What does Modi's re-election mean for Kashmir?

The more Modi tries to choke Kashmir, the greater the possibility for the emergence of more radical forms of response.
Published May 28, 2019

This article was written following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election victory in May 2019. As of August 5, 2019, Articles 370 and 35A pertaining to Kashmir stand abrogated.

In 2014, several Indian liberal intellectuals believed in a man called Narendra Modi.

Aatish Taseer, the author of the viral Time magazine cover, India’s Divider-in-Chief, wrote that 2014 “was an election of hope”.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta told The New Yorker that “the frustration right before 2014 was that it was very clear that the old order was really crumbling, so deeply and so profoundly”. Hence, these intellectuals felt that there was need for change.

As Brahmins, they didn’t consider the fate of Muslims and Dalits living in India. They thought that Modi would bring reforms. Five years later, they are horrified.

However, many in Kashmir have a different view on the matter. They say that these intellectuals are worried about the idea of India 70 years too late. In Kashmir, India has represented the same thing all along.

Are Kashmiris right in their assessment of the Modi regime being no different than those in the past? Or are they also wrong?

Editorial: After Modi’s win

After the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a thumping victory in the general elections last week, one question loomed large on everyone's minds: what does this mean for Kashmir and its people?

Many in Kashmir are of the opinion that it makes no difference whether India is ruled by a secular Congress or a communal BJP. For them, the two are no different.

They argue that, historically, the worst forms of abuse and oppression of Kashmiris were carried out under secular regimes. Most massacres in Kashmir occurred under the Congress: the ones in Bijbehara and Sopore in 1993, for example.

The gradual erosion of Kashmir’s special status began during the Congress rule: at one point in time, Kashmir had its own prime minister but the Congress changed that into chief minister, bringing the state at par with others.

Democratically-elected governments in Kashmir were dismissed by the Congress: the Farooq Abdullah-led government was removed in 1984. Draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts were extended to Kashmir by the Congress.

The past five years saw a second full-time National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in India, and during this period, Modi only tried to perfect these practices in Kashmir for which Congress laid the base.

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In the NDA’s first tenure from 1998 to 2004 under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee leadership, various measures were undertaken to address the conflict in and over Kashmir. General Musharraf and the Indian prime minister formulated a framework for a composite dialogue that led to a number of confidence-building measures.

Many pro-freedom leaders in Kashmir are of the opinion that Vajpayee's famous promise to the people, a solution “within the ambit of humanity”, was a sincere call for resolution. They remember him as someone who “understood the pain of Kashmiris”.

But when Modi assumed power in 2014, he did not pick up from where Vajpayee had left off. Let's look at some trends.

Articles 370 and 35A

Under Modi, the BJP tows the historical Sangh Parivar line that calls for a complete integration of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian Union. It means no separate Kashmiri constitution and flag.

In these general elections, abrogation of Article 370 — which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status in the Indian Constitution — was one of the BJP's main promises in its manifesto.

The fear of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A (which empowers the Jammu and Kashmir state's legislature to define “permanent residents” and provide them special rights and privileges) has, ironically, given the Kashmiri political leadership — divided between pro-freedom and pro-India camps — a common cause.

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The regional parties in Kashmir — the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — fought the elections on a single promise: they wouldn’t let the BJP tinker with Article 370.

In the recent past, even the All Parties Hurriyat Conference called for shutdown across Kashmir on days when a petition challenging Article 35A was listed for hearing in the Supreme Court of India.

The re-elected Modi government is likely to push the debate on Articles 370 and 35A further. However, whether the BJP would be able to abrogate these articles is hard to predict given the legal and political factors involved.

Counterinsurgency and crackdown

The last five years also witnessed an increase in counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2014, the number of conflict-related casualties — of militants, civilians and armed forces — stood at 235. By 2018, the figure rose up to 586.

In 2017, the Modi government’s security establishment formulated Operation All-Out to “flush out” militants from Kashmir. This phase also saw an spike in the number of youth joining the ranks of different militant organisations.

In 2016, the number of new recruits stood at 88, which increased to 126 in 2017. In 2018, the figure shot up to 191.

However, this trend among the youth is not a direct result of the BJP government and its policies, but a continuation of a pattern that emerged after 2008, when the then-Indian government miserably failed to respond to massive civilian protests for self-determination in Kashmir.

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These years saw a tightening of the grip on the resistance leadership in Kashmir. The National Investigation Agency was allowed to raid, interrogate, arrest and charge Hurriyat leaders. Many of them continue to remain in jail.

The media was a target and journalists were not spared. The Jama'at-e-Islami Jammu & Kashmir, suspected of providing support to militancy, was banned and its leaders arrested.

The coming years under the Modi regime are likely to witness the same as far as counterinsurgency is concerned. Coincidentally, on the day the Indian election results were announced, the most wanted militant in Kashmir, Zakir Musa, was killed in Tral.

Not that this is happening for the first time, but the present campaign of persecution appears to be more concerted and aimed at cornering resistance organisations in Kashmir into silence and submission.

A new mainstream

The BJP seems to want to bury the Abdullah-Mufti dynasties that the successive Congress regimes not only patronised and funded, but also made their ascension to power smooth by undermining democratic conventions. Modi’s party is trying to prop up a new mainstream in Kashmir — away from these two families.

When the BJP broke its alliance with the PDP in June last year, the possibility of a non-PDP, non-NC and non-Congress chief minister seemed real. The breakup of the alliance also caused a massive damage to the PDP, as many top leaders quit the party.

Some of them made an entry into the NC and others joined the Sajad Lone-led People's Conference. One of them, Javaid Mustafa Mir, became patron of the newly-formed Jammu and Kashmir People's Movement.

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In its new term, the BJP might push to dissolute and weaken the NC and the PDP further by facilitating groups like the People's Conference and try to cause defection in their ranks by offering their leaders more power. After all, nothing corrupts like power.

The BJP leadership is confident that the new chief minister in Kashmir is going to be from their party. They hope to win more than 50 of the 87 assembly seats in the Jammu and Kashmir elections that are a few months away.

That number is not possible without the support of Kashmir-based parties. The NC and the PDP are unlikely to offer their backing to Modi, but the People's Conference is likely to be roped in by the BJP to take their share of seats a little higher than last time.

The end of civil society solidarity?

During the Congress rule, civil society groups often protested against military and police high-handedness in Kashmir in different parts of India, particularly in New Delhi.

The last few years witnessed a massive crackdown on all forms of dissent in the country, which led civil society groups, student organisations and individuals to take a different course of action. Some voices were completely muted out.

Through terror charges against academics like Anand Teltumbde and arrest of human rights defenders like Gautam Navlakha and others, the BJP sent a signal to all.

Whatever little space the Indian civil society and some numbered intellectuals had to speak in support of Kashmir’s right to self-determination is going to shrink further.

A difficult road ahead

Kashmiris are not exactly right in saying that the Modi regime is no different than those that came before. Keeping in view these four points, the resistance politics in Kashmir will require a new strategy to negotiate with the coming challenges posed by a more powerful BJP government.

The road ahead is difficult given that many leaders are incarcerated. When we take a deeper look into the specifics, cutting through the grand narratives, it's clear that the space for politics at a local, street level is under threat.

This is equally challenging for the Indian state, too. The more it tries to choke resistance politics in Kashmir into submission through violence, the greater the possibility for the emergence of more radical forms of response.

Are you working on the Kashmir dispute? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com