Palestine or Shangri-La: Which way will Kashmir drift?
Even if the disputed region were to become a Shangri-La, it would be a Shangri-La manufactured by India with sheer military force and money. A massive public uprising erupted when in 2008 about 50 acres of forestland were transferred clandestinely to a panel managing the annual pilgrimage to a Himalayan Hindu cave shrine in Jammu and Kashmir region. Muslims, who are the majority, feared the land would be used to build permanent buildings in the ecologically fragile region.
The local comprador government, which had facilitated the transfer, fell. Scores of Muslim protesters were shot dead and hundreds injured and arrested during peaceful street demonstrations. Even bigger anti-India uprisings erupted in 2010 over the killing of a teenage student and another one in 2016 over the killing of a rebel commander.
But surprisingly, barring a few protests, the region was comparatively calmer when on August 5 the ruling Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi altered the status of this disputed region where the 30-year-old anti-India insurgency has surged in the past few years. On a political Richter scale, this is a grade 9 earthquake that has already riled China and Pakistan.
The reason for the absence of people’s reaction, besides shock, was deployment of between 60,000 to 180,000 soldiers who complemented about half a million soldiers, policemen and civilian militias already stationed there. The Indian government had also foreclosed the possibility of protests by shutting phone and internet services, imposing a curfew and rounding up hundreds of dissenters, including three former pro-India chief ministers — the highest elected officials — for whom these constitutional guarantees were the biggest weapon to woo the rebellious population during elections and persuade them that staying with India was in their best interest.
Why people have responded carefully for now could be gauged from the example of a peaceful demonstration of, according to a reporter who was filming the event, about 30,000 people that were fired at by government forces on Friday in Srinagar, injuring several, even though the protesters said they had requested a police officer to let them march peacefully. Mian Qayoom, a distinguished lawyer who could have challenged in the Indian Supreme Court the scrapping of the legislations has been arrested and flown to a jail in Agra city of Uttar Pradesh state.
Another reason for the subdued response is that many separatists believe that despite the legislations guaranteeing special legal and constitutional status for J&K, India has been riding roughshod over the democratic rights of the Muslims of this region.
Therefore, this line of thinking argues, that these guarantees, which had been hollowed out during the past seven decades, had had no effect in stopping New Delhi’s predatory attitude toward the region in the past, the attitude that had forced them to start the armed insurgency in the first place in 1989. But they might be forced to rethink after Pakistan partially suspended diplomatic relations with India.
The development shocked even a sizable number of Indians. Why? First, the Narendra Modi-led government has subverted constitutional norms. Also, rather than being consulted, the eight million-odd Muslims of the region have been virtually jailed. They learnt about the decision from satellite TV. The bulldozing of the region’s special status also went against the pact India’s founding fathers had made with then Kashmiri leadership.
Alongside the newly created countries of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Jammu and Kashmir state was an independent kingdom for a few months until the already unpopular Hindu king signed the Instrument of Accession with India, retaining sizable sovereignty. What India did on August 5 was unprecedented. A region with “5,000 years of recorded history” and which was an independent entity at the time of India’s creation, was downgraded from a State to a Union Territory and divided into two: Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir. Pro-India politicians had been demanding restoration of the state’s autonomous character as existed in 1953 within the Indian Union, while separatists had been demanding independence or merger with Pakistan.
But rather than a negotiated settlement with these two diametrically opposite political demands, encompassing the entire Muslim aspirations, the nationalist Indian government forced a religiously motivated “final solution” down the throats of millions of caged and battered Muslims. That the decision is patently anti-Muslim is clear from the Union Territory status granted to Ladakh, which was administratively part of the nearly 100 percent Muslim Kashmir Valley.
Ladakh has an equal number of Muslims and Buddhists. Both had no issues with India. But while Buddhists had been demanding a Union Territory independent of Kashmir, Muslims wanted to stay within undivided Kashmir. Muslims of the region, concentrated in Kargil area, have, understandably, been under curfew and several Muslim activists have been reportedly arrested. Frustrated by the fact that the Indian state has failed to “win hearts and minds” of Muslims during the past 73 years and military repression has equally failed to subdue the Muslims’ demand for political rights, the Indian government now bets on converting Muslims (68 percent) into a minority by settling more Hindus from India in the region. Hindus currently account for less than 32 percent of the population.
