Will Modi government's gamble on Kashmir pay off?

To understand what is at stake, some background is necessary.



By Rahul Singh

Published: Wed 7 Aug 2019, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 8 Aug 2019, 12:32 AM

A former US president called it, "The most dangerous place on earth". It has led to two all-out wars between two major nuclear-armed nations. It has been called "a heaven on earth," but become a killing field, with thousands of lives having been lost in an insurgency in the last three decades. I am, of course, referring to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, popularly known as Kashmir. Sandwiched between India and Pakistan in the north, this contentious place has defied a solution acceptable to both countries, for over 70 years. On Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attempted to cut the Gordian Knot with its most audacious and riskiest stroke in the little over five years that it has been in power. The boldness was bolstered by the crushing majority the BJP got in the recent general election. Clearly, Modi, aided by his Home Minister, Amit Shah, felt this was the right time to strike.
To understand what is at stake, some background is necessary.
When India and Pakistan got their independence in 1947, there were over 500 independent princely kingdoms over which the British rulers had little control. Kashmir was among them. These kingdoms were given three choices by the British in 1947: Independence, merger with India, or merger with Pakistan. Eventually, all but a few merged with India or Pakistan. Kashmir was one of the exceptions, as it was in the unusual position of having a Hindu king, Hari Singh, ruling over a Muslim-majority kingdom. Pakistan felt, with much justification, that Kashmir should have been merged with it, as it was also a contiguous territory. However, in a fit of bravado, Hari Singh declared that he wanted his kingdom to be independent. Pakistan would have none of that. It sent what was called "tribals" to take over what it felt was rightly theirs. The tribals were heavily armed and backed up by regular Pakistani forces. They got as far as the outskirts of the capital, Srinagar, before they were beaten back by hastily air-lifted Indian troops. Meanwhile, an alarmed Hari Singh had changed his mind and quickly acceded to India, by signing an "Instrument of Accession".
The United Nations called for a ceasefire and India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the best democratic tradition, pledged that a plebiscite would follow to ascertain the wishes of the Kashmiris. But there was a rider: Pakistan must first withdraw its troops from Kashmir. That was never done and the plebiscite did not take place. The status of Kashmir has remained frozen ever since, with a Line of Control dividing that part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan and that by India. 
Nehru's pledge has haunted India and become a handle for his opponents to criticise him. If the Indian army had been allowed to continue its advance, they say, it could easily have taken over that part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan. Be that as it may, there has been no peace in Kashmir and the issue has remained a running sore. Sheikh Abdullah, the charismatic and popular leader of the Kashmiris, was close to Nehru (though they fell out later) agreed to accede to India, and in 1949 Article 370 was enacted in the Indian Constitution, whereby Kashmir would have complete control over its affairs, except for defence, foreign policy, and communications. It is worth noting that in the US, the federal system is very similar, with the various states having a large degree of autonomy. However, in Kashmir there was an additional clause - only permanent residents could own property in the state, not outsiders. The intention was the preservation of Kashmir's unique culture and demographics.
The trouble is that despite its autonomy, Kashmir has been badly governed, with rigged elections, and corrupt administrations. In 1965, Pakistan engineered a conflict with India, expecting the Kashmiris to rise up in Islamabad's support and become a part of Pakistan. The uprising never took place, indicating that the Kashmiris wanted to remain a part of India. In 1987, another rigged election brought Farooq Abdullah, son of Sheikh Abdullah, to power. By then, the Kashmiri youth, many of them jobless and disillusioned from malgovernance, rose up in revolt. The start of Kashmir militancy coincided with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. All of a sudden, the extremists there, funded by Pakistan and the US, were without a foe. So, Islamabad sent them to Kashmir to link up with what had become Kashmir militants. Training camps for terrorists were also set up in Pakistan, across the border. New Delhi sent in more and more troops to quell the militancy and prevent terrorists from crossing the border. Today, an estimated 700,000 Indian security forces and police are in Kashmir, making it the most militarised zone in the world.
What are the implications of the virtual removal of Article 370 from the Indian constitution? Firstly, the earlier autonomy of Kashmir stands abolished, and the state comes directly under the control of the Indian central government. Second, and more importantly, those from outside the state can buy property in Kashmir. Jammu (which is largely Hindu) and the Kashmir Valley (mostly Muslim) will become what is called a Union Territory, as will Ladakh (mainly Buddhist). But Jammu and Kashmir will have an elected legislative assembly, Ladakh not. Many Kashmiris are bound to have their doubts about the real intentions of the Indian government. Is this a ploy to change the demographics of Kashmir and flood the state with non-Kashmiris? But there is little doubt that Modi's gamble has the support of most of India. Article 19 of the Indian constitution gives every Indian the right to travel and settle down in any part of the country. So, why not in Kashmir as well? The big question is, will the gamble pay off?
Rahul Singh is a former Editor of Khaleej Times


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