More than 70 days after New Delhi decided to unilaterally alter the status of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Republic, willfully ignoring the voices of citizens and their representatives, civil liberties remain severely restricted in the erstwhile state.
The Centre has deigned to open up cell phone access for a portion of the population, although many continue to find it difficult to communicate. Prepaid phone connections are still down and no access to the internet. This came even as Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was saying that the right to the internet is “non-negotiable”, just days after his own home minister, Amit Shah, said that cutting all phone connections did not amount to trampling on human rights.
New Delhi also continues to prevent any sort of political mobilisation in the Kashmir valley. All of the mainstream political leaders remain under arrest, including politicians who have previously been allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Earlier this week, women protesting the political arrests in the centre of Srinagar were thrown into jail and released only afterthey signed bonds prohibiting them from making any public statements.
The Home Minister has hinted that some political leaders, including former Chief Ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, will be detained indefinitely under the draconian Public Safety Act. Meanwhile, the Centre has given the go-ahead for Block Development Council elections to take place on October 24, even as political leaders from all over Kashmir remain behind bars.
Shah explained why all of Kashmir was under lockdown after the Centre decided to unilaterally alter Article 370 and the status of the state within the Indian Union: he did not want any criticism from people who had not wanted the change to happen.
“[Shah] asserted that some bold decisions are necessary for people’s benefit, without getting bogged down by the fear of a backlash,” said the Home Ministry.
Politics, not security
If the significance of all of the BJP-run Centre’s actions are not clear, it is worth spelling out: the lockdown in Kashmir is a political manoeuvre, and not based on security considerations.
Of course, there is no doubt that militancy is a danger in the state – in fact, the change to Article 370 will likely drive even more of the youth towards the insurgency. But the Centre has done nothing to explain how it is justified in detaining mainstream politicians, including its own former allies.
The BJP is blatantly attempting to reshape politics in the Valley, but wants to do so without the fear of people actually disagreeing with them.
Even if you accept that there were security imperatives in the initial weeks after the Article 370 change – which itself was done without the consent of the people or their representatives – the continued restrictions on the public and detention of political leaders is nothing more than an attempt at political remote control. This is not democratic.
It is as if after announcing demonetisation or amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had jailed all Opposition leaders – and even some of his own allies – just to ensure that there was no criticism of his move.
Reports have repeatedly declared that the BJP wants to use this moment to create a new political class in Kashmir. Modi has literally spoken of building a “Naya Kashmir”. New Delhi wants to decide who comes to power in the Valley – since otherwise it has no chance of winning power there. Anyhow, by turning it into a Union Territory, it can control policy regardless.
The Centre has made no attempt to justify its trampling of civil liberties against an estimation of the security concerns. Simply pointing to Pakistan will not do. Is there any evidence that it has made an effort to consider balancing those rights? The courts, which are supposed to do this when the government does not, have abdicated their role as well, putting off challenges for later dates.
It is clear that the government does not care for rights and liberties when it comes to Kashmiris, and by extension just about anyone who disagrees with it. It should also drop the pretence that its efforts in the Valley have anything to do with security. The BJP wants to decide who comes to power in Kashmir and doesn’t care if the people have other thoughts about this. If any politician in the country thinks that the BJP successfully pulling this off in Kashmir means it will stop there, they should think again.