On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the people of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and all other Indians on the “historic” decision his government announced on Monday to nullify Article 370. The constitutional provision had granted special status and notional autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, now divided into two Union Territories. The prime minister’s speech contained a remarkable inversion: a decision that took away the specific rights of millions without their consent was presented as a decision that empowered them.
Article 370 had its roots in the Instrument of Accession signed in 1947 by Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. It enabled the state to draft its own constitution and laws. It gave the Centre legislative power over just three subjects – defence, external affairs and communications. It gave the state assembly the power to decide which Central laws would apply to Jammu and Kashmir. Article 35A, also revoked this week, gave Jammu and Kashmir the power to define permanent residents of the state and grant them special rights and privileges, including the right to own property.
With the abrogation of special status under Article 370, the prime minister said, the citizens of the dismembered state of Jammu and Kashmir would now have rights enjoyed by the rest of the country. Women, workers and others would be empowered, Modi argued. What the prime minister left out of his speech was that a number of Central laws have already been made applicable to Jammu and Kashmir over the decades. Special status leaves room for more specific rights to particular sections of society to be applied through presidential orders ratified by the state government. As an argument for abrogating Article 370 as a whole, it was inadequate.
The speech was also ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of the rights enjoyed by citizens in Jammu and Kashmir under the state constitution. The cause celebre for abrogating Article 35A, for instance, was that it did not give women equal rights to property – should they marry outside the state, they would lose property rights. But that provision of the law has been read down by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The prime minister also ignored the radical reforms introduced by National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah in the 1950s that placed a ceiling on land ownership and redistributed “land to the tiller”.
Most importantly, Modi ignored what his government was unilaterally taking away – political agency assured to an entire state when it agreed to join the Indian Union, protections ensured to an identity that felt itself under threat. What Modi projects as glorious investment opportunities and development is seen by thousands in Kashmir as an attempt to affect demographic change, as land grab, as the destruction of a fragile ecology.
What he did not address was that, as he spoke, Jammu and Ladakh remained under restrictions, while the Kashmir Valley was under lockdown. Most of the Valley’s political leaders, even those who have supported the Indian state through decades of militancy, were placed under arrest. If this decision was such a windfall for the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, why were they or their leaders not consulted?
Modi made a veiled reference to the leaders locked up in jail because they vowed to oppose the Centre’s decision. Such persons, Modi said, should work towards the good of the nation and respect the national sentiment. It sounded like a polite threat: acquiesce to the will of the majority or else. Of the sentiments of an embattled minority, there was no mention.
As the prime minister invoked “vikas”, he spoke vividly of the resources that this would open up – the fruit and shawls of Kashmir, the rare herbs of Ladakh. It was chilling language, reducing a region to its commodities. It was the language of acquisition, not that of a democratic government acting in the interests of its citizens.