A secular dream entombed

Published August 6, 2019
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IT was Hari Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Kashmir, who originally granted the special status to Kashmiris in their homeland in 1927. He did so at the behest of Kashmiri Pandits, the Hindu elite at the time in the Muslim-majority state. Subsequently, with the arrival of adult franchise and progressive land reforms, Kashmiri Muslims also began to reap the benefits of their special status. The Pandits had opposed the influx of people from neighbouring Punjab into the administrative structures and other public areas of the erstwhile princely state.

Following a controversial accession by Hari Singh to India, a claim Pakistan regards as fictitious, Pandit Nehru retained the special status for Kashmiris through constitutional procedures in the Indian parliament in 1954. His emotional attachment to Kashmir may have been a factor, but Nehru also saw that the special ties shored up India’s secular image at a time of all-round religious strife. Kashmir to him turned into a beacon of India’s secular reality, as Pakistan saw in it a completeness of its Muslim basis.

In an interview with American journalist Arnold Michaelis a year before his death, Nehru also hinted that a further religious partition of Kashmir could work negatively for Muslims in different parts of India who had chosen not to migrate to Pakistan.

Prime Minister Modi’s revivalist government was emboldened by a rare majority it got in elections in May, and with the numbers on its side, it has successfully entombed Nehru’s dream of a secular, inclusive republic. With the Valley in lockdown, and most communications snapped and the streets crammed with the tens of thousands of urgently imported troops, Home Minister Amit Shah announced the revocation of the special status in the Rajya Sabha. He overrode opposition protests in doing so. However, Modi has found strange allies in his stealthy and swift move. Opposition leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Mayawati have backed his Kashmir move.

Monday marks the beginning of a long nightmare for the Kashmiri people.

It was hard to make out what Amit Shah exactly said in the din, and the notification was not circulated to MPs ahead of the tabling, as is otherwise the norm. Yet, from what one could glean through the commotion, Shah cleverly refrained from trying to abrogate the entire Article 370, but picked only clauses that gave Kashmir special rights.

This should help in dealing with the diplomatic fallout — though even here Modi is well armed. Vladimir Putin has accorded him the highest civilian honour. Xi Jinping is pursuing closer ties to get him to support China’s global trading plans. And Donald Trump has devised effusive epithets for him. Modi’s star ally in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu is due to pay a day-long visit to Delhi next month, which should give his host useful insights into strengthening the stranglehold on an occupied people.

President Kovind signed the controversial proclamation on Monday by citing the powers bestowed to him by Article 370 Clause (1). Such changes ordinarily can only be made with the consent of the government of Jammu and Kashmir, but the state is under presidential rule. This is where the proclamation could face a legal challenge.

The clause also refers to the instrument of accession that binds India to Kashmir, and which Pakistan rejects. Implicitly, the retained clause does therefore offer room for a resumption of bilateral discussions, scope for which remains in sight, assuming President Trump did not mishear Modi.

In other words, the fig leaf for international explanations has been retained. It would not be far-fetched to imagine that Modi’s dramatic manoeuvres are communally motivated, but do not substantially alter the basis of negotiations that were pursued between Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf. The key plank in their talks was the loosening of trade ties and boosting people’s contact across the Line of Control, which they saw as the future de facto border. That discussion is still possible, it is tempting to believe.

Because Pakistan disputes the instrument of accession, its criticism of how India arranges the political furniture in the disputed area it controls is cosmetic from a diplomatic perspective. What is of far greater significance is the intent behind the proposed bifurcation. Under this scheme, Ladakh would break away and become a Union Territory without an elected assembly, say, like Chandigarh. This should enable Modi to keep the large Muslim population of Kargil from acquiring a political platform, which will be also denied to Ladakh’s Buddhist people.

The newly delineated Jammu and Kashmir territory, minus Ladakh, would have an elected assembly, like Kejriwal’s semi-toothless rule in Delhi. Significantly, it could produce Kashmir’s first Hindu chief minister. That is at least one clear purpose of keeping the option of election in the predominantly Hindu Jammu.

Importantly, Pakistan will have to negotiate the feared demographic changes, replete with militarily protected and therefore segregated regions on the model of Israeli settlements. Monday marks the beginning of a long nightmare for the Kashmiri people. It also marks the first steps towards the completion of a long-promised Hindutva project, and it became possible with brute power of the military.

The strategy included the marginalisation of the two main political claimants to Indian-backed power grid, the Abdullahs and the Muftis, who had both flirted with the BJP in the past. They are currently under house arrest. Separatist leaders were picked up earlier. Yasin Malik was rumoured to be unwell in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, but the prison authorities said he was in good health.

There was a time when Kashmiris ignored the lurking political disputes and offered the best locales for Indian cinema, whose heroes and heroines were loved in every home. Then came the surge of Muslim puritans, though they failed to alter Kashmir’s Sufi heritage. Now the hapless people must face the full force of Hindutva bigotry, a malaise that has already spread to far corners of Nehru’s India, trampling his eclectic offerings.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2019



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