by Haseeb A Drabu

Circa 2014. Halfway through election campaigning, it occurred to me that the issues of azaadi, autonomy and Article 370 were never raised in any of the meetings, anywhere. Not once was it asked of me where I stood on these.  Even in private conversations with people—farmers, shopkeepers, traders, and agricultural labourers—the National Conference’s demand for ‘autonomy’ or the PDP’s concept of ‘self-rule’ were never mentioned, even in passing.

Civil Secretariat in early August 2019.
Civil Secretariat in early August 2019.

The reason for this, it turned out, was simple: people didn’t see these mainstream parties as having any role in the resolution of the Kashmir issue. These parties were only about governance and, in the words of John Lewis, the civil rights pioneer, about “good trouble”. Nothing more. Nothing less either!  Coexisting with this was the palpable separatist sentiment that one could sense and see.  The families of militants—dead or alive—were res­pected. They were invariably seen as the “village elders” who exercise influence that comes with upward social mobility. Over the years, socially, militancy had become a rite of passage.

The same people who would attend election rallies would also attend the funerals of militants. In their mind there seemed no conflict between the two.  The former was an individual obligation born out of material needs, while the latter was a collective desire engendered by a certain understanding of political history. These two worlds were not reconciled with each other but inevitably coexisted. In between, of course, there were occasions of confrontation.

At the level of local political workers, the BJP didn’t exist,­ neither in their ­ territory nor on their minds. No political field worker or supporter saw the BJP as an opponent, let alone a serious adversary. For PDP workers, it was the National Conference or the Congress that was the adversary and vice versa. Politics at the grassroots, being much localised, is quite different from the view on the treetop. No wonder, at the party level, the BJP was seen and discussed as the single ­biggest opponent!

Article 370 was there in the people’s consciousness a la Robert Musil – not in their conversations. In fact, Kashmir’s relationship with India was not an issue any longer.

And then August 5, 2019, happened. Kashmir, in popular perception all over the country, was reintegrated yet again; it was reconceived, if not reclaimed. For the government of India, the barrier to democracy and development was abolished. Never mind that way back on December 4, 1964, then Union home minister Gulzari Lal Nanda had candidly informed Parliament that “Article 370, whether you keep it or not, has been completely emptied of its contents, nothing has been left in it”. Nanda was not given to hyperbole. He was absolutely right.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating Home Minister Amit Shah after the passage of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill in Lok Sabha on August 6, 2019.

Circa 2020. Everyone without exception – farmers, shopkeepers, traders, agricultural labourers—are feeling humiliated, hoodwinked and helpless. The ghost of 370 is harbouring the spirit of resentment.  This, in turn, has enlarged the constituency of supporters for resistance. For the old-timers, it was more than a mere article of the Constitution, it was an article of faith. They are in an existential and moral crisis—as if they had been living in sin.

Article 370 is reborn, resurgent. This time not as an ideology or an issue, but as an illustration—an example of yet another betrayal, both by the local mainstream parties and by “Hindustan”. Kashmir’s relationship with India is now back again in conversation—hushed at the moment, but very much audible.

It ought to have been realised by now, but hasn’t been, that abrogation of Article 370 has not hit at the separatist political ideology; quite the contrary. For them, it has been an “instrument of control” rather than a “guarantee for autonomy”. It has provided them with a renewed justification. But more than that, it has strengthened the sentiment of separatism among people. How this will find expression in local politics is a big imponderable. A year down the line, it appears that a while slaying a shadow, the silhouette has been sharpened.

The only political space that has shrunk, at least for now, is that for mainstream politics—the political parties whose basis has been politics of ethnicity, not Kashmiri nationalism. In its most extreme form, it has been a politics of asymmetric federalism.

The August 5 action has, in the words of Perry Anderson, destroyed their “seriality”—the social construct that underlies their political existence. The limits of mainstream political leadership in J&K have been brutally exposed. No wonder, in the last one year, no political formation has taken shape, despite quite a few failed attempts.

BJP workers came to Srinagar’s press enclave for a short victory dance over the party victory in 2014 elections

A new paradigm of electoral politics, it is hoped, will be around the restoration of statehood. Hence the reports that people are more “hurt and humiliated” about being downgraded to a Union territory than the abrogation of Article 370.  Maybe. Maybe not.

Until the pandemic took over, for six months, the audacious abrogation of Article 370 was seen all over the country as a 70-year-old commitment fulfilled, correcting a perceived historical blunder and honouring the political rhetoric of reframing a Hindu Rashtra. The pandemic stymied all that in a great rush.

A year down the road, the juggernaut has rolled relentlessly. Having demolished the edifice, the scaffoldings are now being systematically removed. On March 31, 2020, as part of the exercise to align the state laws of the erstwhile state of J&K with its new stature as a Union territory, the government of India amended 109 and repealed 29 state laws.

Importantly, the constitutionally guaranteed domicile rights have been replaced by liberal domicile rules and criteria. This has bred enormous insecurity in the minds of the Kashmiri people, not completely unfounded, of a demographic change being planned.

Haseeb Drabu while campaigning for his assembly seat in Pulawama. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

According to the 2011 Census, there were 28 lakh “migrants” working in the state—almost a quarter of the total population.  To put this number in perspective, it is 10 times the population of Ladakh. Many of them have been in J&K since the later 1990s. In principle, they will qualify for the ­status of a ­domicile of J&K.

Further, a delimitation commission has been notified, leading to ­apprehension that this would change the character of the representation in a Muslim-majority region.  The electoral ­demography will surely und­ergo a change even if only 25 per cent of the ­migrants vote in the legislative assembly elections to which they are now entitled under the domicile rules.

The manner in which Kashmir has been hammered in the last one year has taken a heavy toll on the people. Abrogation of the autonomous position, bifurcation of the state, downgrading to a UT, domicile law changes, delimitation of constituencies, notifying “strategic areas” for use by the army, a six-month political logjam followed by a pandemic lockdown, connectivity embargo and the continuing restrictions have affected them physically, psychologically, financially and politically. The way things are in Kashmir, it is heading to stage where, in words of Albert Camus, “your very existence is an act of rebellion”.

(The write-up appeared first in the Outlook magazine)


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