By Ajai Sahni*
There is an evident element of constitutional skulduggery in the Government’s rescinding of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) under Article 370, as well as the division of the State and its reduction to two Union Territories. The matter has already been taken to the Supreme Court, with several petitions already filed. Significantly, the Supreme Court has declined an ‘urgent hearing’ on the case.
The debate on constitutionality is likely to linger on till the Supreme Court pronounces on the subject. The debate on ‘sentiments’ of the people of Kashmir will persist indefinitely. Neither is likely to impact significantly on reality. There are new “facts on the ground” in J&K and the now separate Ladakh. A fait accompli has been established and in the environment of a majoritarian juggernaut, it seems unlikely that this will be reversed. Shocked adversaries will simply have to deal with these new realities as best they can.
The reaction has been divided between triumphalism in the Hindutva Right, and extends along the spectrum from dismay to dire imaginings among those opposed. On both sides, there is much wishful thinking. Votaries of the Government and of the Hindutva fold would have us believe that the situation in the State, and including the Valley, is ‘normal’ – though the criteria for ‘normalcy’ in a region under 24-hour lockdown, massive armed state presence and a comprehensive communications shut-down, remain evidently undefined – and that everyone is celebrating the Government’s sagacious decision. At the other end, the occasional protests that have been witnessed in the Valley are being projected as a massive and unprecedented upsurge, a prelude to a complete and irresistible breakdown. As one commentator summed up the dichotomy of views, “Palestine or Shangri La?”
The reality, of course, is neither.
Violent mass protests in the Valley are not something that has emerged just after the scrapping of the State’s special status. They have a long history, with a disruptive peak attained in the early months of the insurgency in 1990, when there was a near-complete breakdown of order as an unprepared administration and security apparatus struggled to cope with the beginnings of terrorism and popular anti-state mobilization. The past decade has seen almost daily incidents of ‘stone pelting’, with another peak in 2016, in the wake of the Burhan Wani killing in July that year.
It must be abundantly clear that, given the comprehensive clampdown and massive saturation of Force in the State, and particularly the Valley, nothing comparable is in evidence, or even envisaged in the foreseeable future, despite the ‘10,000 protestors’ claimed by BBC at Soura in Srinagar. This report was denied by the Government despite video evidence showing significant crowds – though the numbers claimed are difficult to verify from the visuals. Several small protests have been reported in the Valley after a relaxation of restrictions for Friday prayers on August 9, resulting in a restoration of curbs once again. A relaxation was announced on August 11, and would continue through Eid on August 12. At the time of writing, no report of violence during Eid has yet been received.
While news flows from the Valley have obviously been affected, no significant incident of terrorism has been recorded since the clampdown preceding the rescinding of J&K’s special status and the State’s reorganisation. The South Asia Terrorism Portal, moreover, records just one violation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) by Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Rajouri District on August 6, and retaliatory Indian fire, after the Article 370 decision and State reorganisation. One infiltration attempt was also recorded in the Machil Sector of Kupwara District on the same date, resulting in an exchange of fire with Indian troops, in which one Indian soldier was injured. Intelligence sources, however, warn that a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) suicide squad has entered Jammu & Kashmir, tasked to inflict ‘maximum casualties’.
Nevertheless, a reaction to the Government’s moves is inevitable, both domestically and led from Pakistan. The saturation of Forces can defer this, even as the very substantial intelligence flows to agencies, particularly in the Valley, would tend to mitigate much of this reaction, at least in terms of a sustainable movement. In the foreseeable future, however, a few terrorist operations, including potentially major attacks, could succeed. The Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s declaration that the Army would “go to any extent” to support the Kashmiri separatists gives ample indication that the Pakistani establishment and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) will mobilize its captive terrorist formations for escalating operations in J&K, and possibly across India. Crucially, however, over the years, terrorist support networks in J&K and across India have weakened. While some escalation must nevertheless be anticipated, any disproportionate descent into chaos is unlikely. New Delhi’s ‘coup’ and the succession of actions preceding it – including actions against overground workers, terrorist finance networks and separatist leaderships – have clearly shifted the initiative, dramatically altering the ground situation in J&K. Any upsurge in terrorism or in violent mass mobilization is unlikely to create an existential threat for the Indian state. While a steady recruitment of locals to terrorist ranks has been ongoing over the past nearly three years, their capacities and capabilities have been poor, with occasional exceptions. Even if Pakistan provides a dramatic augmentation of support and cadres from across the border, resulting in some increase in terrorism, this is unlikely to have sufficient impact to alter the equation that has now been established.
