The challenges following the historic revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status straddle two broad categories. First, maintaining peace in the Valley in the immediate aftermath of the Parliament approving the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. That phase is now over.
The second, more difficult task, is to sustain peace in the Valley in the long term. There is a powerful confluence of vested interests arrayed against allowing peace to settle in the Valley.
Pakistan has used Kashmir to prosecute its 30-year-long proxy war with India. The end of J&K’s special status has dealt Islamabad an existentialist blow.
At the meeting this week between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump at the G7 Summit in France, the bogey of US “mediation” in J&K was buried.
By unleashing jihad in Kashmir three decades ago, the renegade Pakistani Army sought not only to make India bleed by a thousand cuts, but to stamp its centrality within Pakistan. Globally, it projected Pakistan as a victim of Indian aggression in a disputed territory. That narrative is now thoroughly discredited.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh declared publicly that the only topic of discussion henceforth with Pakistan — once it ceases sponsoring terrorism against India — will be Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). His statement that India’s no-first-use nuclear doctrine is no longer cast in stone has further unnerved Islamabad. By responding with nuclear jingoism, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has exposed Islamabad’s paranoia.
Low-intensity jihad is a lucrative business. It has helped boost Pakistan’s defence budget to nearly 4 per cent of GDP, among the highest ratios in the world. The Pakistani Army skims the cream off defence contracts into the foreign accounts of Rawalpindi’s Generals. The last 30 years have built the personal wealth of Pakistan’s senior military officers. Unlike armed forces officers in democracies, they suffer no oversight from the civilian government. That business model could be disrupted by India’s new policy on Pakistan and J&K.
Hurriyat separatists are the other big losers in J&K’s new status, liberated from the suffocating grip of Article 370. The Hurriyat reports to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, through the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi. The separatists act as a conduit for the ISI’s terror funding. They also provide ready cash to stone pelters to hinder counter-terror operations by Indian security forces. That business model, too, is now broken.
What about mainstream political leaders “locked up” in palace hotels and guest houses? This week, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti declined the government’s offer of conditional release. Some argue that India has alienated these legitimate representatives of the Valley. That is debatable. The Valley’s feudal dynasts, who won rigged elections in the past and spoke with forked tongues in support of separatists, are part of J&K’s discredited political ecosystem. Within this ecosystem flourishes corruption, nepotism and misgovernance. Elections in the new delimited J&K Assembly will separate the wheat from the chaff.
Another key to returning Kashmir to normalcy will be the success of the global investors conference to be held in J&K in October. Co-hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the conference is expected to attract companies ranging from Reliance Industries and Kotak-Mahindra Bank to multi-nationals in infrastructure, healthcare, hospitality and information technology.
For the first time in 70 years, non-Kashmiri employees of these companies will be able to enrol their children in government schools in J&K.
Not everyone in India is happy with the liberation of Kashmir from the chains Article 370 bound it in for 70 years. In a democracy, dissent is both welcome and necessary. A plurality of voices helps provide nuance to every issue. Let’s examine two such voices.
The first is Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University. Mehta wrote recently in a leading daily criticising the Supreme Court’s anodyne reaction to several petitions filed with it against the abrogation of Article 370:
“Our legal abdication on liberties is a sign that we are not ready to treat Kashmiris as ordinary Indians and that we are willing to debase ourselves in the face of an executive that is acting more colonially than a colonial power.” Mehta is wrong. Parliament reflects the collective will of the people, a point the Supreme Court, too, made during the brief hearing it gave the petitioners. To portray an empowering legislation on Article 370, approved by both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, as worse than the action of a colonial power, as Mehta does, exhibits prejudice, not reason.
The second example is equally telling. Ashok Varshney, a professor at Brown University, wrote in the same daily: “Only in one democratic sense — democracy as a system of electoral power — can the decision to change Kashmir’s status be called potentially legitimate. In all other democratic senses, we have witnessed severely anti-democratic conduct. It was electorally-enabled brute majoritarianism.”
The speciousness of this argument is obvious. Democracy is not a malleable concept. If majoritarianism is bad in the rest of India — and it is — it is bad in J&K as well. Varshney can’t have it both ways: good in J&K, bad in the rest of India.
The next few weeks will reveal how Kashmiris react to their new status — and how Pakistan-sponsored terrorists and the corrupt local political ecosystem come to terms with their own diminished status.