Three months ago, Home Minister Amit Shah assured the Rajya Sabha that “normalcy” had been restored in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, the leaders of the two main parties in J&K — Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — have not only been under detention for more than 200 days, but have also been slapped with the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act.
As Minister of State for External Affairs in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, Mr. Abdullah defended India’s position on Kashmir to the world, hurled diplomatic epithets at Pakistan in international fora, and wore the national flag on his heart as it were. But now, according to the Public Safety Act dossier prepared by the J&K administration, he stands accused of coddling militants and mobilising the people of Kashmir to defy Pakistan-backed militants and vote in elections. Like Mr. Abdullah, Ms. Mufti has also been deemed “anti-national”. Given that she ran J&K as Chief Minister with her party in alliance with the BJP for three years, it is very strange that the same BJP overlooked her leanings then.
Extending the shelf of normalcy
To show the world that the people of J&K participated in elections used to be the Indian government’s primary goal. The government used to go out of its way to obtain diplomatic certification for turnouts in elections as a measure of the genuineness of the exercise. The usually abysmal turnouts made it all the more necessary for such measures to be taken. An election in J&K is not going to take place any time soon, but proving that such an election is genuine, when it is held, will still be the main aim of this government. The steady chaperoning of foreign diplomats into the new Union Territory is an indication of this. With every lot of them that enters the territory, the shelf of “normalcy” in J&K is extended. Since the situation is “normal”, the question then is, when will an election take place?
The Public Safety Act dossier states that the capacity of Mr. Abdullah “to influence people for any cause can be gauged from the fact that he was able to convince his electorate to come out and vote in huge numbers even during peak of militancy and poll boycotts”. Does this mean that it is now normal for a District Magistrate to complain that a politician is able to persuade his constituents to come out and vote? In Kashmir, schools and colleges were open for months after the dilution of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, but nobody attended them. Is that also now normal? Every now and then, U.S. President Donald Trump reminds India that he is ready to mediate between India and Pakistan, even though New Delhi insists that Kashmir is an internal matter. For the American President to repeatedly make that offer was the norm in the worst of times in Kashmir; now it has become a routine in the best of times as well. Is this too the new normal?
The government has been conducting focused, narrowly guided tours in batches for foreign diplomats to assess and make a broad certification of the normalcy that prevails in J&K to their home constituencies. These diplomats go to Srinagar and no doubt send rosy, impressionistic cables back to their capitals: ‘Shops are open; there are no barbed wires on the main streets; and no menacing soldiers either. There are upwardly mobile politicians and green shoots of political activity. There is an upward tick in developmental trends. No one is complaining of the absence of the sham that was Article 370. There are myriad plans with timelines and bar charts and plenty of projects in the pipeline. Comparisons with the situation in West Bank are definitely far-fetched. And no one got killed’.
On the other hand, Indian politicians who cannot go to Kashmir and determine for themselves just how normal the situation is probably have to request the foreign missions to put out regular updates, in the form of newsletters or health bulletins, to get a better sense of the situation. The promotion of regular diplomatic tourism to Kashmir is apparently very different from the internationalisation of Kashmir, which happens, for example, when China intercedes on behalf of Pakistan at the UN and Indian diplomats exert themselves to temporarily dissolve that crisis.
The challenge ahead
If making “unacceptable statements” can merit invocation of the Public Safety Act, especially when elections are nowhere in view, how much has the crisis in J&K really dissolved? The government can probably take heart that there have been no major instances of violence since August 5, 2019, and no major upheavals or killings. Terrorists have not run rampant. Meanwhile, six months of New Delhi’s charm offensive notwithstanding, alienation is omnipresent, as is the keen sense of hurt, betrayal, anger and resignation.
To hold an election, the delimitation hurdle first needs to be crossed. With new political map-making in the region, there will be seven more Assembly constituencies in J&K. These have to be artfully identified and demarcated, which will be done on the basis of the 2011 Census. A delimitation commission is yet to be constituted. Even the panchayat polls, which the Prime Minister declared a resounding success, left half the seats empty because of the absence of candidates and boycott calls.
The challenge for the government then is how to balance the semblance of peace, which is a result of detentions, deployments and restrictions, and provide a platform of very modest political activity that is sanctified by New Delhi, in a manner that can give the seething resentment controllable political vent over what has been done to J&K. This alone explains the calibrated release of minor political leaders. It is presumable that they have been set free on the implicit understanding that they will not be crossing any red lines drawn by New Delhi. The diplomatic tourists hear and see exactly what New Delhi wants them to hear and see. New Delhi’s hope is that the local leaders of the PDP and NC come forward, give heft to the process, and grow into major politicians. The expulsion of PDP politicians can only be a marker for the inroads government agencies are making in signing on new political recruits. It is probably easier to alienate PDP politicians given the divisions already extant in that conglomeration, although it is odd that politicians associated with an “anti-national” like Ms. Mufti should escape that taint. The continued detention of Ms. Mufti and Mr. Abdullah is being done with the intention of starving them of the oxygen of a following, forcing upon them political atrophy, and robbing them of the opportunity to queer the normalcy pitch. In Kashmir, it could soon be argued that the more things are normal, the more abnormal they really are.