In Kashmir, shaking the apple tree

The question is whether the dilution of Article 370 changes anything on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir

Updated - September 18, 2019 01:33 am IST

Published - September 18, 2019 12:02 am IST

If I did not have a Muslim name, I might have written this article a bit differently. But given my name, there are certain things I cannot say anymore. For instance, I cannot talk of the matter that concerns me here in terms of human rights or the Indian Constitution. To do so would be to invite crude invective questioning of my genuine and deep love for India.

Hence, I do not ask if Article 370 was justified and I do not ask if its dilution by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was constitutional. I do not even ask if our past and current treatment of the Kashmiri people, both Muslim and Hindu, has been defensible. Instead, I ask the only question permitted to me today because of my name: will it work?

Human rights minefield

I also ask this question on the basis of a perception shared by most Indians, including many Muslims: that the ‘Kashmir problem’ was stuck in a quagmire, and any attempt to solve it is welcome. As an Indian Muslim, obviously, I believe that Kashmir is an integral part of my country. In the past, I would have added that, alas, what matters is not what I believe but what Kashmiris believe. That, however, would be a matter of human rights, and I have vowed not to enter any such minefield.

Hence, from a purely Indian perspective, the BJP government may be congratulated for having taken a bold step. It has definitely shaken the apple tree of Kashmir. All I want to consider now is whether we are going to enjoy an unexpected harvest of apples, or be concussed in the downpour? The dilution of Article 370 has fully inserted our part of Kashmir into India, dissolving its problematic ambiguous status. But has it changed anything on the ground?

The problems of alienation among Kashmiris, militancy, and cross-border support of militants remain intact. These might worsen. There are only two ways they can be partly solved: either by a demographic reshaping of Kashmir and the invasion of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), or by winning over Kashmiri hearts. The former option has been dismissed by the Indian state, but even if it were to be adopted, it would involve mutating war, and make our region the most likely flashpoint for the next global conflagration.

The second option — winning over Kashmiri hearts — is not possible as long as curfews, etc. continue and leaders who can mediate between Kashmiris and India are locked up. Initially, curfew and a media blackout might have saved a few lives by providing time for tempers to cool down. But the fact that they are still substantially in place is problematic, and leads to dangerous gossip-mongering. Similarly, kicking out the Kashmiri leadership with the claim that it is corrupt is not enough. More so, because if all these leaders had just exploited Kashmiris then there would have been no need to lock them up: Kashmiris would not have listened to them anyway. India desperately needs to find credible interlocutors in Kashmir. This is going to be more difficult than in the past.

Unsettled border

Also, the borders of Kashmir stay unresolved. My moderate Hindutva friends tell me that, having gained full control of our Kashmir, the BJP government will now let the current borders become permanent. I find this a naive or dishonest supposition. I am very sure that, sooner or later, there will be internal pressure on the BJP to take PoK, not to mention external pressure by PoK-based militants. Hindutva supporters might overlook the parts occupied by China, but they won’t give up on PoK. The matter remains as unsettled as before, and more volatile.

To change anything on the ground, without the option of demographic colonisation, we need to think of how to treat Kashmiris. Now that they are indubitably Indian citizens, we need to treat them like Indian citizens. This would include, among other things, not firing pellet guns at their demonstrations — just as pellet guns are not used on protests by Indian citizens. Is this possible?

One argument against the former status quo is that Kashmir was a State where only some politically empowered families benefited economically in the past. The dilution of Article 370 is supposed to change that. But this will only happen if economic development in Kashmir involves the Kashmiri people, and this is possible only if Kashmiris have the socio-political space potentially available to all Indian citizens. Otherwise, a super class of extra-state economic beneficiaries will replace the supposed current class of in-state beneficiaries.

We know from our past experience of colonisation in India that this leads to greater exploitation and alienation.

In terms of international relations, India’s vast economic potential and Pakistan’s post-1980s history of tinkering with Islamist militancy have combined to mute international criticism of what is happening in Kashmir. But this is unlikely to last if any major act of violence occurs in Kashmir, unfortunately a likelihood given internal Hindutva pressures for a ‘masculine’ resolution and the external shift of the centre of Islamic jihadism from the Afghanistan border to the Indian one. The latter is also a tragedy because, largely thanks to the work of Muslim moderates, the ideology of global jihadism had been waning among disillusioned youths over the past five to six years.

In short, the dilution of Article 370 was bold in the context of Kashmir but not really bold in the context of India, because most Indians wanted it. For the Kashmir problem to be resolved, the Indian government will now have to take steps that are bold in the context of India too — steps that will cost them some support in India. Does the government or the BJP have the vision and courage to take such steps?

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who works in Denmark

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