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Playing for dangerously high stakes in volatile Kashmir

August 21, 2019 09:53 IST

'As of now, this one move seems to have precariously altered the balance of forces on the volatile ground, between separatists and the mainstream.

'The landscape today presents a fearsome picture of the future of mainstream politics in Kashmir.

'Conversely, the separatist ideology looks to have got an unearned boost,' points out Mohammad Sayeed Malik, the veteran commentator on Kashmir affairs.

IMAGE: Security personnel on the alert in a locked-down Srinagar following the scrapping of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Photograph: S Irfan / PTI Photo

The genesis of the August 5 demolition and degradation of the politico-constitutional structure of Jammu and Kashmir, triumphantly proclaimed and harshly executed by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government, lies in its 66-year old precedent that was also meticulously planned in intriguing secrecy and executed with calculated ruthlessness, by its principal victim's friend, Jawaharlal Nehru.

 

Indeed, the stunning dismissal and shocking incarceration of (the then) J&K prime minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah by his alleged 'best friend', Nehru, on August 9, 1953, and its cascading fallout over the past more than half a century, had virtually left only the debris to be cleared by Modi and Amit Shah, though they made it look as their larger-than-life achievement.

By the time the final and fatal blow was delivered to it earlier this month, all that remained of the original pre-1953 'autonomy' and/or 'special status' of J&K was only its hollow shell.

In the deeply embedded imagination of his enviable (Kashmiri) following, Sheikh was a living symbol of all that had gone into forging and formalising an unlikely relationship with India's only Muslim-majority state, against the logic of partition of India in 1947 and, more visibly so, against the run of events in the subcontinent at that time.

And Sheikh also liked to wear his 'yes, we-are-Indians' badge on his sleeve with, what now retrospectively looks, his misplaced credulity.

In the eyes of his people, he also personified the sanctity and guarantee of all the symbols of reciprocal arrangement -- a separate (J&K) constitution, a separate state flag (in addition to the national flag) and a special constitutional status within a federal India.

That reassuring image as well as the aspirations and hopes attached with it came crashing down with his humiliating, unceremonious, undemocratic, unconstitutional ouster in 1953.

Thereafter it has practically been a one-way affair: unending usurpation of the state's constitutional autonomy and gradual erosion of its (notional) special status.

Art 370, by the time the NDA government in New Delhi finally buried it on August 5, 2019, had been thoroughly denuded and reduced to a skeleton.

Yet, its formal existence on the sacred book called the Constitution of India offered a (notional) sense of protection to the fading remnants of the 'special status': J&K constitution and the state flag which, significantly, sustained its emotional appeal in the hearts and minds of a shrunk and shrinking lot that still believed in the correctness of Sheikh's judgement on the accession in 1947.

The analogy between August 1953 and August 2019 ends there.

And that is what evokes a frightful scenario in the hearts and minds of the Muslim population in J&K.

Like quite a few in the rest of the country, Kashmiri Muslims see '1953' as substantially a politics-driven assault and its shattering 'closure' in 2019 as an ideologically (communally) driven vicious infliction.

Certain key elements of the plan as it unfolds on the ground betray it amply and fuel the worst fears in the Valley.

By violating and undermining the state's nascent politico-constitutional arrangement and humiliating Sheikh, Nehru was apparently satisfied.

'1953' conveyed the message that from then on the state was going to be ruled by an Indian-Kashmiri and not a Kashmiri-Indian.

Also, that the internal autonomy and special status were there, at the pleasure of New Delhi and not as a matter of the state's right.

The politico-constitutional arrangement has since undergone substantial one-sided change between 1953 and 2019, of course at the expense of J&K.

Virtually, the centre of gravity of the complex Kashmir politics shifted from Srinagar to New Delhi for good.

However, that could not be enough for the BJP.

The ruling party at the Centre is not mincing words to convey its own message as clearly as is possible.

Since its very inception, the Sangh Parivar has been aiming at changing the demographic composition of the country's only Muslim-majority state and erasing its special constitutional status.

