Could the Clock be Turned Back on the 5 August 2019 Decision?
Could Jammu & Kashmir once again revert to its previous state: unified and complete with special privileges? To answer this question, one needs to enumerate what are the diverse political constituencies with a stake and say in this matter.
Two years ago, on 5 August 2021 the Government of India headed by BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped Jammu & Kashmir of its special status as a semi-autonomous state and brought it entirely under the legislative ambit of the Indian republic. On that day, Jammu & Kashmir became just another state in the country and laws specific to that state no longer applied.
On the same day, the Indian government announced the bifurcation of the state of Jammu & Kashmir into two entities, both union territories under the direct administrative control of New Delhi. Instead of an undivided Jammu & Kashmir, there now existed the union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. These two entities formally came into being on 31 October 2019.
The question today, two years after the event, is whether the clock could be put back: Could Jammu & Kashmir once again revert to its previous state: unified and complete with special privileges? To answer this question, one needs to enumerate what are the diverse political constituencies with a stake and say in this matter.
Indian Political Class
Despite the occasional voice of protest, Indian politicians by and large tacitly support the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution which accorded J&K its special status. Today, even if the Opposition were to come to power at the Centre it would find it difficult to rescind this decision.
Perhaps the only significant Opposition leader who is unequivocally committed to the restoration of the annulled Constitutional articles is the Congress stalwart P. Chidambaram, who tweeted on the second anniversary of the 5 August annulment: "This day (August 5) two years ago a (un)constitutional coup was executed in J&K…Every aspect of democracy was desecrated on that day and India's democratic credentials were diminished in the eyes of the world. We must stand resolutely with the people of J&K."
Chidambaram, however, is likely to be isolated on this issue within and outside his party. When party leader Rahul Gandhi visited J&K recently (10-11 August 2021), he did not utter a word on the restoration of Kashmir's special status. While addressing party workers in Srinagar, he said: "We demand the restoration of full statehood for Jammu and Kashmir and free and fair elections here". Even Ghulam Nabi Azad, the senior Congress leader from J&K, has been talking about the need to restore J&K's statehood and not its special status.
The official Congress party stand on the 5 August 2019 decision was on the "manner" in which the decision was taken and not the decision per se. The party's resolution (6 August 2019) on the issue read: "The CWC deplores the unilateral, brazen and totally undemocratic manner in which Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated and the State of Jammu and Kashmir was dismembered by misinterpreting the provisions of the Constitution. Every principle of Constitutional law, States rights, Parliamentary procedure and democratic governance was violated…Article 370 is the Constitutional recognition of the terms of the Instrument of Accession between the State of Jammu Kashmir and India. It deserved to be honoured until it was amended, after consultation with all sections of the people, and strictly in accordance with the Constitution of India."
Thus, when Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma visited J&K as Chairman of the Standing Committee on Home Affairs, he met the Abdullahs and reiterated the need for restoration of statehood and early elections. Not a word was publicly uttered on the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution or the restoration of J&K's special status. That chapter seems to be over.
It is also significant that there was no mention of the restoration of J&K's special status or the abrogation of Article 370 at the meeting of Opposition leaders on 20 August 2021 in New Delhi which was hosted by Congress President Sonia Gandhi. The National Conference and the PDP were among the 19 political parties from all over the country who attended the meeting. Here too the only refrain the restoration of full statehood and early polls.
This prompted Sajjad Lone, People's Conference leader, to tweet: "No mention of Article 370 in opposition parties meet. In wonderment how can J and K leaders justify their presence in the meeting if they could not convince the leaders to talk about 370." In another tweet in the same vein, he asked: "Courts we have to wait. It is a long process. In parliament we know BJP won’t restore it. The quietude of opposition parties suggest they won’t either. Then who will."
The BJP of course is fully behind the removal of J&K's special status and even in the future would resolutely oppose any move to restore it. A few other Opposition leaders have remarked on the un-Constitutional manner in which the erstwhile state was stripped of its epical status and bifurcated but when it comes to the crunch, they are unlikely to make it a central issue.
For, the determinant would be public opinion, which generally does not favour separate laws or special status to any group or part of the country. Kashmir is viewed as a hotbed of terrorists and there is little sympathy for its demands for autonomy whether legitimate or otherwise. Politicians would be extremely conscious of public opinion on this issue and would not like to make it a major plank of their policy.
