Muzamil Jaleel

Is New Delhi’s outreach to pro-India parties a tactical step to normalise the devastating changes introduced in J&K since August 5, 2019? Has the Sangh Parivar’s Kashmir project run up against a roadblock or has it been compelled by international players to change course?

In Kashmir, people make big houses, bigger than they should, and often bigger than they can afford. Big enough to host wedding feasts for their children, big enough for mourners to gather when the time comes. For sorrow and for joy, Kashmiris say.

In Kashmir, home is also the place to hide. For the past thirty years, it has been the last refuge from the violence that runs mad on its streets, and over its lush meadows and hulking mountains. It isn’t really safe, of course, what with random midnight raids that often end in an inhabitant’s arrest, torture, and sometimes death. And if a militant is found holed up in one, it’s almost invariably blasted into rubble. Yet, home is where Kashmiris feel the safest. It is an island of life in a deluge of violence, which, in its newest form is being inflicted through the blunt instrument of demographic change, a deluge brought to drown Kashmiris once and for all.

Home and land, like political aspirations, are central to the conflict in Kashmir. On August 5, 2019, when India unilaterally removed Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, split the state into two territories ruled directly from New Delhi, and repealed the law that safeguarded the native population’s residency and property rights, it launched the final assault on the homeland of Kashmiris. The plan is, and always has been, to rob Kashmiris of their land, flood it with settlers, and eventually render the natives into a disempowered minority that’s not fully human, but human object, a thing.

The RSS – the mothership of the Sangh Parivar, a fleet of Hindu nationalist groups, including the ruling BJP, that seeks to turn India into an enthonationalist Hindu state – has publicly decried Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim majority demography as “oppressive”, “a thorn in the flesh”, and “a headache for our country”. These devastating changes launched on August 5, 2019 are integral to this civilisational project of the Sangh Parivar, which has long considered drastic demographic change, through what is essentially a settler colonial project, as the only way to end the Kashmir dispute for good. In fact, they publicly speak about taking inspiration from Israel to further their goal.

Once the Permanent Resident Act, a law enacted in 1927 to safeguard the demographic and cultural identities of Kashmir’s many ethnic and religious groups, was removed, it eased the legal path to set up townships for settlers in the region, under the protection of the massive military apparatus. The 1927 law ensured that only permanent residents of J&K competed for government jobs in the state, voted in local elections, and obtained property. These special protections existed in a complicated historical context.

After the British Raj folded up, India’s leadership promised a plebiscite for the people of J&K to determine their political future. In November 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told All India Radio that J&K’s fate was “ultimately to be decided by the people. That pledge we have given not only to the people of Kashmir but also to the world. We will not and cannot back out of it”. A few days later, he told India’s Constituent Assembly, “We have suggested that when people of Kashmir are given a chance to decide their future, this should be done under the supervision of an impartial tribunal such as the United Nations Organization.”

Nehru’s assurances came after India secured conditional accession of J&K, thanks mainly to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, then the state’s most popular leader. He argued for J&K to go with India rather than Pakistan without seeking to determine the wishes of the population. Abdullah even represented India’s case at the United Nations. “I and my organisation never believed in the formula that Muslims and Hindus form separate nations,” he said. “We do not believe in the two-nation theory….”

Seventy years later, Abdullah’s words sound hollow. Almost every leader of Kashmir’s pro-India political camp, including three former chief ministers, were detained for months and gagged after New Delhi put the region under lockdown to preempt mass protests against the August 5 move. In fact, the Indian government divested all their local intermediaries, including Abdullah’s party, of any political standing in one fell swoop.

Back in 1947, however, Abdullah had insisted that J&K’s accession to India came with a condition: J&K was to have a special status within the Indian union. It took India’s top leaders and Abdullah, by then prime minister of J&K, nearly five months until October 1949 to negotiate the terms of this special status.

