For unionists in held Kashmir, the dawn of August 5 came like a betrayal.
Those among the unionists, who spent several months in "preventive detention", are feeling jilted and cheated. Cheated because New Delhi made the decision about the region’s political future, its geography and landscape, and the people's identity without the consent of the people of Kashmir. As a result, the now believe that the aim behind New Delhi's move was to manufacture consent by use of force, with aggression and siege as the tools deployed to seal Kashmir’s fate.
In these circumstances, the unionists now feel disempowered and humiliated. Many are yet to come to terms with what happened on August 5, 2019. And more than the people of Kashmir, it was the unionists who were shocked by the tectonic constitutional changes of August 5. Besides feeling hurt and humiliated, they are perhaps also grieving over the loss of certain privileges that are associated with power politics in South Asia.
What must be kept in mind is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appeared to have done its homework long before it formally abrogated Articles 370 and 35-A. But such a move is not extraordinary when it comes to how this region has been treated historically and how conveniently 'democracy and morality can wait' in India when it comes to Kashmir.
Let's rewind to August 9, 1953, when then prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, was unceremoniously dismissed and subsequently imprisoned for over two decades in separate stints between 1953 and 1975.
Academic and historian Perry Anderson writes in The Indian Ideology that: "The Intelligence Bureau had little difficulty convincing [Pandit Jawaharlal] Nehru that he [Abdullah] had become a liability, and overnight he was dismissed by the stripling heir to the Dogra throne he had so complacently made head of state, and thrown into an Indian jail on charges of sedition."
Late Professor Balraj Puri, an academic from Jammu, was enraged over Abdullah's dismissal and detention. With the aim to register his protest over the issue, he met then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi with his earnest trip to Delhi ending in disappointment. He later noted in his book In Kashmir Towards Insurgency that "Nehru warned me against being too idealistic and asserted that the national interest was more important than democracy".
Anderson corroborates the account. "When an anguished admirer from Jammu pleaded with him [Nehru] not to do so, he replied that the national interest was more important than democracy: 'We have gambled at the international stage on Kashmir, and we cannot afford to lose. At the moment, we are there at the point of a bayonet. Till things improve, democracy and morality can wait'."
That long wait continues to this day.
This is the context to the Kashmir story and the state of unionist politics. Even after 73 long years since the Partition in 1947, the unionist politics in J&K is at the precipice of irrelevance. It is feeling the heat as never before. "To this day, I fail to understand the need for this move (August 5, 2019), except to punish and humiliate," former chief minister Omar Abdullah argued in a recent newspaper article.
To put it mildly, the August 5 decision was a blow to the Kashmiris' collective sense of pride. Perhaps, it was also aimed at instilling a sense of permanent psychological defeat in the hearts and minds of the people. It was a decision that has resulted in collective disempowerment and humiliation. A series of actions that followed only ended up serving further rounds of insult and any nuances that may have been disappeared into thin air when the region’s five-time former chief minister Farooq Abdullah was placed under detention at his Gupkar residence in Srinagar. Among all the unionists, Abdullah was inarguably Kashmir’s most powerful politician in the public imagination. Only until then, though.
On August 6, 2019, he appeared from the balcony of his Gupkar residence to speak to the media in desperation. And he broke down. "They [the ruling dispensation in New Delhi] want to murder us [Kashmiris]. My chest is ready. Fire here," Abdullah said in an emotional tone, alluding to his chest area with the fingers of his right hand. "Not in my back," he added after a brief pause. This was the moment when it became clear that one of Kashmir’s most influential political figures was not only caged, but also made aware that he was helpless. His humiliation was complete. "My son (Omar Abdullah) is in jail. And I do not know how many more poor people will be in jail. I think this is the price we will have to pay," he said as tears streamed down his face, adding that the people of Kashmir had been "stabbed".
In Farooq Abdullah's fall was a message for the National Conference's cadre base and for other regional parties like the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mehbooba Mufti, the Sajad Lone-led J&K People's Conference (JKPC), the Awami Ittehad Party (AIP) headed by incarcerated Sheikh Rasheed, and the celebrated bureaucrat-turned-reluctant-politician Shah Faesal's People's Movement (JKPM) etc. That message being that it was all over now.
A year before the events of August 5, some in the J&K Raj Bhawan (Governor House) began to manufacture the narrative that the Kashmiri Muslim elite holding positions of power in the region was corrupt, that the unionists were dynastic in character, that the Hurriyat was corrupt and that the chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Bank was also dishonest. It was made up to be all about corruption.
Satya Pal Malik, the region’s then governor, would on a daily basis deliver prolonged monologues and scripted sermons on transparency and corrupt practices as if not a single Kashmiri was earning an honest living and that he was some kind of saviour of Kashmir trying to rid the region from the scourge of corruption.
Then, in June 2018, the BJP walked away from the alliance that it had forged with the PDP in early 2015. And that is when the operation to disempower and neutralise the political centrality of the valley began.
According to a unionist politician who understands the ground realities and the pulse of the public, Kashmiris have not given up. The politician says that Kashmiris are in a state of mourning, arguing that mourning is not to be taken as inaction. He believes that Kashmir will respond at the time of its own choosing after calculating the pros and cons of internal and external factors.
Another unionist says he is yet to reconcile with the reality of the August 5 decision. "Did it happen or was it a nightmare?" he asks me as he remains under house arrest in Srinagar. He says he would be the one offering hope to thousands of people in his pockets of influence but remains clueless about what to do or what to say right now. "I feel helpless and hopeless."
On August 5 last year, former Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah called New Delhi's move an act of "aggression" against the people of Kashmir and in a recent article said he won't contest elections of the J&K assembly if the region's special status was not restored. But the bitter reality is that three legislators from his own party did not resign, not even to register a token protest, if nothing else, against New Delhi's "unilateral and undemocratic" abrogation of Article 370.
Former Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who rejected New Delhi's move, is under house arrest and has been held at her residence in Srinagar for nearly a year now.
Sajad, son of slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone, who once referred to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a "friend of Kashmiris" whom he found "down to earth" and like his "big brother", wasn't spared either. Those who were detained along with him at Srinagar's Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) said that there were times in detention when "Sajad shed tears". He felt dishonoured.
Then there's the celebrated Kashmiri bureaucrat Shah Faesal, who before joining politics, had in an article published in January 2019 argued that "at the root of the political problem in Kashmir is the paradox that those who represent the sentiment do not participate in the electoral process and those who participate in the electoral process do not represent the sentiment". He pointed out that "the elected representatives are either a disempowered lot, a group of helpless daily-wagers with the Government of India or that the elected representatives are misrepresenting their electorate by not speaking out about the basic Kashmir issue".
Faesal had resigned from his job as a civil servant and in March last year formally launched his party, the J&K Peoples Movement. At the time of his resignation, he had claimed that he would "manipulate the system to his advantage" and would be able to do so because he "knows the system well" and that it was time to employ a new "political vocabulary" in J&K’s electoral politics. By that, he meant that unionists should stop lying about Kashmir's ground realities, public sentiment and people's political aspirations. After his famous interview with BBC’s Hard Talk in August last year, he too was detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA). After experiencing first-hand how the system treated him when he tried to speak as a 'free' man, Faesal, according to one of his close aides, now sees J&K's unionist politics as "a brothel never to be revisited".
But both Sajad and Faesal remain unpredictable.
Since the Partition of the sub-continent, the unionists in Kashmir have been selling the idea of democracy and development to the people. They naively believed that solutions to all the intractable problems of the region would be reached within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. Since 1989, they have also been paying a heavy price for selling the idea of a secular and democratic India to the people. However, most of them now candidly concede that they have run out of arguments, aware that for decades they went against the tide and the sentiment on the street. An overwhelming majority in Kashmir always viewed them as Delhi's representatives in Kashmir, not Kashmir's representatives in Delhi. Now Delhi has demonised and disowned them and they are clueless about what to do next.
The unionists (initially the JKNC and later PDP and Co.) through scornful jocularity would often criticise the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) for chasing what they called an "unrealistic goal" of 'aazadi' or Kashmir's merger with Pakistan. The NC's argument was that restoring J&K's regional autonomy by turning the clock backwards to 1953 was an "ideal solution". Whereas, late Mufti Sayeed-led PDP has batted for the "self-rule" and "joint mechanism" formula for Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) since January 1949. The PDP's Kashmir formula was not very different from the four-point K-formula proposed by former president of Pakistan, General (retired) Pervez Musharaf, in 2006. The idea is said to have been originally floated by Farooq Kathwari, a Kashmiri American who founded the Kashmir Study Group.
For many Pakistanis and Indians, Kashmir symbolises the conflict between their competing concepts of national identity. From the BJP’s perspective, it has successfully contained the Kashmir story with an iron fist and controlled the narratives. But has it really won anything in Kashmir? Has its ideological decision factored in the external factors, such as China and Pakistan? And has it misinterpreted Kashmir's silence as surrender?
The saffron party seems to be in a tearing hurry to alter ground realities in the region, raising anxieties about domicile, demography and dignity among Kashmiris. Other steps that the people see as anti-Kashmir include delimitation of assembly constituencies, notifying "strategic areas" for use by the army, and denying high-speed 4G internet services for a year now.
After discrediting unionists, the BJP now appears to be on a mission to create a new political elite in Kashmir. The party has invested in Altaf Bukhari, a businessman-turned-politician and a former cabinet minister. Bukhari heads the newly-created Apni Party which, in simple words, is a loose congregation of stooges and turncoats. Most of its members are PDP dissenters. They have joined the bandwagon either because of coercion or out of greed.
Despite these transparent tactics by the BJP, there appears to be little hope for the traditional unionists to revive themselves and win public trust.
On March 13 this year, the J&K administration released Farooq Abdullah after seven months of detention. And what he said upon release is particularly telling: "I speak before you as a free man. But this freedom is not complete. Several leaders are still under detention. It is important to release them. I will not make any political statement unless all political leaders are released from detention."
When a politician of Farooq's calibre decides not to talk politics it is clear as day that the region's political landscape stands deeply altered.
Farooq's silence also connotes that people have very little expectations from unionists to make a difference in Kashmir's political landscape. The unionists' mandate was limited to providing basic governance and that too has been snatched from them. Their politics in Kashmir was facing a credibility crisis but post-August 5, it stands demolished. The unionists are in a state of mourning and the people of Kashmir are trying to survive to tell the tale. And their attempt at surviving through is nothing short of an act of rebellion.
Header image by AP shows protesters throwing stones at Indian troops in Srinagar.
Gowhar Geelani is the author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason. A broadcast journalist and commentator based in Srinagar, Geelani works for Germany’s public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle. He is also a Chevening Fellow and a Munich Young Leader and is a Kashmir affairs expert.
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