They got rid of the 'eyesore' at the first available opportunity.

The build-up to the final hour was loaded with all sorts of ominous signs: unprecedented termination of the annual Amarnath Yatra, directing and facilitating the immediate exit of non-locals from the Valley, and statements suggesting imminent a flare-up along the LoC.

Panic and confusion were allowed to grip the Valley as additional forces in thousands poured in to take position across cities, towns and villages.

From then on it has been a nightmarish existence for the local population.

Insulted politically (by downgrading Kashmir from autonomous statehood to Union territory), denuded by the unceremonious abrogation of Art 370 along with the state's own constitution and flag, suffocated with harshly tight restrictions on movement and, above all, the menacing body language of the official apparatus from New Delhi to Srinagar has completely choked normal life across Kashmir.

The Valley and parts of Jammu and Ladakh with a sizeable Muslim population feel suffocated but helpless.

Things on the ground held under such tight leash might seem manageable and controllable.

But, for how long? Obviously the government's counter-strategy has reduced the highly complex problem into a law and order or security issue for which enough arrangements are in place.

The fear factor appears to be the key element.

Compared to '1953', when Nehru had managed to achieve his objective of irreversibly shifting the power centre of Kashmir politics from Srinagar to New Delhi by merely tinkering at its topmost level and leaving the local political edifice intact with handpicked Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad at its devalued top, the BJP government has virtually destroyed the entire edifice of mainstream politics, and causing an ominously huge vacuum on the ground.

IMAGE: Sheikh Abdullah with Jawaharlal Nehru in this 1948 photograph. Five years later, the Nehru government dismissed the Abdullah government. Kashmir has not been the same since.

As of now, this one move seems to have precariously altered the balance of forces on the volatile ground, between separatists and the mainstream.

In one go, the mainstream political structure arduously sustained since 1953 has crumbled with its leadership, from Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti to Sajjad Lone unceremoniously put behind the bars.

The landscape today presents a fearsome picture of the future of mainstream politics in Kashmir.

Conversely, the separatist ideology looks to have got an unearned boost.

There is a school of thought here that is of the opinion that this particular aspect was very much within the BJP's reckoning and that it was intended to be so.

Going by this logic, it would seem that the BJP is playing for higher stakes than is commonly apparent.

A Muslim-majority Kashmir is hardly conducive to creating and cultivating a 'saffron' superstructure on the ruins of an entity with comparatively better acceptability though never quite so in quantitative terms.

Or, is it that Modi and Shah were aiming at virtually 'de-politicising Kashmir' and reducing it to just a 'national security' problem to be dealt with directly from New Delhi?

The complexion, colour and creed of mainstream Kashmir politics has always been anathema to the Sangh Parivar.

So it is better be gone forever than letting it resurface.

Whether and to what extent this presumption eventually materialises is, perhaps, not as important as that the history holds a lesson for anyone and everyone dealing with Kashmir.

To quote former R&AW chief AS Dulat, who has considerable firsthand experience, a Kashmiri takes his own time to react and generally prefers to lie low until then.

'But he never gives up'.

History also supports this conclusion.

The people of Kashmir took 11 long years to avenge '1953'.

The mysterious theft and recovery of the Holy Relic from Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar in December 1963 sparked a Valley-wide mass upheaval culminating in the unceremonious overthrow and final eclipse of the 11-year Bakshi era despite the fact that that the state witnessed phenomenal all-round development and progress during that period, including the start of free education, subsidised foodgrains, establishment of high quality medical, engineering and other training institutions.

It was the accumulated emotional/political discontent that burst out in the wake of the relic agitation and consigned an imposed, unpopular regime to the dustbin of history.

Until then any such proposition was unthinkable.

Whether the ideologically-driven current dispensation in New Delhi is interested in the recent history of Kashmir or not, history is notoriously known for repeating itself.

The expanding political vacuum on the ground is fraught with far more serious national and international implications than appears to be visualised at the ideologically obsessed top.

MOHAMMAD SAYEED MALIK
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