The week began with a Presidential Order replacing just one word in the Indian Constitution: “Constituent Assembly” became “Legislative Assembly” in the context of Jammu and Kashmir.
With the powers of the legislative assembly vested in the Indian Parliament ever since the Centre imposed President’s Rule in the state last year, this change enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party government to unilaterally scrap the special Constitutional status of the state, split it into two parts, convert both into Union Territories to be directly ruled by the Centre. All this in a matter of two days. All this while the people of the state were silenced and kept under lockdown.
At the end of the exercise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted to say the changes would herald “peace, progress and prosperity” and “ensure integration and empowerment”. He praised the people of Jammu and Kashmir for their “courage and resilience.”
But what official language obscures, popular language lays bare.
“Union’s Territory,” declared a headline in The Times of India, summing up the change in Jammu and Kashmir’s status. An Amul ad showcased a slab of butter against the backdrop of Kashmir with the tagline: “In every territory of the Union”.
Even more revealing was a text message that circulated on mobile phones within hours of the government proposing these changes: a real estate firm purportedly offered to help Indians buy land in Kashmir, now that the state could no longer restrict land ownership to its residents alone. The message turned out to be a hoax. But the velocity of its circulation offered a glimpse into why many Indians are thrilled with the government’s move – they see Kashmir as an acquisition. And they want to get a slice of it.
A country that fought colonialism has no compunctions acting as a colonising force in a land against the will of its people.
But it isn’t simply about the land. Kashmir is not just any land.
The state’s special status long rankled Hindutva groups, which saw it as a form of Muslim appeasement. Ignoring the state’s particular history as well as the circumstances of its merger with India, they focused on the fact that it was the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian Union. After Kashmir Pandits were forced to flee their homes in the Valley in the early 1990s, this view gained strength. The end of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status became a lightning rod to mobilise the masses for the cause of Hindutva.
Now that this aim has been achieved – even surpassed, with the state reduced to merely a territory of the Union – where does it leave us?
“This is not the India we knew,” said veteran Kashmiri leader Farooq Abdullah, choking as he spoke to a reporter in Srinagar on Tuesday. In Delhi, meanwhile, the majority of parliamentarians went on to endorse the government’s decision, sidestepping the brazenly undemocratic nature of the exercise, ignoring that the entire state and its leaders had no say in it, overlooking the real risks of the federal balance of power further tilting to the Centre.
A centralising, homogenising, bullying Union is what we are left with.
For all the celebration over territory this week, India looks shrunken.