Kashmir: A Year After Article 370, A Sense of Loss and Uncertain Future

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A scene of restrictions in Srinagagar’s Lalchowk on August 5 2020. — Photo: Kamran Yousuf/Twiiter

The new laws formed in the last few months have cleared the way for people from outside to settle, get domicile rights over land and property, and apply for jobs which were earlier reserved for natives of Jammu and Kashmir.

Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

SRINAGAR — Zaid Fayaz,12, living in Poshpora Kupwara is a Class 9 student but, in the past 12 months, he has been at school for barely 12 days.

Indeed, since the first week of August last year, all aspects of public life have remained at standstill owing to the long-drawn lockdown enforced by police and paramilitary forces on the night before August 5, 2019.

That day, as Kashmir was put under siege — digital as well as physical — the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right-wing Hindu nationalist leader, with the support of a brute majority abrogated the special constitutional protection of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, and split the region into two Union territories.

The decision was unilateral as the government did not consult anyone –neither the international community, nor the people of Kashmir, nor the Kashmiri leaders across the political divide.

Besides imposing restrictions on public movement by increasing military presence and barricades on roads, the authorities launched a crackdown on political activism by detaining thousands of people, including business leaders, civil society activists and politicians, many under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA).

A number of ordinary men, civil society activists and Hurriyat leaders were bundled away to jails outside Kashmir. Most of them are still behind bars awaiting amnesty even as a year has gone by. Some of them who tried to move the courts for relief encountered more dejection.

Congress leader Saifuddin Soz talking to India Today TV from atop his residence wall as he is not allowed to come out.(Screengrab)

For instance, some 250 habeas corpus petitions were filed in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against the PSA detentions in the days after the crackdown. Of those, 160 petitions have been disposed of either by dismissal or, the petitions became ‘meaningless’ as political prisoners were released.  

Similarly, the petitions in the Supreme Court did not evoke a desired response. The families of the political prisoners now await the mercy from the government for their loved ones. “We cannot speak with the media, the authorities will get angry,” a relative of a political activist held in Agra jail sine last August told Clarion India in a village near Srinagar. “We do not want to prolong the detention. We feel if we stay silent, the government will consider his release.” At east seven of Kashmiris, including journalist, have been booked in cases under tough laws for being critical of government.  The cases have triggered fear of a severe police action among general public if write something on social media which is not in line with the state narrative.

The crackdown was conducted against people of all political ideologies.  Three former Chief Ministers were arrested and jailed at guest houses and subsequently slapped with PSA. Former lawmakers were detained and bundled together at a government-run hotel near Dal Lake for months.

The political activities of all these regional parties came to a grinding halt. Except for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which was on the ground expanding its base from the urban to the rural areas, no other party has had a chance to even issue a statement for months.

But now, a year later, all, except former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and former independent lawmaker Engineer Rashid , have been released. And they have begun muttering out which is seen as a sign of resumption of political activities.

After his release from detention, National Conference (NC) leader and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah wrote an article and even gave his first interview in Indian Express discussing his incarceration, his views on the August 5 changes and the future ahead. His comment that he will take part in elections only when statehood is restored triggered a controversy in public indicating that NC has come to terms with changes and they are willing to move on.

Unlike NC, leaders of the People’s Democratic Party, which was in coalition with the BJP in the state up to 2018 when the government fell, has not publicly announced about its future after the abrogation of Article 370. Moreover, the continuous incarceration of Mehbooba Mufti indicates that the PDP might take time to budge down the terms as set by the Modi government. Her daughter, who has emerged as a voice for her on media, said in a recent interview that she would not be easily persuaded to accept the changes.

But what makes the PDP vulnerable is that a standoff may trigger a situation in which party leaders and workers may wither away and join a new formation emerging on the scene. In fact, one of its main leaders, Altaf Bukhari, has already floated a party called Apni Party which comprises politicians and political aspirants from different parties. A notion prevalent in Kashmir is that the party was floated with the blessings from New Delhi with the aim to induce defections in the established groups and eventually force them to accept the new regime or see a collapse. Parties like PDP have to quickly make decisions in the scenario of ‘Between the devil and the deep sea’.

