In discussions among friends and with colleagues, the evolving consensus on the government’s decision to revoke the special status promised to Jammu and Kashmir when it joined the Indian Union in 1947 seems to lie between claiming that the move was a “necessary evil” to asserting that it was “absolutely right”. The justification offered by many Indians outside the Valley is that “there was no other way” to end the troubles in the Valley – that the ends justify the means.
It’s difficult not to be awed by the clinical precision with which the Modi government executed this masterstroke. That throws up some questions: couldn’t the government have used this brainpower to think of less brutal alternatives? Could it have used its political muscle and acumen to dilute the provisions in the Indian Constitution that were deemed inappropriate in a phased manner? What was the rush to hollow out Article 370 and Article 35A, the main provisions that guaranteed a special position for Jammu & Kashmir within the Indian republic?
Article 370 of the Constitution granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and limited Parliament’s power to make laws concerning the state. Article 35A granted special rights and privileges pertaining to jobs and property ownership, among other things, to those defined as “permanent residents” of the state.
Not only did the government have enough time to consider alternatives (the next five years, at least), it had the upper hand over its political partner in Jammu and Kashmir when it ruled the state for three years in a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Alliance. Besides, it enjoys the faith of the rest of India.
Of course, there were alternatives. To begin with, there were some obvious low-hanging fruit. The gender bias in Article 35A regarding the property rights of women who marry outside the state may have been acceptable in the 1950s but has no place in this day and age. Many Kashmiri women would happily support an amendment to introduce gender justice. In fact, an initiative to change this could have been led by the former chief minister, herself a woman, Mehbooba Mufti.
This would serve to move the conversation away from repugnance towards these articles of the Constitution to a logical discussion about their content. After all, laws are subject to change as society evolves.
The government could then have worked to remedy other areas of concern. It could have proposed changes in land ownership based on the employment and social benefits that entities from outside the state could generate. This could have been accompanied by strict laws to protect the environment and the region’s culture.
Landowners in Kashmir (which is practically every Kashmiri, unlike the rest of India) might even have favored limited dilution of this provision, albeit for personal gain. The statistics about the slow growth of Kashmir’s economy that have been quoted widely in the last few days could have been deployed for a data-based debate.
Next, on to Article 370 itself, which has already been gutted by over 40 Presidential orders over the decades and is mostly ornamental in nature. One criticism was that it placed restrictions on central agencies from operating in Kashmir. To remedy this, steps could have been taken to introduce accountability to check corruption. For example, development funds from the Centre could have been accompanied by oversight by the Central Vigilance Commission or Comptroller and Auditor General or their appointees at the state level.
These provisions have been on the books for between 70 years to 150 years. The government should have taken couple of years to work through them, instead of the couple of hours that Parliament was given to discuss the resolutions moved by Home Minister Amit Shah on August 5.
The Bharatiya Janata Party says that the promise to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status has always been on its election manifesto – and that the huge majority it won in this year’s Lok Sabha election signaled support for this course of action. That mandate, however, did not come from Kashmiris.
While it is clear that practical alternatives existed, other questions remain.
Did the government make any effort to tap Kashmir’s intellectual capital and that of the diaspora? Educated, secular Kashmiris could have been used as effective influencers to change the course of the discussion.
What sort of development work has the government done in Kashmir? Did it try to set up new educational institutions or vocational training schools? Did it set up sports facilities to keep the youth engaged? Did it create awareness about entrepreneurship? Besides the Jammu-Srinagar Highway project, which was long overdue (though detractors say it was constructed mainly for the benefit of the military), what other project of note has been undertaken since 2014?
Could the allegedly corrupt Kashmiri political leaders at whom this decision was also supposed to have been aimed not have been dealt with like offenders in other parts of the country – like by slapping criminal charges against them?
Did the situation on the ground really justify such a brutal action? By the army’s own figures, there are only 400 militants among 8 million Kashmiris. The government has repeatedly insisted that the situation on the ground has been stabilising. Tourists have been flocking to Kashmir. I have myself visited Kashmir four times since the outburst of violence that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander BurhanWani in July 2016 and there was relative normalcy.
I have spoken to a number of locals across Kashmir, including two former militants. The consensus was that they were tired of strife and they were ready for peace. What necessitated such a drastic action?
Lastly, the most important question: does the Modi government really intend to bring peace and development to the Valley?
Since Modi has come to power, radicalisation and use of force in the Valley have increased manifold. We have seen the narrative building slowly over the past few years that Kashmiris are a rogue, unpatriotic people. This is in line with the patriotism and integrity of minorities across the country being questioned.
The subversion of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir is not new. Successive Congress governments starting with Nehru have played their part, along with puppet governments in Kashmir, installed and dismissed at will. The BJP’s approach is different, though. While the Congress did so with the hacksaw and drill, the BJP government’s instrument of choice is the sledgehammer.
There is a pattern to its unapologetic approach: the National Register of Cirizens in Assam in conjunction with the provisions in the Citizenship Amendment Bill hurts Muslims disproportionately, the dilution of the Right to Information Act, the slapping of criminal charges against political opponents and media persons, the partisan use of the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate to threaten non-pliable businesses people, and when nothing else works, outright threats to people voicing an opinion.
It is evident that the BJP was looking for a Big Bang move that would both enhance the reverence with which it is held by its followers and rattle those who dare to dissent. What better stage than Kashmir to do that? To pull this off, the BJP created a backdrop of heightened nationalism and patriotism. It understood well that Indians are tired of the corruption and inaction of previous governments, that they are hungry for action, for a superhero. In these circumstances, what better way to stamp its authority firmly by subjugating the will of a people?
Avnish Madan is a financial consultant with a keen interest in Indian history and politics.