For key political formations across the ideological divide active in Srinagar since the last seven decades, the issue of Kashmir has essentially remained political. All political groups — whether in pro-India, pro-independence or the pro-Pakistan camps — favour a political and peaceful resolution to the dispute. Most of them invoke the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions on Kashmir while others either bat for tripartite negotiations or seek a solution within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
In short, all of them continue to view Kashmir as a political problem which needs a just solution. Of course, they differ on the contours of any possible solution. However, what happened on August 5 last year has significantly altered ground realities and the restive region’s political landscape. Now the Kashmir issue is more about ideology, identity, demography, domicile, dignity and hard questions about survival.
Pro-India politicians in Kashmir argue that by taking a "unilateral, illegal and unconstitutional" decision to rescind Jammu and Kashmir's semi-autonomous status and bifurcate the region into two federally-administered territories, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has "killed the mainstream" with a single stroke. Unionists are often wrongly referred to as 'mainstream' by large sections of the Indian media when the fact is that they only deal with issues related to basic governance and do not represent the popular political sentiment in the region.
A year has passed since the reading down of Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution. By virtue of Article 35-A, the J&K Legislative Assembly was empowered to define permanent residents of the region and then grant them certain rights and privileges, such as buying land and immovable property and access to employment and scholarships. No Indian citizen was legally allowed to buy land in J&K or settle there as a permanent resident. With Article 35-A annulled, all Indian citizens can now become J&K domiciles and buy land and property there after fulfilling certain eligibility criteria.
Besides this, the new amendments in various laws have empowered the Indian Armed Forces to "notify" any area in J&K as "strategic" and then build permanent constructions there. All Kashmir-based political formations see the abrogation of Article 35-A, introduction of a new domicile order and various other amendments in law as a precursor to building "Israeli-style settlements" in Kashmir. Though the J&K administration, controlled directly from New Delhi, allays such fears, the people and politicians in Kashmir are least convinced.
Politicians who believed that a democratic solution to the political question of Kashmir was possible within the ambit of the Indian Constitution are either in a state of shock or in mourning. With Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional guarantees gone with the wind, regional players like National Conference (JKNC) and People's Democratic Party (PDP) are feeling humiliated, insulted, and betrayed. In private, they concede that they are at the precipice of irrelevance.
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) — an amalgam of various pro-independence and pro-Pakistan political groups, trade bodies, lawyers and civil society actors — was widely perceived to control, own and represent the dominant political sentiment. However, in the words of a key Kashmir observer, the Hurriyat proved to be a "rumour" and a "non-entity" which vanished into thin air in August last year. In public perception though, both the pro-aazadi conglomerates as well as the pro-India camps seem to have abdicated their responsibility at a critical juncture.
In all fairness, their only defence is that the BJP-led government in New Delhi imposed unprecedented restrictions on free movement, besides imprisoning thousands of Kashmiris, including top political leaders, political workers, lawyers, civil society members and the youth. In March this year, India’s ministry of home affairs informed both houses of the Parliament that between August 5, 2019 and February 29, 2020, it arrested "7357 individuals" after the August 5 move. Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society (JKCCS), a prominent human rights body based in Srinagar, estimates that GoI arrested 13,000 or more Kashmiris during the last one year.
For several months, a complete siege was laid to the entire valley and all civil liberties were suspended in the name of democracy and development. Access to all forms of communication was denied and internet services were shut down in an effort to control the narrative on social media platforms. Concertina wires became the fastest growing vegetation in the region but no one was allowed to ask why.
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, recorded the horrors of the violence he experienced with an analytical sweep in his book If This Is A Man. Levi wrote about the situation inside the death camps without anger and bitterness. At the dreaded Auschwitz, he was denied water to drink. "Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. 'Warum?' I asked him in my poor German. 'Hier ist kein warum' (There is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove," Levi notes in his memoir.
Levi's powerful depiction can so easily explain the state of hopelessness in today's Kashmir. Understandably then, in a state of despair, the dispossessed Kashmiris are unhappy with Pakistan too. Some believe that the Pakistani government has limited its role to sending out eye-catching tweets, "mazmoon nigari" (article writing) and spreading awareness on the Kashmir issue. If Pakistan won't go for an armed confrontation against India, how can a besieged Kashmiri population, comprising a little over 10 million inhabitants, resist a nuclear power with sentiments, slogans, stones and unending sacrifices?
