Something sinister was brewing in Kashmir over the previous week. India suddenly pushed in thousands of paramilitary forces to add to the already present half a million soldiers that tightly control Kashmiri lives in the region. These forces were deployed in strength in major towns and cities, blocking entry and exit points.
A slew of official “orders” leaked into the public sphere that began with curtailing a major annual Hindu pilgrimage and sending the pilgrims back to mainland India. Police officials went door to door asking tourists to leave hotels and houseboats and flee Kashmir. Indian students were bussed out from an engineering college in Srinagar. Letters circulated asking government offices to stay ready for an “unprecedented security situation.”
The Indian government remained tight-lipped about its plan. A military spokesperson said the pilgrimage was stopped because there were intelligence reports about the threat of an attack. But then no reason was given why tourists or students were sent away or why there was a need for a military surge.
In all this, Kashmiris were kept in the dark. Rumours began to circulate that India was planning to revoke Article 370, a constitutional provision which notionally protects the state of Jammu and Kashmir from direct intervention by the Indian Parliament. (More on that later). There were also rumours that there might be an attack on Pakistani positions across the line of control that divides historical Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Indeed, India had started heavy artillery shelling on Kashmiri villages across the border.
There were rumours that the Indian military might sweep the entire region and eliminate Kashmiri resistance figures and activists. For a moment, a rumour spread that the pre-eminent pro-independence Kashmiri leader Yasin Malik, who has been combating severe illness in an Indian jail had died, which it appears wasn’t true.
Nothing else could explain India’s dramatic destabilising moves in Kashmir. The panic in Kashmir heightened when on Sunday night, the military imposed an indefinite curfew and shut down the Internet, stopped all phones and TV services. In urban areas, where people typically aren’t well-provisioned had begun to buy essential supplies but most supplies soon dried up.
As Sunday night turned into Monday morning, the fog lifted. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah gave a speech where he declared two critical measures that Kashmiris—once they come out of the information blockade and realise what has happened—will see as a direct existential threat.
First, Shah revoked Article 370, which had been a constitutional arrangement between Kashmir’s India-appointed politicians and the Indian government in the post-1947 period. In 1947, as Indian and Pakistan fought a war over the former princely state of Kashmir, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler after some dithering had decided to join Hindu-majority India through a treaty of accession.
Since Kashmir had a Muslim-majority population who would have preferred independence or accession with Muslim-majority Pakistan, Indian leaders sought to legitimise the Hindu ruler’s arbitrary decision by a constitutional negotiation that would give Kashmir (along with the regions of Jammu and Ladakh, historically part of the princely state) a degree of “special” status within the Indian Union.
Article 370 would allow a Kashmiri government to formulate its own laws, have a state flag, a prime minister and a president, and prevent the Indian parliament from making laws for Kashmir.
Associated with Article 370 was an Indian presidential order called 35A which allowed the Kashmir state government to determine the permanent residency status of citizens, who could buy land and get government employment. This element of the article originated during the 1920s under the rule of the last Hindu ruler Hari Singh and had explicitly been pushed for by Kashmir’s minuscule Hindu population who were afraid of Indians from the plains coming and taking valuable government jobs.
Kashmir’s majority Muslims, highly repressed and kept out of schools and colleges then, represented no threat to Hindu dominance in government employment. But in the post-1947 era, as more Kashmiri Muslims had access to education, the competition for jobs grew, and 35A became valuable to the Muslims as well.
Settler colonial project
While these regional questions began to acquire political significance over time, politics was reshaping in India. The rise of the Hindu-right in India was slow in the post-1947 era, as it was out of favour after one of its members assassinated MK Gandhi, the principal leader of the movement for Indian independence from Britain.
Fast forward to the 80s and the 90s and the Hindu right, built upon notions of Hindu supremacism and territorial nationalism, grew country-wide and formed its first national government.
As the BJP, the Hindu-right’s political party grew in numbers in the Indian parliament, its mothership, the RSS, became the world’s largest right-wing militia. From the beginning, the RSS and the BJP have sought “full integration” of Kashmir into India, which to them means that Indians should be able to settle in Kashmir and ‘Kashmiri’ should not be a political identity.
The calls for the removal of Article 370 picked up pace after 1990 when India sent tens of thousands of soldiers into Kashmir to repress an indigenous movement for independence, whose origins one way or the other lay in the Kashmiri mistrust of India and fear that India will eventually turn Kashmir into a settler colony.
Earlier this year, as Narendra Modi, a life-long RSS member, became prime minister of India for the second time with a large majority, the BJP media cells kicked into overdrive. The call was raised for removing Article 370 and 35A.
The Hindu rightwing saw this as a final blow to any semblance of Kashmiri Muslims being protected from the majoritarian Indian state. To achieve this, even loyalist Kashmiri politicians were to be sidelined and kept at bay. Many pro-independence activists had already been either eliminated or put in jail.
For most Kashmiris, Article 370 was a symbolic term which had lost actual meaning, since Kashmir was never protected from the Indian state’s depredations. For close to seventy years now, Kashmir has been the most-directly intervened in states of India. Its governments have been whimsically removed. It has had the most prolonged spells of direct rule from New Delhi. And Indian military in the region has enjoyed total immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses, a privilege the Indian military has used to the hilt.
It is the element of 35A that had protected Kashmiri land from settlers from India, which is the biggest blow to Kashmiris. Kashmiris know quite well that India has the military power and financial capacity to settle this region quickly.
There is also a second announcement that Amit Shah made. The Indian government, he said, is tabling a bill to reorganise the state. Under the plan, the state shall immediately cease to exist. The region would be divided into two Union Territories. Ladakh, which is a vast region, but sparsely populated by Buddhists and Muslims, will be a separate unit with no legislative body.
While some Ladakhis have long demanded Union Territory status, it has finally come, but it has also taken away their democratic rights of representation.
The second unit will be Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a legislature, but this legislature would have very limited powers. In the Indian system, the Union Territories have a status below the states. UTs typically have no control over “law and order” which means, for instance, that the Jammu and Kashmir Police will cease to exist. More significantly, UTs also have no control over land, which means the Indian government will determine how land is to be used or settled in Kashmir.
This is the sum of all the fears that Kashmiris have been articulating through their protests and resistance for the last seventy years.
A full-blown settler colonial project has begun in Kashmir. It is unlikely Kashmiris will take this lying down.
In one fell swoop, India has removed the entire raison d’être of its historical justification of holding on to Kashmir. In one fell swoop, India has also removed the argument of its loyalists in Kashmir who had tried to convince Kashmiris that India would guarantee their socio-political rights.
In the last 30 years, more than 80,000 Kashmiris have been killed, an unremitting military occupation has wantonly destroyed thousands of other lives, and there is an entire generation of people who gave everything to resist it. They will not go silently into the night.
This article was originally published in TRT World on August 5, 2019.
Featured image illustration Mir Suhail