Waiting for democracy in Jammu and Kashmir

The long haul back to stabilisation from a dangerous situation needs to begin; the first step is Assembly elections

Updated - August 10, 2022 02:12 pm IST

Published - August 05, 2022 12:16 am IST

‘The promise of democracy seems as far away as it was in 2019’

‘The promise of democracy seems as far away as it was in 2019’ | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

It has been three years since then President Ram Nath Kovind issued the fateful orders that read down Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, allowing the Narendra Modi administration to divide the State of Jammu and Kashmir and demote its two new units to Union Territory status. These measures, Prime Minister Modi said, would extend the rights and benefits of Indian democracy to the people of the State. The irony of the fact that his administration felt compelled to simultaneously arrest more than 5,000 political leaders, activists and mediapersons in order to achieve this laudable goal appeared to escape him.

Draconian actions

Three years later, the promise of democracy seems as far away as it was on August 5, 2019. Several hundred of those arrested in 2019 are still in jail without trial. Fresh arrests of dissidents and human rights defenders have become routine. The media continues to be muzzled, and the few journalists who brave a silent censorship suffer from the ‘vicious circle’ of repeated arrests that the Supreme Court of India criticised in the case of Mohammed Zubair. Despite the completion of the delimitation commission’s exercise, Legislative Assembly elections have still to be announced. Jammu and Kashmir has been under President’s rule and then Lieutenant-Governor’s rule for four years now.

The Modi administration’s initial rationale for the draconian actions of 2019 was that security would improve and militancy would be eradicated; that the former State would integrate with the Indian economy and its people would prosper; that Kashmiri Pandits who have been internal refugees for over three decades would be able to return; and that a new era of non-dynastic politics would emerge.

How far have any of these stated goals met with success, if at all? The answer is dispiriting. Security has clearly not improved. According to Home Ministry figures, the number of civilians killed between 2019 and 2021 was higher than in Mr. Modi’s first term (2014-19) — 87 in two years as against 177 in five years. Civilian fatalities did decline between 2021 and 2022, as did the number of security personnel killed, partly because India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire in February 2021. The numbers have, however, begun to rise again, and suggest a worrying pattern of targeting Kashmiri Pandits, elected officials of local government (panches) and the Jammu and Kashmir police.

Alienation and insurgency

Military and police experts talk about ‘hybrid militants’ — and, more recently, ‘faceless militants’ — which are, in current conditions, meaningless euphemisms for the fact that Valley alienation from the Indian Union is such that public support for insurgency is touching the heights of the 1990s. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 437 Kashmiri youth joined insurgent ranks between 2019 and 2021. While counter-insurgency operations have eliminated the known militant leadership, i.e., those that had been identified by 2016, they have not been able to interdict the small arms that are in circulation or identify those in possession of them. The Union Home Ministry’s distrust of local police — while putting them on the front line of conflict — has disabled a key source of intelligence.

Economic decline

Between 2019 and 2021, the former State’s economy tanked, first due to a security lockdown and then a year-and-a-half of COVID-19 lockdowns. From being in the top performing States of the Indian Union, according to the NITI Aayog, Jammu and Kashmir was ranked among the bottom last year. A record tourist inflow this year might help some recovery, but has to be set off against losses in the fruit, manufacturing, carpet and handicrafts industries. Local supplier complaints abound: that government agencies commission them on projects but do not pay the agreed amount.

Kashmiri Pandits have once again become targets of militant attack, as they were during the 1990s. Four Kashmiri Pandits were shot in 2021, along with 10 Hindus, including migrant workers, and one this year, allegedly in retaliation for the film Kashmir Files’s portrayal of Pandit killings by armed groups during the 1990s insurgency. According to the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, around 100 Pandit teachers who had returned to the Valley under the 2008 Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Plan fled. The rest demanded relocation to safer areas, a demand that the administration refused. According to the soon-to-be released report of the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir (I am a member), they now live in such tight security that they cannot even go out to buy groceries.

Recently-elected panches suffer the same fate. With his customary hyperbole, Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that a new political leadership would emerge from panchayat ranks to replace the dynasts of the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party. But 12 panches have been shot since 2019, according to the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference. Most have since been lodged under tight security in Srinagar hotels from where it is difficult for them to attend duties in their constituencies.

There is a chasm

The delimitation commission’s report is equally worrying. The new constituencies it has carved out appear to consolidate Hindu and Muslim-majority constituencies. The most likely result will be to cement the chasm that already yawns between the two communities. That, incidentally, is a goal that terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed have long worked towards.

Admittedly, the implementation of the Modi administration’s stated goals was always going to be difficult. Bringing security or prosperity to a State that had been conflict-ridden for decades was, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh could have told Mr. Modi, a long-term task. Yet, each achieved a certain degree of success. A.B. Vajpayee broke the peacemaking ground and Dr. Manmohan Singh continued A.B. Vajpayee’s policy, adding a tightened security grid that sharply reduced both casualties among civilian and security forces, and opened the State’s economy to cross-border trade, an initiative that benefited Jammu as much as the Valley. There was a peace dividend for the economy. Five thousand Kashmiri Pandits returned, albeit somewhat uncertainly. Independent media proliferated, even if its quality was uneven.

Parliament can act

The Modi administration has thus far chosen another way, of unilateralism over electoral democracy and freedom of expression. In doing so, it has dissipated the gains made by A.B. Vajpayee and Dr. Singh between 2000 and 2014. But it can still begin the long haul back to stabilisation of what is today a miserably dangerous situation. Assembly elections are a first step which should be taken immediately. If they could be held under the earlier delimitation and the commission’s present report be put to the new Assembly for consultation, it would be in the spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’ (an oxymoronic formulation that applies to India’s partially federal structure).

Home Minister Shah has repeatedly promised the restoration of statehood. Three years is a long time to hold up that promise without implementing it. Parliament is currently in session and could easily amend the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019. What could be a more fitting conclusion to the 75th year of Independence than the return to basic elements of electoral democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, which alone would lead to an improvement in human rights on the ground?

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst

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