically, now bitter opposers) – who first advocated its original avatar in 1927 for more self-seeking reasons.

This demographic overwhelming and cultural mainstreaming is unacceptable in a federal country with the diversity of India. The core is actually this. No matter how angry the majority is at Kashmiri terror and the ethnic cleansing of Pandits, or how complicit Kashmiri Muslims might be or not, or how valid their political agenda is or not, this is a blatantly unconstitutional “land grab” as the world’s headlines see it.

The simplistic idea that complex issues can be resolved with a single majority resolution is by now a standard Modi procedure followed by the all-is-well self-deception that follows. That political aspirations can be wished away by an offer of ‘best periods’ will be the biggest self-deception of them all.

Alpana Kishore has covered Kashmir as a journalist, writer and researcher for over two decades. She has focused on the competing narratives of India and Pakistan since Partition and the effect on their rival identities on the region.