The Kashmir gambit: Economic empowerment, political disempowerment?

The Kashmir gambit: Economic empowerment, political disempowerment?

The real picture of today’s Kashmir is carefully kept out of the sight of the rest of the population. The government of India is doing everything in its power to present a supposedly ‘normal’ Kashmir. But in the name of economic empowerment how Kashmir is becoming politically dis-empowered is what journalist and SAWM India member Maya Mirchandani has seen in her recent visit to Kashmir & writes down her experiences.

If India wants to show the world Kashmir is back to normal, the downed shutters, empty schoolyards and unpicked fruit will make sure it hears a different story.

The drive from Srinagar to Shopian in South Kashmir on the sixth Friday since the nullification of Article 370 was calm. Barring a few locations, there are very few security personnel in sight. Shops and businesses remain shut, and people — mostly men — mill about. Even though a Friday — typically unpredictable and turbulent, and the area volatile, the uneventful drive makes it easy to believe that the tension we felt was perhaps more imagined than real.

However, it is precisely this contra-indication that lies at the heart of the story of Kashmir as it enters this new chapter that began on 5 August 2019. All shades of ideology and opinion in the Valley converge around a simple emotion — betrayal. The Centre’s decision and the manner of its execution to nullify Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status and privileges to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as to split the state into union territories — has struck at a sense of dignity and identity of the Kashmiri mainstream political class. The loudest silence today is from them — the vanguard that kept Pakistan at bay and held on instead to the promise of autonomy or self-rule that they built their careers on. However, history is replete with examples of the mainstream’s failure to tackle political separatism — whether during the Vajpayee years, or during the Manmohan Singh years, and Modi’s move is as much a result of Delhi having had enough, as it is of an authoritarian, populist leader killing two birds with one stone. Effectively shown the door by Delhi, and abused by their compatriots for having been blind to India’s intentions, their silence today is borne out of humiliation. It is the ‘death of expectations.’

In Shopian, amongst a group of a dozen or so taxi drivers whiling away the afternoon, the reactions vary, but only slightly. The older men accuse the Centre of both — neglecting Kashmiri sentiments, and deliberately disrupting business during summer’s peak tourist season — which has come to a grinding halt. “India has shot itself in the foot with this decision.” Their MLA, from the PDP is in preventive detention like his party leader, Mehbooba Mufti — the former Chief Minister of a government in coalition with the BJP. These men have no love lost for their political leadership. In fact, they see their detentions as retribution for previous, doomed alliances with the BJP both in the Centre and in the State, and accuse them of bringing Kashmir to this pass. But the absence of any representatives at all now, is also unacceptable. The Centre’s action has seemingly collapsed the gap between the mainstream and the separatist, and an agitated younger man who joins the conversation says: “This is the final straw. The fight for Kashmir will now be a fight to the finish — Azaadi — once and for all, no matter what the cost.” None of them is willing to give us their names or take pictures for fear of reprisal by the state.

On the outskirts of Shopian, friends and relatives of a man who has been arrested and taken to Varanasi jail claim that he was taken in the middle of the night without reason or provocation. However, local police say Umar Bashir Naikoo is an over ground worker- a member of the now banned Jamaat-I-Islami, with links to terrorists and at least two open FIRs against him. He was taken on 7 August — two days after the Centre’s announcement, to ensure he would not instigate protests or plan militant strikes. Naikoo’s uncle, who has seen all his brothers, sons, nephews in and out of police custody for years, says Kashmir will never accept India’s laws. He believes Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan will speak on their behalf at the United Nations later this month. “Our religion binds us to Pakistan, that is why they supports us,” the uncle says, perhaps not realising it is precisely this sort of rhetoric that plays into the triumphalism around the Delhi’s decision. For him, the reinstatement of Article 370 is meaningless. In fact, Delhi’s actions are just more proof that India under Narendra Modi doesn’t care about Muslims, and even more reason for Kashmir to want independence. The millennials in the room, born after the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley at the start of the insurgency in 1989, know nothing of Kashmir’s syncretic history or its once thriving Pandit population.

Whether separatist or pro-India, this sentiment echoes in the Valley. Most of its predominantly Muslim population, see 5 August as the date Kashmir was targeted by the naked bigotry of a larger Hindutva project aimed to marginalise Muslims socially and disenfranchise them politically. A project, which historian Ramachandra Guha argues, weaponised the pain and suffering of Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee when the armed insurgency first targeted their small community. Today, as Kashmir’s population reconcile this assault on their dignity with a new reality of full integration, the sentiment that the Modi government’s actions are dictated by nationwide anti-Muslim politics; by motivations far less benign than empowerment and development, is widespread. “The Gujarat Model,” an observer says — “they will give us economic empowerment and political disempowerment.”