In extreme fear, psychologists say, there are only three possibilities: flight, freeze and fight. In Kashmir’s case, it appears that in the last one year the people and politicians are in the freeze mode. Many are uncertain about how to respond. The situation in Kashmir looks no different from what George Orwell had imagined in his epic novel 1984. Literally, a chosen few bureaucrats and senior police officers are the region's de facto law and opinion makers. The Ministry of Love enjoys unbridled powers and The Ministry of Truth puts Joseph Goebbels to shame in propaganda. Kashmir's economy, according to the Srinagar-based influential trade body Kashmir Chamber of Commerce (KCCI), has lost $5.3 billion since August 2019. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters associated with the IT and tourism sectors have lost their jobs while many up-and-coming entrepreneurs have lost investments.
The only perceptible indicators of any developments to have taken place during the last one year are the absence of politics and a leadership crisis. The three Ps (politicians, people and pulpit) have been completely silenced.
Besides containing the Kashmir story and raising anxieties about demography, the Indian government has also crushed local media in Kashmir. The newspapers didn't dare to write editorials and op-eds for several months after the August 5 move. And when they did, they wrote on Nietzsche and Camus, the situation in far-away Congo, diabetes and the health benefits of apricots. They wrote on everything under the sun, but could not summon the courage to write on Kashmir's burning political affairs for fear of prosecution and losing revenue which comes from government advertisements.
Like the leadership crisis, the local media's abject surrender was another disappointment. Local newspapers failed to draw any lessons from the memoir (As Long As Sarajevo Exists) of celebrated Bosnian journalist Kemal Kurspahic who was serving as Oslobodjene's Editor-in-Chief in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Oslobodjene survived the brutal years of the ethnic war and successfully battled to keep its autonomy during Sarajevo's encirclement by Serbian nationalist forces bent on the city's total destruction.
Kashmir's leading opinion writers and columnists whose writings would feature in the op-ed pages of many newspapers are not expressing their views. They fear that there is neither freedom of speech nor freedom after speech. Independent opinions in Kashmir have been criminalised. A select group of bureaucrats and senior police officers have replaced independent opinion writers. They wear ideology on their sleeve, write politically-loaded articles for various newspapers and portals based in Delhi, and are regarded as Kashmir's de facto political commentators post-August 5, 2019. A senior journalist sarcastically remarked that "the only political party in Kashmir is the police".
Be that as it may, the newly-introduced J&K Media Policy 2020 is the proverbial final nail in the coffin of press freedom in the region. Journalism has been murdered. The policy grants unbridled powers to a clerk or a bureaucrat in the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), a PR arm of the J&K administration, to charge any editor, newspaper proprietor and journalist of writing "unethical, anti-national, seditious, and fake" content and then initiate legal action against the accused. Already dozens of journalists have been summoned, interrogated at various police stations for regular reporting while cases under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) have been registered against six prominent Kashmiri journalists, including award-winning 26-year-old female photojournalist, Masrat Zehra. For these journalists, the process of fighting legal battles is their punishment and the price to pay for reflecting the ground realities in Kashmir. They regularly face summons by the police and other agencies and are interrogated at Srinagar’s cyber police headquarters and at other police stations.
Meanwhile, the BJP appears to attribute more importance to its ideological and civilisational decision of August 5 than to India's Independence Day (August 15). The saffron party sees August 5 as a day of Hindu conquest over Indian Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims.
Narendra Modi would be attending the "bhoomi pujan" of the temple site in Ayodhya on August 5. Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, tasked to facilitate construction of a Ram temple at the site where the Babri Masjid once stood, has announced that the Indian prime minister will be present during the "bhoomi pujan". Many in Kashmir argue that choosing August 5 for such an event is deliberate. In their view, the BJP is delivering yet another message of the conquest of Muslims in India and that of Muslims in Kashmir on the same day. For the BJP, August 5 will now be a day when it revoked Article 370 with respect to Jammu and Kashmir and performed "bhoomi pujan" of the temple site in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid once stood.