The Great Magic Trick in Kashmir

Public euphoria believes that the reading down of Article 370 will resolve the Kashmir issue once and for all. But a careless disregard of Kashmir’s history and reality means that the long-term consequences haven’t been factored in.

In March 1992, I interviewed Amanullah Khan, then Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chief, in a Muzaffarabad hotel across the border. He told me that when he sent a few boys across in 1984 to enquire about kickstarting an Independence movement in Indian Kashmir, they had all returned to report there was indeed alienation – but no one was interested in violent rebellion.  

“The land was absolutely barren!” he said.  “No chance of taking up arms.”

Within just four years – after the toppling of yet another government (1986), communal tensions in Anantnag (1986) and a rigged election (1987) – a violent conflict burst upon an unsuspecting government with shocking speed. 

It shows no sign of ending three decades later. If there’s a lesson in there somewhere, it is that some things are best left to simmer on the back burner. 

For 30 odd years, the slow, hard work of thousands of people – state and Central government employees, the Armed Forces, politicians and ordinary people – had created an elaborate, careful web that demonstrated India’s secular and democratic credentials. Despite the violence and stone pelting, discreet conflict management and a hard working foreign policy kept Kashmir on a low-key trajectory.

It dodged the bullets of foreign interference, international resolutions and hostile international media and remained below the radar of international Islamist groups, including ISIS. 

Also read: What the Unveiling of IS’s ‘Wilaya al-Hind’ Branch Will Mean for Kashmir

The key to this conflict management was establishing the strong security grid that finally brought about peace from the raging mayhem of the early 90s; inserting permanent bunkers deep inside hostile villages and towns where handfuls of brave paramilitary jawans withstood endless barrages of bullets in the early days, yet stayed put, without shooting their way out. This establishment came with the sacrifice of literally thousands of soldiers and civilians. 

The reward was buying a delicate yet sturdy peace that withstood even the fearful years of uncontrolled street protests in an increasingly radicalised society and brought it limping back to a sullen ‘normalcy’. Prevention and deterrence worked even as freedoms to travel, trade, learn, pray and criticise multiplied. 

A protest in Srinagar, on August 12, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

In taking a sledgehammer to Article 370 and 35A, the intricate spider’s web of these many threads that took years of sacrifice and effort to weave and maintain has been violently ripped. 

Like all sledgehammers, this has destroyed indiscriminately. The consequences will unfold gradually. Security will be its first casualty and the armed forces will bear the brunt of it. 

However, a month later, a confident public opinion still believes otherwise and asserts that all will be well soon. Like a magic pill, it has swallowed the notion that exterminating Article 370 will solve the Kashmir conflict “once and for all”. 

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

The soothing silence of 40,000 additional troops and a communication ban on Kashmir after 30 years of shrill, unabashed anti-Indian rhetoric doesn’t hurt. It means no news is good news. So the how-can-integration-be-bad, if-370-hasn’t-worked-why-have-it, it-was-temporary-anyway or once-they’re-integrated-the problem-will-be-over narrative, remains dangerously rampant. Any contrary noises are shut down by this narrative. 

The Armed Forces veterans too have a triumphant narrative that comes from the sacrifices of 30 years spent battling wily and obdurate state administrations (besides militants) and the Kashmiri Muslim-centric resistance to their security issues.

According to this narrative, Kashmiris have been exposed to Shock-and-Awe tactics. Belittled and humiliated, they have lost the chief ministership and command over Jammu and Ladakh. Threatened by the nuclear policy reversal from ‘No First Use‘ and the Balakot strikes, their ‘saviour’ Pakistan is in bad shape. Bifurcation limits the problem to five districts that the grid can handle easily. A new leadership amenable to India will replace the old. In time, the populations of Jammu and Ladakh will increase and balance things. The Kashmiris have no way out. This will be a game changer and bring eventual peace. 

Both these narratives have a missing X-factor. Just like the craftily plotted constitutional manoeuvres of August 5, the only thing left out is the Kashmiri and her identity, wrapped deep inside Article 370. 

Nothing else has the unwavering faith of the Kashmiri. Not loyalty to India, nor to Pakistan, nor even to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ruled by authoritarian, cruel outsiders including the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras, the special, signed, legally binding Article 370 deal, protected Kashmir’s identity and gave it for the first time in 400 years, a major say in its own future. It represented a fresh, empowering identity that, unlike in Pakistan, wouldn’t get lost in the larger entity it would join in 1947. 

This identity carries the weight of 400 years of betrayal, a narrative passed from generation to generation. Logically then, Article 370’s removal is another notch in this long history. 

The Article’s regular erosion since 1947 happened for two critical reasons. First, to bring in beneficial laws and practical governance over the passage of time. Secondly, to signal to a headstrong population that used its religious kinship with the ‘enemy across the border’ to bargain – that New Delhi was unquestionably in charge. 

Yet this erosion was always carefully wrapped in state assent, by hook or by crook. The fig leaf of propriety was maintained to ensure this Muslim majority border state did not succumb to the easy lure of Pakistan and would still believe that a secular future was its best bet. 

A police officer crosses an empty road in Srinagar on August 12, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Snatching away the fig leaf itself was unthinkable. Seasoned Kashmir hands understood its import and effect on a Muslim majority state that chose a Hindu majority country only because of Article 370’s safeguards. Its removal would signal the very breakdown of secularism. A spotlight would be switched on for Islamists around the world to ‘avenge’ this betrayal. 

The key understanding of 370’s ‘temporary’ nature at birth in 1949 was that until the future unification of the divided state and its final assent, Article 370 would be the temporary article that held together J&K’s accession to India. If unification did not happen, the divided state’s constituent assembly could choose its final status, which it did by default on dissolution – as ‘permanent’. 

‘Temporary’ by any definition, never meant this fig leaf should be removed unilaterally when Delhi felt it was time without state assent. It is, therefore, the darkest betrayal of them all. 

Today, India has reneged on its lawful commitment – given in 1947 – to the Kashmiri of a special status.

Also read: Both Indian Democracy and Pakistan’s Militarism Have Failed Kashmir

It has also defaulted on the demographic stability it promised, impacting the state’s future land ownership, jobs, ethnicity, religion and cultural freedom. Even positives like delimitation that would equalise the power dynamics of the state – a longstanding, legitimate Jammu demand – come with the bitter humiliation to the Kashmiri of demographic change. His powerlessness could not be more acute. Why would he not be enraged?

The baffling public optimism across India, then defies logic. How will India control the rage once restraints are lifted and its exploitation by Pakistan’s jihadi players begins – as they did decisively in 1989? Is it ready to tie up its army like Israel for the next 50 years to protect settlements that will be instant targets? Or endure a hostile population that any enemy can prey on?

A public angered by 70 years of Kashmiri animosity and fed a muscular vision of primacy might want to believe things will be different ‘this time’. But for the Kashmiri, ‘development’ goodies have always come with stealth, repression, lockdowns, arrests and armed forces at her doorstep. Powerful memories of similar events in the past and a humiliation to beat all humiliations may well make him beyond caring now.

This gives him nothing to lose. And that is the most dangerous place to leave something you have tried to fix for years. Jihadis need only fertile soil and Kashmir is no barren field any more. It is fertile. Its resentment is tightly wound. It awaits release.

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.