The tale of Kashmir behind an iron curtain - GulfToday

The tale of Kashmir behind an iron curtain

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Kashmiris750

Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

A week after the Indian government ordered a lockdown, imposed an indefinite curfew and detained several hundred leaders, including two former Chief Ministers, there is deep concern in Kashmir and the region over what is in store for its embattled people.

As the trouble-torn valley remained behind an iron curtain, the government pushed through the two houses of Parliament measures to dismantle the state, which has been at the centre of a dispute that led to three wars between India and Pakistan since their emergence as free nations in 1947.

One law abrogated Articles 35-A and 370 of the Constitution of India which gave the state of Jammu & Kashmir a special status. This was a long-standing demand of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its predecessor, the Jana Sangh.

Article 35-A had protected a 1927 law which allowed only permanent residents of J&K to buy land in the state. Contrary to BJP claims, it protected the interests of all people of the state, not just those of the Muslims of the valley. Its abrogation opens the way for outsiders to grab land in the state.

Under Article 370, conceived as a temporary measure, the state’s concurrence was needed to extend to J&K laws enacted by Parliament. With its abolition the limited autonomy the state enjoyed has ended. Also, J&K’s separate constitution has ceased to exist.

J&K was not the only state which had a special status in India. The Constitution still has a score of temporary or transitional provisions which grant special status to 10 other states.

Ironically, J&K loses its constitution and flag even as the Centre is thinking of allowing the predominantly tribal Nagaland state in the northeast the privilege of having a constitution, a flag and a passport of its own.   

The most audacious part of the Centre’s scheme envisages extinction of the state of J&K, which was carved out of the defeated Sikh empire by one of its military commanders in 1848 with the blessings of the victorious British.

J&K is comprised of three asymmetrical divisions — Muslim-majority Kashmir (area 15,948 sq km, population 6.91 million), Hindu-majority Jammu (area 25,293 sq km, population 5.35 million) and Buddhist-majority Ladakh (area 59,146 sq km, population 290,492).

J&K is the only one of the 550-odd former princely states which is still intact.

A bill passed into law last week provides for its bifurcation into the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh. The division will take effect on October 31.

Apparently this date has been chosen for effecting the change as, under a practice dating back to the Maharaja’s days, the J&K government will then be based not in Srinagar but in Jammu City, the winter capital.

Some Union Territories have elected legislatures, some others don’t. J&K will have one, but not Ladakh.  Whether or not there is a legislature and an elected government, law and order in the UTs is the Centre’s responsibility and the police is under its control.

As removal of Articles 35-A and 370 figured in its election manifesto, the BJP believes it has the mandate to make these changes. However, the action lacks democratic credibility as there was no consultation with the affected people and the parliamentary proceedings were rushed through.

Ladakhi Buddhists, who felt J&K had neglected them, were demanding UT status for their region since long. They have welcomed the Centre’s decision. But the predominantly Shia Muslim population of Kargil district, which is part of Ladakh division, has opposed it.

Downgrading of residuary J&K to the status of UT is unjust and untenable as it curtails democratic rights its people have enjoyed so far.

In a broadcast, Modi said Assembly elections would be held in J&K and its status as state restored. However, he set no time-frame for it, and it is unlikely to happen soon.

On Friday curfew was relaxed to permit the faithful to go to mosques for prayers. Officials said 18,000 people offered prayers at mosques in Srinagar.  

On Saturday, curbs in Jammu and in half of Kashmir were lifted to enable people to make Eid purchases. But few shops were open, and the curbs were quickly re-imposed in the valley. Officials said the situation in the valley, where about 700,000 troops are said to be stationed, was under control.

The Supreme Court has before it two petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Centre’s action.  It has set no dates for the hearing.

The test Kashmir poses to India is not whether it has the strength to hold down rebellious elements but whether it has the resilience to accommodate diversities.  

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