This arrangement, though, has never been accepted by one of the two broad ideological camps that have dominated J&K’s political landscape since 1947. They are those who resist India’s rule, arguing that the people of J&K have never been allowed to exercise their right to self-determination, promised by India’s first prime minister and endorsed by the UN. The pro-India camp, however, believes that J&K’s accession to India is final, but insists that the now revoked special status, guaranteed by the Indian constitution, formed the basis of the relationship. Indeed, they consider J&K’s special status the mainstay of a solemn compact between two sovereign peoples – which meant that when it was unilaterally revoked, all the terms of J&K’s entry into the Indian Union were voided. This compact also ensured that J&K had its own constitution, its own flag, prime minister, president and its own official language, Urdu. All these symbols of special status are gone. In fact, even pro-India political parties in J&K whose participation in local government elections India would use as an argument before the world against the demand for the right to self-determination, stand decimated. The distinction between Kashmiris who questioned India’s sovereignty over J&K and those who had been India’s face in the region has disappeared. They are all unwanted suspects.

To signal the essence of this Kashmir project in the larger Hindu supremacist agenda, the first anniversary of the abrogation of J&K’s semi-autonomy and dismemberment was chosen to lay the foundation of the Ram temple, which is coming up on the site where the Babri Masjid existed until it was violently torn down by Hindu extremists in 1992. India’s prime minister, fellow BJP leaders, and top RSS functionaries attended the celebration.

In the years since removing J&K’s semi-autonomy, the Indian government has taken a series of decisions to take forward its plan and each step is part of the single path towards altering the demographic complexion of the erstwhile state.

A new domicile law has been introduced, and implemented retrospectively, to provide legal cover to demographic change. Under this law, any Indian citizen who has resided for fifteen years in J&K or studied for seven years and appeared in class 10 and class 12 examination from a school located in J&K can become a domicile, as can the children of Indian federal officials and members of Indian armed forces who have served in the region for 10 years. Since the law does not specify that the period of residency or service must be at a stretch, any Indian citizen who has lived or served in J&K for the prescribed length of time over multiple stints would qualify as well. The exact number of Indian citizens who have thus become eligible to take domicile in J&K isn’t known but there is no doubt that it has already considerably altered the region’s demographic complexion.

Over the last several months, Pakistan has taken several reconciliatory steps towards India. It imposed an unconditional ceasefire along the Line of Control which was an advantage for New Delhi at a time when tensions along the LAC with China were rising. The Pakistani leadership has muted criticism of India’s prime minister and the BJP, and especially stopped comparing them with the Nazis. Cross-border infiltration is almost zero, as the J&K police and other Indian security agencies have publicly admitted. Save one recent instance, there has been no encounter involving non-local militants in the last eight months or so. Islamabad has provided some relief to India in the case of Kulbhushan Jadav, a former Indian navy officer who Islamabad says is a RAW agent involved in terror attacks inside Pakistan.

Is New Delhi’s shift on Kashmir an outcome of the changed regional and global power dynamics and the talks facilitated by the UAE? If these steps taken by Islamabad are indeed an outcome of the back-channel talks facilitated by the UAE, what reconciliatory measures has New Delhi agreed to take to reciprocate? The answers to these questions will become apparent once the purpose and contours of the meeting called by Modi are known.

But if New Delhi doesn’t address the main concerns of the people and instead limits its outreach to bring J&K’s pro-India camp on board in lieu of the restoration of a truncated state, it will only mean that there has not been a rethink on the Indian government’s Kashmir policy. It will be seen as a mere ploy to prop up local political faces to normalise the devastating changes effected with the scrapping of J&K’s semi-autonomy. On the other side, even if J&K’s local pro-India parties, which have been opposing New Delhi’s unilateral decisions on and after August 5, 2019, submit to this new scheme, it won’t dent the public alienation with New Delhi. It will, in fact, delegitimize these parties further, paving for the public anger to eventually explode.

Muzamil Jaleel is a Kashmiri journalist who has been reporting and writing for more than 25 years. He is currently Deputy Editor at The Indian Express.

[The above is an excerpt. The full article can be accessed at https://www.inversejournal.com/2021/06/24/kashmir-meet-after-two-years-of-ruin-a-reckoning-or-a-new-tack-by-muzamil-jaleel/]

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