It has been a year since that momentous decision of 5 August 2019 when, in a surprise move that left the world dumbfounded, the contentious Article 370 was set aside. Contrary to dire predictions from the Valley’s politicians, nothing burned and there were no ‘rivers of blood’. In fact, the months following August were quieter than Kashmir had seen for a long time. In one stroke, the Modi government had achieved what had always been touted as impossible, nullifying an article of the constitution that had bestowed unfair privileges on a set of people, pampered by successive regimes at the Centre. Along with Article 370, Article 35A that empowered the former state of Jammu and Kashmir to define who is a “permanent resident of the state” was made redundant too.
With the scrapping of Article 370, several Kashmiri politicians, as well as known troublemakers, were detained or placed under house arrest under the Public Safety Act. This included three former chief ministers of the state — Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar and Mehbooba Mufti — in alliance with whom the BJP had formed a government in Jammu and Kashmir. The general consensus on the streets of Jammu and Kashmir was that these leaders were guilty of misrule and misappropriation of funds and hence deserved to be put away. However, political conversations in Srinagar centred on why the government hadn’t bothered to slap corruption charges against those who had ruined the State while enriching themselves. Why did the union government fritter away this chance to set things right and allow detained politicians to become martyrs? Would the now released Abdullahs or the vitriolic Mufti have a chance to rant had they been booked for even one of the scams uncovered by investigative agencies?
Explaining the need for scrapping Article 370, the government stated that this change was brought about to pave the way for better administration, good governance, economic development and the restoration of order in the violence-ridden region. According to a recent Ministry of Home Affairs report, terror-related incidents reduced by about 36% in Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370. Terrorist attacks went down from 188 in 2019 to 120 this year. The number of terrorists eliminated correspondingly went up to 136 in 2020, as against 126 the previous year.
Unfortunately, these meticulously compiled statistics do not take into account the shocking killing of Kashmiri Pandit Sarpanch Ajay Pandita on 8 June 2020 or the merciless gunning down of BJP leader Waseem Bari and his father and brother, a month later. For the first time since 1947, Panchayat elections had been held in Jammu and Kashmir in 2018 to usher in the era of ‘Naya Kashmir’. Ajay Pandita, the elected sarpanch of Larkipora in Anantnag, had chosen to return to his ancestral village in Kashmir. His killing sent shock waves amongst the Kashmiri Pandit community, which had been euphoric since 5 August the previous year. The bullet that killed Pandita dashed their hopes of realising the three-decade-old dream of returning home.
As if this weren’t enough, the terrorists decided to drive home the message of fear by gunning down three men of the Bari family. Wasim Bari had been a prominent BJP leader and nationalist from Bandipora. Apparently, Ajay Pandita was not provided with security despite being the sole Pandit in his village and, thus, rendered an easy target. In Bari’s case, the security men mysteriously disappeared just before the attack. For the government to be unprepared for such attacks — on the very workers whose support it has enlisted in the fight against terrorism — is inexplicable and alarming. Unfortunately, these targeted killings, along with almost daily encounters between security forces and terrorists in Kashmir, have dispelled the notion that Kashmir is heading towards normalcy. After the killing of Bari, several BJP workers in Kashmir are said to have resigned under threat from terrorists.
In March this year, the government that had bravely nullified Article 35A to further facilitate Jammu and Kashmir’s integration with the rest of India, enacted a Domicile Bill that requires, among other things, at least 15 years of residence in the union territory for a person to qualify for the domicile status. After years of deliberate alienation and separation from the mainland, Jammu and Kashmir needed a free flow of citizens from the rest of India, not another piece of paper to replace the infamous ‘Permanent Resident Certificate’ that was rendered obsolete on 5 August 2019.
As for the hapless Kashmiri Pandits still waiting to go back home or the ones living in dilapidated camps in Kashmir for the sake of their government jobs, the acquisition of the domicile certificate in exchange for their permanent resident certificate, nothing has changed. Till the day they get rehabilitated as equal residents of Kashmir, with their rights and properties restored, they will continue to be nothing but fodder for television debates.
On 31 October last year, GC Murmu had taken charge as the first lieutenant governor of the newly formed union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Since Jammu and Kashmir is a union territory with a legislature, the office of CM — vacant since 2018 — should now be filled. Here again, after making much of ushering in new leadership, the BJP has resorted to offering stale wine in new bottles.
‘Apni Party’ launched with much fanfare, is nothing but a new chance for the same old politicians from PDP and National Conference. With such people at the helm, Jammu and Kashmir cannot hope for good governance and development.
By giving separate union territory status to Ladakh, the BJP fulfilled a longstanding demand of the local people and ensured that they would no longer be subjected to the neglect they suffered at the hands of Kashmiri leaders. Now the union government must speed up development in the region and free it from Kashmiri domination. With the pandemic of coronavirus disease leading to online classes for students, increasing use of digital payments and business being conducted online, the government will have to seriously reconsider restoring 4G in the union territory, especially Jammu. Why should Jammu suffer for the security issues in Kashmir? By doing away with the obsolete and unfair Article 370, which accorded privileges/special status to only one set of people while professing to be a law governing the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, the Narendra Modi government has achieved the unthinkable. What is required now is a well-calibrated follow through if the advantage gained by this achievement is not to be squandered away. The government must appoint experienced and honest advisors who know the issues, capable leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to the nation and a gradual sidelining of elements in the government who have used their positions to harm national interests and above all, not giving space to people responsible for the previous mess. Official and unofficial advisors, who have always managed to create a space for themselves in every regime in Jammu and Kashmir, need to be replaced if the Centre really wants to create a ‘Naya Kashmir’.