The Centre’s actions in J&K have injected a significant measure of uncertainty into the environment. It is, however, useful to recall that the State has survived a high intensity conflict (with more than a thousand fatalities each year, peaking at 4,177 fatalities in 2001) through seventeen years, between 1990 and 2006. Despite the bloodshed and the suffering, it is must be recognized, there has been no existential threat to Indian integrity, and no weakening of will in any of the intervening regimes over the past decades of terrorism. This is unlikely to change now.
However, the Centre’s decision has deep flaws, and the manner of its execution – while extraordinarily efficient in these early stages – fundamentally alters the political environment, not only in J&K, but across India. Deceit, disinformation, misdirection and outright falsehoods have been brought centre-stage. These may be excellent elements in strategies of war, but are deeply questionable when you are dealing with your own people within a democratic framework. Crucially, the use of high constitutional office and, particularly, of senior military officers for the propagation of falsehoods can only have a deeply corrosive impact on these institutions. It is useful to recall that a range of dubious justifications were presented to Parliament as well – the purported poverty and backwardness, the educational deficits, the ‘worsening’ security situation, the immediate threat of catastrophic attack, among others – which did not, in fact, reconcile with the realities of J&K, or with the Government’s own claims at different times.
The constitutional evasions and manipulation – while not without precedent – are also pushing the country towards an environment where sheer majoritarian force, and not the spirit of law, defines outcomes. These factors have been infinitely compounded by a rising communalism and the coarseness of commentary emanating from the Hindutva fraternity, including individuals holding high office, and loutish comments, particularly relating to Kashmiri women or the acquisition of real estate in J&K.
Crucially, the scope of restoring a ‘normal’ and constitutional politics, particularly in the Valley, has been enormously diminished. The soft separatism of the Valley’s constitutional parties is no longer viable, even as the scope of communal accommodation has shrunk. Obviously, an election is due, and it will provide opportunities either for the existing political formations to participate, or for an alternative leadership to emerge. The present rhetoric appears to suggest that most of the existing Valley parties may take a radical pro-separatist stand. In this case, the trajectory of separatism in the reconstituted Union Territory will define their future. Any alternative leadership that may emerge, or that may be ‘manufactured’ by the Centre, may not have significant popular support in the Valley – and participation in the election is likely to be low. But eventually, whoever wins the electoral contest will begin to exercise significant influence in terms of access to and distribution of state resources. Parties that refuse to participate will tend to be marginalised, or forced back into the electoral process at a later date.
It is necessary to understand that a new reality has been created in J&K, new “facts on the ground” have been established, whether we agree with them or not. The long term impact will depend on the policies adopted by the Government under the new structure, and particularly and immediately in the handling of the expected reaction in the Valley. If there is a heavy-handed, unsympathetic, indiscriminate and repressive approach, this could compound security vulnerabilities. On the other hand, if political and administrative initiatives are able to absorb the immediate reaction, the long term threat is likely to diminish.
The crucial impact of these moves in J&K, however, is on the wider national context: in the erosion of constitutional norms, the undermining of institutions, the rising communalism of the environment, the overwhelming and disturbing shift towards the religious right, and the emergence of a whole new paradigm, where the ruling party’s ideological objectives and electoral commitments will be the principal movers of policy and strategy, with little concern for long term outcomes. Those who seek to bind the nation by force may well unravel the constitutional fabric that holds its infinite diversity together.
Publisher & Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM