India’s Berlin Wall moment in J&K
8 minute read
5 August 2019 will be etched in history. The abolition of the special status of the Jammu & Kashmir and its bifurcation into two union territories (Jammu & Kashmir with a legislature and Ladakh without one) is India’s Berlin Wall moment. As with Babri mosque demolition, the country will not be the same again. Unmistakably, the centre’s action has generated a tremendous groundswell of support among people across all barriers.
The paradise on Earth was maliciously kept apart from the rest of the country for decades. Now two bravehearts have struck at the root of separatism, discrimination, corruption, jihadi terrorism and outright treason by emasculating Article 370 and removing Article 35-A. The formidable Modi-Shah duo moved ahead with the courage of a lion and the cunning of a fox, undaunted by legal hurdles, political risk, hostile reactions from neighbours and likely international criticism. With this single act, they have secured a lasting place in history for themselves.
Article 370 and its illegitimate child 35-A had been controversial right from inception. It faced stiff resistance even from Congress members in the Constituent Assembly and would not have been passed if Sardar Patel had not thrown his weight behind it in spite of his own better judgment.
The special status of the troubled state was defended on the grounds that it has a unique demography, is coveted by a hostile neighbor, is partly under foreign occupation and has been the subject of four wars. These are, in fact, reasons for giving it less autonomy, not more. In any other country, such a province would merit extra strong union with the rest of the country, if not permanent central rule.
As expected, Article 370 became a cover for separatism, corruption, misrule and discrimination. The tenuous nature of its link with the rest of the country created a strong vested interest in keeping the pot boiling. Thanks to it, thousands of refugees from west Pakistan have been living in the state for decades without any rights; women and weaker sections are denied the benefits they enjoy elsewhere in the country. The fork-tongued leaders from valley have blackmailed New Delhi on the one hand and misled and worked up local populace on the other, while plundering the state with both hands. These leaders glibly talk about Kashmiriyat but are mum on the plight of the Kashmiri pundits. They have suppressed the minority voices from Jammu and Ladakh, while projecting sunni separatists as the sole voice of people of the state. They have siphoned away billions upon billions of rupees poured by the central government into the state, kept the state underdeveloped and backward and painted India as an occupying force before the world.
This is how the Abdullahs, Muftis and Lones have been serving the people of the state for generations. Their livelihood is now all but gone. They are facing not-so-polite queries from income tax, enforcement directorate and national investigative agency for corruption and money laundering. No wonder they are rattled no end at the audacity of kaffirs (‘banias’) from Delhi.
Like Babri demoltion, this development has exposed parties, leaders and opinion makers. Equivocation is not an option. By and large, parties and groups with a divisive, separatist, anti-national agenda have opposed it. Thus the leftists managed to take out a rally against it. DMK opposed it. Sponsors and supporters of the “tukde tukde gang” are describing it as a dangerous blunder. Some of them have warned of a Palestine or Bangladesh in the making. The sly viciousness with which they have condemned the new initiative shows that the internal enemies are unlikely to concede defeat easily.
On the other hand, it is telling that small regional parties (BSP, BJD, AIADMK, YSRCP) recognized the popular mood and decided to go with the tide. It is equally telling that Congress was split in public down the middle on the issue, even after the Gandhi family had made known its views.
The Congress has emerged as a loser on all counts. The Gandhi family has once again failed to sense the changing realities. Blinded by its hatred for Narendra Modi and anything that may benefit him in any manner, the family took an adversarial position, as it did on the surgical strike and Balakot bombing. It did not realise that its empty posturing isolated it from the popular mood. Many leaders in the party, however, were too uncomfortable to put up with it. For the first time in fifty years, we saw public voicing of genuine differences of opinion in the party. Where it will lead to remains to be seen.
Some well-meaning critics have said that wide-ranging prior consultation with local parties and people on such a momentous decision would have been desirable. Such a criticism, however, overlooks the fact that central government has in the past made several attempts to carry out such a dialogue. Even Modi government appointed a former IB chief, Dineshwar Sharma, for the purpose. These efforts have sunk without a ripple because those who pose as popular leaders of the state are either on Pakistan’s payroll or driven by a dream to rule the state as their own fiefdom. They are too happy with the status quo to alter it. The political structure so far did not permit a direct dialogue with the ordinary people of the state over the heads of its self-styled leaders. This is the impasse that Modi government has sought to break with its bold move.
In spite of the strong and widespread support for the action in the rest of the country as also in Jammu and Ladakh, the road ahead is strewn with thorns. Three types of challenges will be mounted to discredit, derail and thwart the new initiative.
First, Pakistan is visibly upset, and for good reason. India may now refuse to discuss J & K with Pakistan except in respect of PoK. Pakistan has downgraded diplomatic relations with India, suspended trade, discontinued rail links and closed its airspace for India’s civilian flights. These actions hurt it more than India, but that is beside the point. They are intended to draw the world’s attention. Imran Khan has warned of another Pulwama-like terror strike and India’s likely hawkish response leading to a high-intensity conventional war.
Pakistan is trying to create the impression of a high-tension confrontation between two nuclear neighbours in a desperate bid to scare Washington and other western capitals to lean on India on Kashmir. The gambit is not likely to succeed. The UNO has flatly rejected Pakistan’s plea to intervene. The US and other countries know better than being taken in by Pakistan’s self-serving saber rattling. In any case, India is now too strong economically and militarily to be pushed around by other powers.
Secondly, the procedure adopted to change the constitutional status of J &K is open to legal challenge. Modi government has shown exceptional dexterity in using Article 370 itself to nullify the special status of J&K. But the invention of transferring powers of the (long abolished) constituent assembly of J&K first to the state assembly and then to the Governor appears to have a grey area in purely technical terms.
However, the article itself was mala fide and deserved little sympathy. Though explicitly designated as temporary, it was so designed as to make it a permanent fixture of the statute book. Then there are numerous precedents of its being amended through a presidential order. Finally, the courts may decline to take a purely legalistic view and weigh the consequences of its ruling on national integration, governance in the state and the spirit of the constitution.
The toughest challenge, however, will be domestic and political. Driven to the wall, the local politicians will incite the locals in valley “to fight till the very end to regain their lost dignity and autonomy“. The centre’s move will be portrayed as a frontal assault on the distinct identity of the state and its people, and as an overt bid to conquer and subjugate them. The central government will no doubt counter it with its narrative of peace, progress, stability and emotional integration with the rest of the country. The real challenge will be to isolate trouble makers for harsh treatment and reach out to ordinary people yearning for a life of peace, dignity and freedom. It will be a fierce battle for hearts and minds of the people.
This battle cannot be fought by the central government alone. Every patriotic Indian has to join it. The government’s plan to hold an investors summit in the state is unexceptionable. Besides tourism and hotels, the state offers great scope for food processing, handicrafts, drugs and pharmaceuticals, dairy and renewable energy. However, it lacks infrastructure and skilled workers. It has few natural resources and the land acquisition act has made buying land for industry extremely difficult. Industrialists may be keen to move in; but they would like to wait until the security situation stabilizes.
It may be a long wait. There is a vast trust deficit between other Indians and Kashmiri Muslims, who are largely viewed as ungrateful stone pelters and separatists hoisting Pakistani-ISIS flags while chanting anti-India slogans. On their parts, minds of Kashmiri Muslims have been poisoned for decades against their country. Triumphalism of any sort will be self-defeating, just as pusillanimity will be.
Nationalist forces have joined battle with Islamic separatism and jihadi terrorism to reclaim a place dominated by them. Apart from muscle, they will need tact, firmness and patience to succeed.