But will India be prepared to pay the cost of this political disempowerment?

The truth is that no one really knows what happens next. Until 27 September at the very least, when PM Narendra Modi addresses the UN General Assembly, the message to security forces and the administrative machinery seems to be to ensure that no violent protests erupt and that civilian casualties are avoided at all costs. Given the growing chorus of international voices demanding that India restore communications, release political leaders, and ensure human rights are protected, violent protests will only bring more bad press to a Prime Minister who wants the world to like and respect him as a democrat, no matter how authoritarian his government’s actions and style of functioning may be.

So far, the government, hiding behind the cover of security compulsions, has refused to restore mobile communications, even though the administrative and police apparatus has advised them to open up communication lines. However, while mobile networks may be opened soon under growing pressure from the international community, there seems to be no hurry to release mainstream politicians from preventive detention. If there was any doubt about the Modi government’s intentions, the slapping of the draconian Public Safety Act (used liberally on stone pelters) on National conference leader, 83-year-old Farooq Abdullah, for no reason other than to justify his detention and house arrest in the Supreme Court, clears things up.

Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370, Azaadi, downed shutters, empty schoolyards, insurgency, ideology, betrayal

“Whether separatist or pro-India, the Azaadi sentiment echoes in the Valley.” Photo: Yawar Nazir/Getty

The confusion in Srinagar today over how to comprehend or adapt to what has happened or what direction this new paradigm for Kashmir will take, coexists with uncertainty, even fear about what comes next. The shutdowns, communicated through whisper campaigns and word of mouth are as much an act of voluntary civil disobedience as it is an effect of militant warnings, is Kashmir’s way of expressing displeasure with Delhi’s decision. Flyers ‘advising’ the public to remain at home are put up as quickly as they are torn down. Rumours of militant threats abound and security in the city is heightened after sunset. Schools are open, but parents are afraid to send their children. There is no curfew, but most shops and non-essential businesses stay shut. Militants have already killed a shopkeeper in Srinagar and an apple farmer in Sopore as a message to those exhausted with the impasse and wanting to resume the business of living. Apple picking time is approaching, and the government has announced a minimum support price to encourage them to sell but farmers say they have been warned not to pluck ripe fruit from the trees. If India wants to show the world Kashmir is back to normal, the downed shutters, empty schoolyards and unpicked fruit will make sure it hears a different story. For the betrayed mainstream, this is their only way to be heard, through silence. There is nothing normal here, except the normalisation of conflict.

Betrayal, uncertainty and fear make a potent brew. In the absence of a spontaneous reaction over the last several weeks, several police and intelligence officials fear a structured one — an uptick in violence over the coming months. While Azaadi and Article 370 have no common cause, Pakistan’s posturing is feeding the Centre’s playbook on Kashmir. The aftermath of the attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in February 2019 is proof not only that there is a paradigm shift in how the Modi government deals with provocations from Pakistan; but that in a majoritarian, communal climate across the country, ordinary Kashmiris — both within and outside the Valley — will end up as collateral damage each time violence erupts. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan will only fuel the Hindutva engine further.

It is this fear of majoritarianism that India’s minority, Muslim population feel across the country that is taking root in Kashmir, particularly among those who feel let down by Delhi in spite of a lifetime of support. To them, the intent behind the Centre’s actions is far more dangerous than the act itself. Six weeks into such a tectonic shift, with no attempt by Delhi to reach out, address this sense of betrayal and humiliation, and engage the mainstream, the alienation is only deepening. The longer it waits, the harder it will be to address a three way challenge — of reconnecting with Kashmir’s isolated, pro-India mainstream, ensuring the promised rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits into their original homes and working towards a lasting peace. Today, Kashmir is silent — its mainstream defeated, its separatists on edge. But as the Modi government revels in its ‘victory’ over Muslim Kashmir, it will be wrong in more ways than one to mistake this silence for acceptance.

About Maya Mirchandani

Maya Mirchandani is Assistant Professor of Broadcast Journalism and Media Studies at Ashoka University and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. For over two decades, she was a practicing journalist with NDTV, reporting on Indian foreign policy, conflict and national politics. She continues to be an active journalist and media commentator with regular columns and a weekly video blog called Wide Angle with Maya Mirchandani for She has won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism twice, the Red Ink Award for reporting on human rights as well as the Exchange for Media Broadcast Journalism Award for best international affairs reporting.