It’s what Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not say during his visit to Palli village in Jammu this week that was more important than what he did in a nearly 40-minute-long address to the public gathering.
Mr. Modi was in Palli on April 24 to inaugurate a 500 KW solar plant as the village became India’s first carbon-neutral panchayat. But the constitutional change effected in August 2019 was very much on his mind, as he used Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir and “ghati” (the Kashmir Valley) in his address in Hindi to differentiate the regions of the almost three-year-old Union Territory.
Addressing Jammu residents, he claimed that in the last two-three years nearly 175 Central laws were extended to them, laws that had not been previously applied by Central governments. And, speaking to the ghati, Mr. Modi promised the youth that they would not have to face the sufferings that their parents and grandparents did. There were no specifics, only this general statement addressed to a disaffected part of the country that has seen unprecedented levels of violence since 1989.
A long time since August 2019
Mr. Modi did not refer to his promise made to the people of India in August 2019 that Assembly polls would be held in J&K. The Prime Minister also did not refer to his government’s statement (also of August 2019) that J&K would regain statehood.
Almost three years have passed since the State of Jammu & Kashmir was divided into two Union territories – J&K and Ladakh – and Article 370 was rendered irrelevant by hurried passage of legislation through both Houses of Parliament.
Propelled by the ideological fuel of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its predecessor, the Jan Sangh, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Modi government pushed through what had never been done before in independent India – reducing a State to a Union territory; the reverse has, of course, happened on many occasions.
It had been a decision wrapped in secrecy and delivered to the people of J&K with an iron fist. The deployment of an unprecedented number of Central security personnel across the towns and villages of the Kashmir Valley had been the only indicator that something was afoot. The country was kept in the dark till the final moment — a style of governance also seen in the passage in Parliament of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the three (since withdrawn) controversial agricultural laws.
Three former Chief Ministers, Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah – all loyal to the Constitution of India – were put in detention. Whatever be their failings (and there were many), all three bore (and bear) true allegiance to India and, in June 2021, Mr. Modi had to meet them as part of what turned out to be a political outreach. Like the people they have represented, they are not lesser Indians in any way.
The development of August 2019 shook the constitutional foundations of India. It also ended an unspoken consensus on Kashmir, which was respected even by the first BJP Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
All the tall promises that the August 2019 measures would end terror and terror funding have been empty words. Terrorist attacks continue in the Union territory of J&K. Encounters and deaths are routinely reported in the press.
The only thing that has changed is that the guns on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) have fallen silent following an agreement reached through the backchannel with Pakistan. That has brought some relief to people living close to the LoC.
In Palli, the Prime Minister did not refer to his June 2021 meeting with Kashmiri leaders, nor did he indicate when the ongoing delimitation process might come to an end. Kashmiri leaders believe delimitation is intended to reduce the electoral clout of the Kashmir Valley.
Eroding local representation
Whatever clout Kashmiri political parties had enjoyed in the Valley stands eroded by the August 2019 decisions. But this has not translated into increased political space for the BJP in the Valley. It is, therefore, possible that the BJP is waiting for the delimitation process to end and hopes that some senior Congress leaders can help provide political entry in the Kashmir Valley. J&K is a big prize for the ruling party at the Centre, a party that celebrates victory even when it wins municipal elections.
That is perhaps one reason why Assembly elections have not been announced so far.
As for Kashmiris, while they know that Article 370 is unlikely to be restored, the restoration of Statehood for J&K is very doable. A quick timetable on Statehood and Assembly elections from the Central government could begin the process of addressing the discontent in the Valley.