J&K Mainstream Politicians
Today, there is considerable political divergence within J&K's political class. At one level, there is the regional divide, at another religious and group differences, and within Kashmir's mainstream political parties too there are opposing views.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mehbooba Mufti is the principal party vehemently opposed to the annulment and demands complete restoration of the status prior to 5 August 2019. She has been the most vocal in her criticism of the BJP leadership and its decision to "snatch" political rights from the Kashmiri people. Her stance resonates with an influential, anti-New Delhi segment of the Valley population but less so in other parts of the state.
The other major political party, particularly the National Conference, appears to be treading carefully and has not anchored itself to the revocation of the 5 August 2019 decision, perhaps because of the ultimate futility of such a stance as well as the impasse it would create in relations with New Delhi.
Like the National Conference, the smaller, newly created part, the Apni Party led by Altaf Bukhari, is demanding the restoration of statehood and early elections to bring back an elected government in power. The People's Conference leader Sajjad Lone, who was shaken by the 5 August 2019 decision and the detention of political leaders including himself, is opposed to the abrogation of the Constitutional provisions and like Mehbooba Mufti demands its revocation. But how far he will go to make it a central plank of his politics remains to be seen.
J&K Public Opinion
The 5 August 2019 decision was expected to cause an unprecedented law and order issue in the erstwhile state. Nothing like that happened. There were several reasons for this and not merely because the Kashmir Valley's stone pelters and pro-Pakistan elements were stunned by the unanticipated developments.
According to one political analyst, Javed Beigh, the reason for this is the "emergence of a sense of empowerment among politically, economically and socially marginalized castes and communities of Kashmir valley, which may explain to some extent why the people of Kashmir valley did not behave in a manner that was in tune with Kashmir's violent past. It is important to understand that a tiny elite comprising upper caste Kashmiri Muslims from rich Kashmiri Pandit Brahmin families who have converted, Syed and Malla Kashmiri Muslims, Srinagar city-based rich Kashmiri Hindu Pandits and the landlords among Kashmiri Sikhs have traditionally enjoyed disproportionate political and economic clout in Kashmir valley."
If Beigh's observations are correct, then it is possible that political equations within Kashmir Valley are changing and sections of society are searching for political alternatives to the hitherto dominant narratives. If the union territory is taken as a whole it is uncertain whether a majority would consider the demand for the restoration of special status to be primary, sacrosanct or critical. This might not be true of the Valley population and a large section of educated, articulate sections of Kashmiris in the towns have not welcomed the revocation of the special status and state bifurcation.
Pakistan has traditionally been a driver of Kashmir politics and successfully exploited the armed struggle that erupted in 1989. Pakistan has leveraged its interests in Kashmir through the overground Hurriyat Conference, the Jamaat e Islami and the various terrorist groups it supports including the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Jaish e Mohammad, the Lashkar e Taiba and others.
The ability of terrorists to change the ground situation in J&K is very limited today, especially if one were to compare it to the situation in the early 1990s. The terrorists can attempt to exploit a situation or make things difficult for New Delhi but not decisively. Therefore, the attempt to scare Kashmiris away from the BJP by assassinating BJP leaders, functionaries and supporters will not alter the political situation or significantly affect the pro or anti restoration narrative.
Both the Jamaat e Islami and the Hurriyat are under attack by the Indian state and the resultant curtailment of their activities has rendered them highly ineffective, at least for the moment. Their revival in the future cannot however be ruled out if a more benign regime assumes power in New Delhi. For the moment, there are severely handicapped and will not be able to play a major political role or foment a mass movement for the restoration of the state's erstwhile status.
Islamabad on its own has even less leverage with the present regime in New Delhi, which will not even talk to it. Periodic threats of nuclear war and catastrophic events in Kashmir are about the extent of Pakistan's direct current ability.
The world today is beset by several crises and Kashmir is simply not a priority. The global Covid pandemic, the rise of unruly China, the recognition of Pakistan as a highly de-stabilising agent, renewed US-Russia rivalry and other developments far overshadows the Kashmir issue.
China is the only major power which supports Pakistan and is trying to alter the situation on the ground by nibbling at territory in Ladakh. However, China's global provocations have aligned a host of powerful nations against it. India has only gained from this.
Political change flows not merely through the barrel of a gun but more out of majority opinion, collective people's power and geopolitics. Given the present alignment of these factor, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for any player to restore the previous order of things in Jammu & Kashmir. The moving finger has written; it is best to move on.
I. Dev Sharma
17 August 2021