Kashmir’s Crossroads: Challenges and Dreams in a Post-Article 370 Era

TK Arun

Now that the abrogation of Article 370 has received the Supreme Court’s imprimatur, and all laws passed by India’s Parliament would apply in equal measure to Jammu and Kashmir as to any other state of the Union, have we regained the Kashmir of tranquil beauty depicted in films like Kashmir ki Kali?

There are some who exult that removing Kashmir’s special status, followed by restoration of statehood and elections to form a representative government, would automatically restore the state not just to pre-separatist peace but to the syncretic culture that celebrated awoman poet like Habba Khatoon, if not quite to the land that produced the Rajatarangini. Dreams are excellent, provided they are accompanied by determined action to realise them.

Just because a legal construct that sets J&K apart from other states has gone, it does not mean that no special challenges remain in the state. It is a state where multiple ideological batt les are being waged, with Kashmiris and members of Indian security forces serving as expendable pawns in their physical manifestations. These must be fought and won for Kashmir to once again be known primarily for beauty rather than for violent revolt.

Proxy Battles and Ideological Warfare

There is the proxy battle that Pakistan wages by fomenting separatism, aiding and abetting militancy that has not yet been quelled, although it has been forced to retreat. For Pakistan, for Kashmir to continue as a part of India and to prosper as such is to undermine that country’s founding ideology. Pakistan was formed as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia, who, it was claimed, would not be able to live in security or prosper in Hindu-majority India. In other words, for Pakistan, Kashmir is not about the Kashmir of its people but about its own being.

Militancy and Cultural Erosion: The Struggle for Kashmir’s Identity

Kashmir, under militancy, did not shut down cinemas, clamp down on music and attack women who, in conservative eyes, lacked modesty, because a minority wanted to be part of Pakistan, rather than of India. An extremist, radicalised strand of austere Islam, which would have been as fantastic in Harun al-Rashid’s world as tales of the Arabian Nights are in today’s, is waging a ruthless war against the impure among Muslims as well as against infidels. That war has been playing out in Kashmir as well, some champions of the ideology of the Islamic State having foisted themselves atop Kashmir’s militancy.

The Indian state has not helped its own cause, or Kashmir’s, by frequently dismissing elected governments, stealing elections, patronising some elite families who finesse the art of mediating popular aspirations for their personal benefit, and clamping down on dissent with military deployment.

This has led to the extended presence of security forces in the mental and physical geography of the state, rendering Kashmiris virtually into residents of an occupied land, breeding lasting anger against martial law and the central government. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives security personnel impunity for their worst offences, even if these have little to do with combating militancy. Tales of extensive corruption, ketchup colonels who fake encounter killings to win accolades, and rapes — some real, some cooked up, and all successful in inflaming widespread resentment — vitiate the army’s prolonged presence in the state.

The animosity has been reciprocal. From the point of view of the security forces, Kashmir is a place where many brave Indians have been killed by some traitors, while their camp followers pelt security personnel with stones large enough to crack skulls. The local populace dare not condemn, even if they do not condone, the attacks.

Combating the proxy war by Pakistan and radical Islamist ideology are tied up with what Justice S K Kaul said about healing the wounds and setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The wounds in question are not confined to those inflicted by martial law but extend to the enforced flight of Kashmiri Pandits from the land of their birth.

Democracy’s Crucible: Healing Wounds and Building Bridges

It would be wrong to imagine that the solution to the alienation of a generation of Kashmiris lies in Kashmir itself. The status of the Muslims in Gujarat and UP is as vital to combating the Islamist ideology that pits the faithful against the infidel as the impact of development schemes in Kashmir.

If ordinary Muslims are denied dignity and equality of opportunity by an ideology that seeks to replace the Constitution’s non-denominational concept of nationhood with one that privileges Hindus over followers of other faiths, it would aid, not combat, Islamist radicalism in Kashmir and beyond, besides reinforcing Pakistan’s founding ideology.
Nor is this a matter that affects Muslims alone. When the democratic rights of one group are truncated, that undermines democracy in general.

The tribal man who was urinated on in Madhya Pradesh, the Dalit in Gujarat, who was forced to grovel, his employer’s footwear in his mouth, for daring to ask for his unpaid wages, the unemployed youth nudged to find solace in a member of his caste being elevated to political office, the woman, who finds her rapist being protected by the police, given extraordinary powers in the name of law and order, the farmer who despairs into suicide — their salvation lies in democracy, as well.

The battle for redemption in Kashmir is part and parcel of the battle for substantive democracy in India beyond its formal rites, such as elections.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Economic Times as An Unfinished Agenda on December 13, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja , a research intern at IMPRI.