This move is aimed at breaking the will of the people, to make them give up the demand for independence or autonomy. But the thing with the will of the people is that if it is crushed in one generation, it expresses itself with renewed vigor in the next, as has been amply demonstrated by the history of the region. Before 1987, the people apparently seemed to have made peace with India. Indian national anthem was sung, and Indian flag hoisted, during morning assembly in many schools, including mine where Hindu students were in the majority. But the Indian state’s political misadventures — constitutional frauds, rigged elections, patronage of corruption over decades — had become a ticking bomb in the collective subconscious of the majority of the people.
The India that had taken root disappeared in a jiffy when the insurgency erupted. The Indian state has obviously factored in the risks. The muscular nationalism of the ruling government makes it confident of tackling any catastrophic situation, including an imminent flare-up with Pakistan. In the build-up to the clampdown and lockdown, the state had probably readied itself even for a revolt by Kashmiri Muslim policemen, most of whom are said to have been asked to deposit weapons with police stations, even though they have been instrumental in crushing the militancy. In the end, however, India would end up dehumanizing its own people and further brutalizing Kashmiris who until 1989 had not picked up arms during the past 500 years.
Through a massive media disinformation and misinformation campaign, the Indian government is trying to pass off this catastrophic decision as the one taken in the interest of people of the region. It argues that the special constitutional arrangements were discriminatory and prevented its economic development. At the same time, the government blamed pro-India politicians for the mess. But the government of India’s own data shows that Jammu and Kashmir fared much better on development indices than several other Indian states. Also, some of the now-scrapped constitutional guarantees prevalent in J&K (no Indian could buy land in the state) had been extended to other states. It is clear, however, that J&K’s Muslim-majority character was a sore point in the Hindu majoritarian imagination of the Indian nation and they wanted to do away with it, even if it meant subverting the constitution.
Using the record of the thoroughly discredited pro-India politicians as an alibi for imposing the new order, the Indian state scored a self-goal. If these politicians, who ruled the region for the better part of the past 73 years, are corrupt beyond redemption, how could their rule, paraded by New Delhi as an endorsement of India’s tenuous claims on Kashmir, be genuine?
The threat of imminent Hindu takeover of their land has fortified insecurities of the Muslims. They now face an existential challenge to their cultural identity. How could an insecure population be inclined towards development when every developmental initiative would now be seen as a Trojan horse meant for effecting demographic changes? Every Hindu who buys land in Kashmir is already being perceived as an Israeli settler in occupied Palestine.
As chief minister of Gujarat state, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was always at loggerheads with the Congress governments in New Delhi. While asserting the “Gujarati pride,” a thinly veiled Hindu nationalist sentiment of his native Gujarat state, he would address Congress leaders, his co-religionists, as “Delhi Sultanate,” likening them disparagingly to medieval Muslim rulers of India. It would therefore be absurd to expect of Kashmiris to buy the “development” theory when the Hindu majoritarian idea of India has been unleashed on them, when Kashmiris have been disempowered to an extent that even their elected representatives would be subservient to a “Lieutenant Governor”?
Besides, the fate of hundreds of development projects in Jammu and Kashmir testifies to the spuriousness of the Indian government’s claim that the scrapped constitutional guarantees were a hurdle in the region’s economic development. A 2.5-km flyover in capital Srinagar has been under construction since 2009. What has that to do with constitutional guarantees that were the basis of J&K’s relation with India?
Palestine or Shangri-La. These are the two destinations, an Indian journalist said, Jammu and Kashmir could become after the cataclysmic shift. Given the people’s political aspirations and given the Indian government’s intent to go about its plans full throttle, the former is a certainty. But even if the region were to become a Shangri-La, it would be a Shangri-La manufactured by sheer military force and money, containing the highly viable seeds for another eruption in the future.
The world needs to step in. Some political developments, which have far-reaching consequences, do not remain internal matters of nations. The Holocaust had the beginning in discrimination against Jews and the genocidal violence against Bosnians started with ethnic tensions. Kashmir is more than a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan or a South Asian geopolitical issue. It is about the precarious existence of millions of people.