But the flip side is also dangerous for the regional parties. Accepting the post-370 regime means the parties are moving far away from their fundamentals on Kashmir issue—Self-rule for the PDP and autonomy for the NC and ‘Achievable Nationhood’ for Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference.

Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti

The August 5 changes “destroyed the space for mainstream in J&K, and ditched their cause,” said NC spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar.  “Given the way things have unfolded since last August, I cannot predict the future of mainstream politics. It is a long tunnel.” He added that the party working committee hadn’t had the chance to discuss the future course of action.

“The Indian government cannot afford to wish away mainstream parties,” said Prof Saifuddin Soz, a Congress stalwart and former Union minister, while speaking with Clarion India over phone. “It is a link between the Union of India and people of Kashmir. If the government of India decides to operate through a bunch of bureaucrats, they will lose contact with people and it will cause harm to the constitutional relationship.”  

But any compromise will further cement the public notion that the Kashmir-based parties only do the bidding of New Delhi in Kashmir and all promises of pro-Kashmir politics is a facade to win public support.

In the public eye, they have failed to keep the promise of ensuring a dignified life for a Kashmiri within the realm of Indian constitution– the promise they would seek votes in every election. Now the big question for these parties is: What will they do their politics around and what promises they have in their kitty to make to the people?  

One point which offers an opportunity for them is that if they can work around negotiating protection of land rights, jobs, and demography which has come under assault due to the abrogation of special constitutional protection. The new laws formed in the last few months have cleared the way for people from outside to settle, get domicile rights over land and property, and apply for jobs which were earlier reserved for natives of Jammu and Kashmir. This has triggered a fear of demographic and cultural changes among people who are reeling from a sense of loss, suffering and helplessness. Even Omar Abdullah agreed that these fears cannot be ruled out “though they are not immediate”.  

Since the extension of the lockdown owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the army and paramilitary personnel have intensified the operations against militants setting houses on fire as they go on to kill the young militants. Citing coronavirus concerns, the authorities have denied the families their right to bury the militant bodies.

Rights groups have accused the army and police of committing grave violations of human rights in the last one year. There have been numerous reports of torture, raids, vandalism of homes in Kashmir villages at the hands of the army and the police. This is making people apprehensive that the time ahead will be tough. They feel that the right-wing government of Prime Minister Modi will resort to the policy that Israel has for Palestine. The anxiety is compounded by the recent orders allowing the army to grab land and expand its bases without having to get clearance from civil administration.  

During the campaign against Article 370, the argument that the Modi government put forth against its abrogation was that it promoted corruption and political conflict and scuttled development of Jammu and Kashmir even as the region was standing better in most of the development indices than some states.

However, since August last year, Jammu and Kashmir has suffered a loss of 5.3 billion US dollars, according to a report released by a civil society group. Small-time businessmen, shopkeepers, cab drivers and horsemen have been forced to live in penury. “I am now selling fruits and vegetables. I have to earn to feed my children and wife at home,” said Siraj Ahmad, a businessman in Kupwara who used to supply tents to wedding parties but due to the lockdown and the coronavirus concerns, the marriages have become a low-key affair giving way to small gatherings in place of lavish parties. Since Siraj services are not required anymore, he has converted half of shop into vegetable stall. 

Add to this the continued restrictions on internet speed that has disrupted any chance of revival of economy besides denial of the right to have proper access to the internet. Students are facing difficulties in attending online classes, and response to the Covid crisis has been badly affected as healthcare workers complain that they are not able to properly access the latest information on novel coronavirus.

But the government is making contrasting claims. Three days ago, NDTV came out with a story about a government ‘report card’ on the “achievements in J&K in the past one year.” It says, “50 new degree colleges offering a total of 25,000 seats; operationalisation of seven new medical colleges with 1,400 extra medical/ paramedical seats, five new nursing colleges and one state cancer institute.”

But for students like Zaid Fayaz, the Class 9 student, who lost a whole academic year to the lockdown, the future seems dark. His father Fayaz says, “I do not know how children who haven’t been to school for a year will be able to compete with students from other parts in competitive exams and jobs in the times to come.”

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