September 2017 News

Uncertainty Over Special Status Puts Jammu And Kashmir On The Edge Of Another Expensive Unrest

1 September 2017
Umar Manzoor Shah

Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir's economy might have lost thousands of crores of rupees in the last few years to natural disasters and civil unrest but the state is poised for yet another upheaval, regardless of its hidden cost. The recent debate on the state's right to autonomy has set off alarm bells in the region. Be it the political leadership or the general public, the stakeholders have categorically warned of dire consequences if Article 35A, which grants a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, is tinkered with. Nisar Ali, a renowned economist from Kashmir, told Firstpost that while the state has suffered severe losses in the recent past, people would not hesitate to hit the streets. The economic losses he speaks of are massive. In 2013, the tourism industry bled Rs 4,500 crore as curfew was imposed in the Kashmir Valley after the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for attacking the Parliament in 2001. The year after, floods inflicted a loss of Rs 5,700 crore upon the state's economy, particularly tourism, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, the country's biggest trade association. In 2016, the shutdowns and violence that prevailed in the valley for five months after security forces killed militant leader Burhan Wani cost the state Rs 16,000 crore, according to Economic Survey 2016. Between July and August last year, the tourism sector faced a loss of Rs 7.52 crore. This amounted to 80 percent slide in revenue compared with the earnings for the same period the previous year. Mohammad Yasin Khan, the president of Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation, understands the financial impact of these events well. Regardless of how the bottom lines of businesses in the region have been taking a hit intermittently, he said the agitation against scrapping Article 35A will be more intense than last year's. He said if the Article is repealed, the people of Jammu and Ladakh regions will also join the Kashmir Valley in the protest. 'The state will be one in protecting its... unique identity and if we don't protest, our identity will be eroded once for all. Ye karo ya maro ki stithi hogi,' he said. (It will be a 'do or die' situation.) Article 35A of the Indian Constitution says that nobody except permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir can buy property here, settle here or get a job with the state government. Among other things, it grants the state a special, autonomous, status, a privilege no other state in the country enjoys. An NGO and a lawyer have filed petitions in the Supreme Court, seeking that the Article be struck down. When the court sought the Centre's reply on the petitions, the Attorney General said the government wanted a 'larger debate' on the topic. The Supreme Court will now hear petitions challenging the validity of Article 35A after Diwali. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre's stance of entertaining a debate on the Article's validity has been seen as a threat to the state's special status. BJP's spokesperson for Jammu and Kashmir, Virender Gupta, has categorically argued in favour of scrapping the Article 35A. Jammu's provincial president for opposition party National Conference, Davinder Singh Rana, said if Jammu and Kashmir's special status is withdrawn, the local people won't have job opportunities in their own state and shall gradually lose their properties to the outsiders. Echoing Khan's belief, he said the issue is likely to face opposition from the Hindu-dominated Jammu and Muslim-dominated Kashmir alike. Ali said business houses will want to acquire Jammu and Kashmir's industrial units and the local business community will gradually find itself sidelined. This, he said, will be lethal for the state's economic stability. 'The disastrous impact of removing the special status will be felt after 10 years in the state and the local population will turn into nothing more than a begging community,' he said. For the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the threat is real. Such is the gravity of the issue that in the second week of August, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti reached out to opposition party leader Farooq Abdullah to discuss options to ward off this threat. The chief minister minced no words when at an event 10 days before this meeting she said nobody in Kashmir would bear India's flag if Article 35A was repealed. The Congress' Jammu and Kashmir spokesperson Salman Anees Soz said political groups in the state need to come together at the earliest to avoid an agitation and loss of life. The human cost of unrest in the state has been huge. Since 2008, at least 300 people in the state have lost their lives in conflicts. The Amarnath land row had seen 63 deaths, the violence in 2010 had 112 casualties, mostly teenagers, and last year's unrest claimed 145 lives. For the people of the state, their identity is above everything else. Mohammad Yaqoob Bhat, a resident of old city of Srinagar, recalled how large-scale protests had erupted in the state in 2008 against the Centre's decision of taking control of 99 acres of Amarnath land. 'If people could not bear the transfer of even 99 acres to New Delhi, do you think they will remain silent on the transfer of entire land of Kashmir!' Education is another casualty of the agitations, what with about 31 schools burnt down in last year's unrest. Schools in the strife-torn areas remained shut for months and there were widespread concerns that their students' academic year would go waste. The state education board's exams for classes 10 and 12 covered only half of the syllabus. Many teachers who had left the Valley during the uprising are yet to resume work. With strong undercurrents of another spell of protests, the already beleaguered lot of students is staring at back-to-back years of below-par education. As the pitch against reconsidering Jammu and Kashmir's autonomous status gets shriller by the day, residents of the state are bracing for what lies ahead. Irfan Rashid, who started a travel agency in Srinagar after graduating from college in 2015, saw his income plummet during last year's unrest. He was hoping 2017 turns out well but is now ridden with anxiety. 'No one can say what will happen tomorrow in Kashmir. Every day I start my work, I keep my fingers crossed.'