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In the pressure-cooker of Kashmir, the abnormal is now normal | Salman Soz

The government’s warm justifications for stripping the state of autonomy are Orwellian

27 September 2019

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Financial Times, September 24, 2019

In early August, the Indian government scrapped constitutional provisions that guaranteed autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, a state torn by conflict for three decades. The government claims the move will benefit the population. More likely, it will worsen a conflict that has claimed at least 45,000 lives since the late 1980s.

I was in Kashmir when the government announced its decision — along with the lockdowns and communications blackout it has called “precautionary measures” to prevent violent unrest. On August 5, my family and I watched our television screens in horror as a much cherished marker of Kashmiri identity was dissolved. People across India celebrated while Kashmiris were caged in their homes. My father, a former Indian cabinet minister, was put under house arrest. The government detained thousands of others, including former chief ministers, legislators, political activists and even some children. Thousands of additional troops were mobilised.

Nearly two months into the crisis, many restrictions are still in place. People are cut off from their loved ones, schools and colleges remain shut, and healthcare services have taken a hit. Tourism has ground to a halt, small traders can’t conduct business and those who eke out a living on a day-to-day basis are at the mercy of charitable neighbours. While there has been support for the government’s move from parts of Jammu and Ladakh regions, it is in the Kashmir Valley that the consequences are likely to be most adverse.

The Kashmir Valley has a tragic history. After India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, Kashmir — then a princely state — had the choice of joining either country. Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, facing a tribal invasion from Pakistan, reluctantly acceded to India. Although the state was predominantly Muslim, Sheikh Abdullah, at the time Kashmir’s leader and a friend of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, prevailed upon his people to join secular India, not Muslim Pakistan.

Pakistan objected and war broke out. A ceasefire left India with two-thirds of the state, while Pakistan controlled the rest. China occupies a small share of territory. Abdullah’s former colleagues joined hands with New Delhi and negotiated the state’s autonomy, under which it would have its own constitution and flag.

Over time, the Indian government has diluted that autonomy. That erosion, and a deeply flawed election in 1987, fuelled widespread unrest. An armed insurgency, supported by Pakistan, took hold of the valley. Unofficial estimates of the death toll from the ensuing crisis are much higher than those quoted by authorities. For context, since the start of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed far fewer lives. Human rights watchdogs report frequent violations of human rights, including killings, sexual violence and terrorism.

Fatalities have declined significantly since they peaked in 2001. But unrest erupts regularly, throwing “normal” life into chaos. The government imposes curfews to quell protests and, at times, separatists call for shutdowns. Kashmiris occasionally protest by imposing a “civil curfew” upon themselves. This might sound crazy but, in the pressure-cooker of Kashmir, abnormal is normal.

Into this tinderbox, the government has thrown a political grenade. It has reneged on the constitutional guarantees agreed by India’s founders to the people of Kashmir. Not only that, the government has carved two federally administered “union territories”, of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, from the original state. Secular India’s only Muslim majority state is no more.

The current crisis is unprecedented. There is concern that Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government will attempt to alter Kashmir’s Muslim-majority status, as China is attempting in Xinjiang. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ruling party’s ideological parent group, states that “its oppressive Muslim-majority character has been a headache for our country ever since independence”. Vilified as radical Islamists, Kashmiri Muslims are unfairly accused of bearing the responsibility for a tragic exodus of the Hindu Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in 1990. Their pain is now a weapon in the hands of rightwing extremists. India has changed. The secular, democratic country imagined by Gandhi and Nehru is in thrall to an authoritarian regime.

The government will give warm justifications for its actions — more development, less corruption. A senior official has even asserted that Kashmiris are happy about losing autonomy. That is Orwellian. If Kashmiris were able to express themselves freely, the number of street protesters would probably rival or even exceed those we are seeing in Hong Kong. Does that sound normal?

The truth is that unless India and Pakistan engage in a meaningful dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue peacefully, there is no end in sight to the misery of Kashmiris.

The writer [Salman Anees Soz] is a Kashmiri politician, writer and development consultant. His views are personal.


The above article from Financial Times is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non-commercial use