Or will it make matters worse?
The BJP government of Prime Minister Modi has finally delivered one of its main election campaign promises, that of ending the special status of Kashmir in the Indian constitution.
Article 370 in Indian constitution was inserted at the behest of Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir as a condition of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India. He did it so India could wade off the invading militia from Pakistan with its army’s support.
The article that came into effect exempted Jammu and Kashmir from the laws of India, allowing the former princely state to make its own laws in all matters except finance, defense, foreign affairs, and communications. The article also let the state have its own constitution and flag (alongside the Indian flag) and deny property rights in the state to outsiders.
This provision was further buttressed by Article 35A introduced through a presidential order in 1954 that forbid outsiders from permanently settling and buying land in Jammu and Kashmir. In one fell swoop, Narendra Modi scrapped both these articles through a presidential decree (and approved by both legislatures).
Not only did Jammu and Kashmir lose its special status, but it is also now a bifurcated state with one part (Jammu and Kashmir) called a Union Territory with a legislature and the other, Leh, a Union Territory without a legislature. The changes were made in military-style secrecy giving no opportunity to the Kashmiri leadership to stage or voice any protests.
Not that it would matter since BJP has an absolute majority in the parliament and it could railroad this change in Kashmir with ease. But even then, the Indian government wanted to bring over the change in Kashmir’s status without any publicity before it happened. The Indian government was chary of Pakistan’s likely fomenting of troubles, and besides it wanted no foreign criticism of the action before implementation.
Now with the changes of Kashmir’s status, the Indian government can look forward to the much-cherished objective of rooting out militancy in that state and its assimilation with rest of India.
Will this happen?
Militancy in Kashmir is probably is as old as the partition of India. It began with the incursion of Pakistan Army aided para-military incursion of Kashmir in 1947 that magnified into a full-scale war between India and Pakistan.
The war ended in both sides agreeing to a cease-fire with a line of control that effectively divided JK into two parts, India controlling about 55% of territory and Pakistan about 30% (the remaining 15% was occupied by China after the Sino-Indian war).
Pakistan and India have fought two wars since then over Kashmir, in 1965, and 1999 (Kargil). The 1971 war between the two countries also affected Kashmir. But what has happened in Kashmir since its so-called accession to India has more to do with the Kashmiris aspirations than with the wars between India and Pakistan. Kashmir has often been described as a territorial trophy that both Pakistan and India have wanted to be a part of their country.
Ironically each country, particularly Pakistan, has defined this battle as one for the “liberation” of the Kashmiris, while the Kashmiris have articulated their battle as one for sovereignty. Unfortunately, in this long drawn out battle for “sovereignty” people who have suffered are the ordinary Kashmiris. Since the day of signing of the instrument of accession by maharaja of Kashmir, and its endorsement by the popular Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah that time, Kashmiris never actually had an opportunity to express their choice.
A plebiscite which was agreed upon between Nehru and Liaqat Ali Khan never materialized. The frustration of Kashmiri leaders from Sheikh Abdullah downward would later take the form of nationalism in the mid-1950s and demands for a plebiscite. Intermittent and sporadic disturbances continued to occur in the valley leading to serious political clashes between Kashmiris and law enforcement agencies.
Political battles would soon give birth to a different type of opposition, militancy, and violence that would start to characterize politics in Jammu and Kashmir. In no time the valley became host to more than 30 different militant organizations each vying for control.
Armed and funded by militant organizations across the border these entities not only fought against the law enforcers but also other moderate political entities who wanted a more peaceful solution of Kashmir’s grievances. In the last 40 years, Kashmir has witnessed more violence and militant attacks than any other part of India. So much so that elections to Kashmir legislature could not be held in 1991.
Several times Presidential rule was imposed to hold fresh elections (at the current time Jammu and Kashmir is under presidential rule). The most important consequence of years of militancy in Kashmir is fracturing of politics in the country and the emergence of extremism leading to dilution of the concept of independence for the average Kashmiri.
In her latest novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, author Arundhati Roy devotes a considerable part of the book to narrating militancy in Kashmir valley. In the story, a fictional character states that the meaning of Azadi in Kashmir depends on who you ask. To one group it means freedom from Indian domination, to another having an Islamic state, to yet another it is joining a Muslim state like Pakistan.
In other words, in the last seven decades, the Kashmir has lost its sense of direction, it is leaderless. The vacuum has been filled by militants and extremists. The latest Indian action is supposed to reign in militancy and establish order in that troubled region. India has spent billions in pursuit of that goal. The might that India has shown in Kashmir in the past was unable to yield any result.
Scrapping the special status of that state and bringing the region directly under the central rule may not be the right way to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris. This will not only inflame the area further but also lead to greater conflict with its neighbor and its people. This action will not also get much sympathy from other nations of the world.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.