On August 5, a year after the state of Jammu and Kashmir was erased from the map, the Modi government will lay the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. With that, two items on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s core agenda will be ticked off: do away with Article 370, which ensured Jammu and Kashmir special status, and build the temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid.
Social media users in Kashmir compared the demolition of the mosque to the demolition of special status: both were majoritarian acts of aggression. The decisions of August 5, 2019, were meant to erode the character of India’s only Muslim-majority state, they felt.
A year ago, Jammu and Kashmir was placed under the strictest lockdown in its history as the Centre introduced two bills in Parliament and had them passed in quick succession. The new legislation split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, stripped it of special status under Article 370 and repealed Article 35A, which ensured specific rights and protections to residents of the state.
As Delhi worked these vast changes, without the knowledge or consent of those it affected most, it made an array of claims. First, that the decisions had been welcomed by all regions of the former state, where “normalcy” reigned. Second, that the removal of special status and the application of Central laws to Jammu and Kashmir would give it a taste of the rights and development enjoyed by Indians elsewhere, it said. Third, that the new arrangements would kickstart a new politics in a “Naya Kashmir” – here, Prime Minister Narendra borrowed a phrase from National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah, whose son and grandson were imprisoned as Kashmir lost special status. Fourth, that it would help the Centre deal better with a deteriorating security situation and rising militancy.
How true were these claims?
The illusion of normalcy
As August 5 dawned, hundreds of people were being rounded up and arrested: separatists, pro-India politicians, lawyers, stone pelters, would-be protesters, according to the police. All forms of communications were blacked out in the Valley: landlines, mobile phones, internet, satellite channels. While the Valley saw the most complete blackout, internet and phone connections were snapped in Jammu and Ladakh as well.
In Kashmir, there was an undeclared curfew that persisted for weeks. There were no written orders but there were early morning announcements made from security vehicles fitted with loudspeakers, warning people not to leave their homes. Concertina wires spooled across streets and girded buildings in Srinagar.
While the government tried to pass off the eerie quiet as calm, there were scattered protests in the Valley. Soura, in Srinagar, emerged as an epicentre for protests. One youth drowned running from security forces, another teenager died after being hit with teargas shells, among other casualties. As protesters stayed away from hospitals, afraid of arrests, many became expert at removing the metal pellets used by the security forces in crowd control. Ladakh’s Kargil district and border districts in Jammu also saw protests against bifurcation.
In the months that followed, residents of the Valley observed a “civil shutdown”. Even though no strike had been declared by separatists, traders kept their shops shut and ordinary citizens stayed home even after the government imposed curfew had been lifted.
Meanwhile, the government began a determined drive to project “normalcy”. The internet curbs and curfews had brought most of the local press to a halt and the few newspapers that kept going were reduced to a thin collection of press releases. Assorted journalists from the national media were flown into a plush hotel in Srinagar, where the information department briefed them daily on “normalcy”.
Later in the year, the Centre would fly down foreign delegations for tours of normalcy, featuring boat rides on a deserted Dal. Opposition leaders trying to visit Kashmir were turned back.
‘Democratic rights, development’
The aftermath of August 5 saw widespread violation of civil rights and liberties in Kashmir. Mass arrests followed the announcement. Some were “revolving door” detentions that lasted a few hours to a few days, often of minors and often left out of official record. Others were picked up, booked under a preventive detention law called the Public Safety Act and held for months, many of them flown to jails outside Jammu and Kashmir. Minors were also detained under the law, even though children under 18 are meant to be exempt from it. While security agencies invoked the law indiscriminately, the courts dragged their feet, refusing to hear frantic habeas corpus petitions. The Supreme Court also dismissed a petition pointing out human rights violations against minors in Kashmir.
In South Kashmir, the army strode through villages distributing pamphlets on the benefits of revoking special status. But when they left, local residents spoke of army raids at night, of beatings and unauthorised detentions.
The lockdown and internet ban had severe repercussions, impeding access to healthcare, crippling businesses and silencing the local press. The last year has seen growing suppression of free speech. Kashmir still does not have high-speed internet. Even after the internet was partially restored, law enforcement agencies censored access to websites, cracking down on those using virtual private networks to access restricted sites and booking people under anti-terror laws for statements made on social media. Journalists have also been detained, arrested, interrogated and booked under the anti-terror law for their work. A new media policy seeks to vet journalists working in the Valley and crack down on “anti-national news”. For months after August 5, collective prayers at major mosques were halted for months and clerics imprisoned or threatened with arrest if they mentioned Article 370.
Local residents also resented the loss of land and job rights with the disappearance of Article 35A. Kashmiris feared the “comeback of Dogra rule”, where the Valley’s Muslim residents were subjects without rights in an extractive princely state controlled by Hindus. Dogra leaders in Jammu who supported the removal of special status were placed under house arrest for asking for land and job protections for the local population. In Ladakh, celebrations of newfound Union Territory status gave way to demands for protections under the Sixth Schedule.
The new domicile rules have been greeted with protests in Kashmir and viewed as inadequate in other regions. They open up domicile status to those who have lived in Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years and contain a number of exemptions for Central government employees. So far, however, members of marginalised communities in the former state have benefited from domicile status.
Mass incarceration was also the cornerstone of the Centre’s plan to introduce a new politics in Jammu and Kashmir, apparently shorn of corruption and dynastic rule. The separatist leadership had long been silenced. The government now turned its attention to pro-India parties that vowed to protect special status. Three former chief ministers and almost the entire senior leadership of major political parties in Kashmir were imprisoned. Some have since been released but maintained a curious silence on Article 370. Some, including former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, remain under detention.
Article 370 had been the middle ground between Srinagar and Delhi, creating space for Kashmiri political parties who participated in Indian democracy. The Modi government closed up this middle ground. For months, there has been speculation that the Centre was trying to fashion a new political class out of the second rung leadership of political parties and assorted panchayat leaders. These leaders would talk of statehood – which Home Minister Amit Shah himself had promised to restore someday – but not of special status. Shadowy political outfits, including the new Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, have been floated in the last few months.
Assembly elections will not be held before delimitation in Jammu and Kashmir. In place of a legislative assembly, the government offered what it called grassroots democracy. While Kashmir was still under lockdown, it held block development council elections. Most candidates lived in exile from their villages, in heavily secured government enclaves, fearing militant attacks and local resentment if they went home.
Meanwhile, Kashmiri officers have steadily been pushed out of the Union Territory administration.
‘End of militancy’
The security benefits of the August 5 decisions are yet to become clear. Ceasefire violations on the Line of Control doubled in 2019 from the year before. Militant violence continued: grenades were lobbed at security forces, migrant workers and a Kashmiri Pandit sarpanch were killed in the Valley, fruit growers who failed to follow the civil shutdown were threatened and attacked.
Once internet curbs were relaxed and intelligence flowed more freely, regular counterinsurgency operations resumed. The first six months of 2020 have been one of the most lethal periods in recent years, killing 118 militants and 26 security forces. The police claimed to have nearly wiped out militancy in South Kashmir, where top militant commanders, including the Hizbul Mujahideen’s Riyaz Naikoo, have been killed.
But many of those killed in gunfights were recent recruits to armed groups, suggesting local militancy is still thriving. In order to wean youth away from militancy, Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat had suggested “de-radicalisation camps”, where they would be isolated and cured of so-called radical ideas. Yet the families of most slain militants say their sons were pushed to take up arms after years of harrowing encounters with security forces.
So what exactly did the August 5 decisions achieve apart from a brief moment of bravado for the BJP? Here’s a clue that even the government does not think they worked: as the one-year anniversary arrives, Kashmir is under curfew again.