The way the Indian government has approached its revocation of the special status of Muslim-majority Kashmir shows it has given up on the concept that an administration’s legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed.
The cloak-and-dagger build-up to Monday’s shocking announcement – that after 70 years, Kashmir will no longer enjoy the additional rights and autonomy which were conditions of its original entry into the union of India – shows just how little trust remains between Delhi and Srinagar.
It started last week with the movement of thousands of additional Indian troops to fortify strategic locations in the Kashmir valley, already the most highly militarised place in the world.
At the time, the government briefed friendly journalists – conveniently allowed to do so with anonymity – saying the troop movements were just run-of-the-mill deployments to relieve the tired existing forces. We now know this was a lie.
Then, the few tourists who had braved the tensions to visit the beautiful surrounds of Srinagar were told, without explanation, that they must evacuate to other parts of the country. When asked why this was happening, the government would not say.
On Sunday, the leaders of mainstream political parties and non-violent separatist movements alike were placed under house arrest and told they could not arrange rallies.
Finally, in a tell-tale sign something big was coming, the government cut access to mobile data across Kashmir. This is normally done amid unrest in order to stop protesters organising – it is rarely used as a pre-emptive measure. Amnesty International says such suspensions are “not in line with international human rights standards”.
Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP have for years been talking up the prospect of removing Article 370 of the constitution, saying it will finally bring the broader state of Jammu and Kashmir in line with the rules that apply to the rest of the country. It will allow Hindu settlers to move into the valley and will open up more government jobs and university places to non-Muslims.
It is a popular idea among the party’s right-wing base, and in keeping with the BJP’s general drive towards having laws, taxes and welfare systems that are consistent across the whole nation and not tied to caste or religious identity.
After 30 years of armed guerrilla conflict in Kashmir, the government also argues that a radical, muscular approach is needed to end the threat of separatist militancy. And it became clear during Monday’s parliamentary debates that the move to revoke Kashmir’s status has popular support from many regional parties in the rest of India, beyond the BJP itself.
Yet these points are not being argued today in a bid to bring ordinary Kashmiris around – they are being put out there as justification for an act which, after meticulous preparations, has already been taken in defiance of the wishes of the people most directly affected.
The statement on the revocation from Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and vice-president of the National Conference, one of the biggest local parties, makes clear that it is the manner of today’s announcement as much as the news itself that has hurt Kashmiris.
He accused Delhi of “resorting to deceit and stealth”, saying the decision was “a total betrayal of the trust that the people of Jammu and Kashmir had reposed in India when the state acceded to it in 1947”.
When I visited Kashmir earlier this year and spoke to Abdullah’s team, as well as the most recent former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, they made clear that the only route to peace for the state was through the restoration of the local assembly, and thereby a return to a direct democracy that ordinary Kashmiris could have faith in.
Instead, the BJP did the opposite: extending direct President’s Rule of the state – the loophole that has allowed the BJP to grant the constitutionally required “local” approval of its own decision.
There are certain to be legal challenges – Abdullah says they are ready for “a long and tough battle ahead”. There are also sure to be ferocious protests, even as the government claims the heightened security situation in Kashmir will return to normal “soon”.
But wherever the situation goes from here, one thing is clear. Do not ever again expect even moderate Kashmiris to put their trust in a BJP-led government in Delhi. Today’s decision has shut the door to any cooperative, democratic solution in the valley for the conceivable future.
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