A year after 370, ground realities in Kashmir belie Modi govt hopes

Despite having a free hand for nearly a year to politically turn around Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government continues to lose the support of local populations even as the India-China military stand-off continues in Ladakh. If Farooq Abdullah is to be believed, Kashmiris are so angry with Delhi that Chinese rule is more acceptable to them. In  an interview to Karan Thapar,  Abdullah claimed that Kashmiris do not feel Indian, do not want to be Indian and “would rather have the Chinese coming in.” His statement should have shaken the Indian political class. Instead, it sank like a stone.

If residents of the Kashmir Valley were already opposed to the majoritarian agenda of the BJP, now even the people of Ladakh have become restive. They threatened to boycott local hill council elections due on October 16. In a desperate rear-guard action, a convalescing Union Home Minister Amit Shah, persuaded them to withdraw the boycott call promising negotiations on the protection of land rights, jobs and Ladakh’s demographic composition.

Surely the people of Kashmir know that Chinese policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang are far worse than those of India’s ruling party in the Valley. Their professed preference for China is probably no more than a perverse statement to rub in India’s political discomfiture at the hands of  a strong neighbour. However, the utter hopelessness that triggered such perversity must be recognised. After the withdrawal of J&K’s special status, in August 2019 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah had painted a glorious picture of the development to be expected in the bifurcated Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. Thirteen months later the situation is bleaker than earlier.

Despite the extensive presence of the armed forces in the Valley the lives of ordinary Kashmiris are more insecure. The State is unable to protect even those elected to panchayats and local bodies, with whom it hoped to prime the political process. Panchayat members are targeted by militants as ‘collaborators’. Up to now, 21 panchayat members have been assassinated with each killing followed by a spate of resignations. The state administration has been forced to offer the rest safe residences near Army and paramilitary camps.

On September 23, the chairman of a Block Development Council in Budgam was shot, becoming the seventh political functionary to be killed by militants this year. His death prompted the President of the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference to declare, “It is quite unfortunate that film actress Kangana Ranaut was granted Y-plus category central (security) cover within a day despite the fact that she has done little for strengthening democracy. On the other hand, elected panchayat members who have been sacrificing their lives for the nation are being deprived of security.” 

Even members of civil society could be in danger if they are seen to be talking the language of reconciliation. Young and articulate lawyer Babar Qadri, was gunned down on September 24. A regular on TV debates, he had dared to challenge the Jamat-e-Islami-leaning leadership of the Kashmir Bar Association. He was branded an agent of the state on social media and shot at point-blank range by two young men who brazenly walked into his house. 

According to local lore, only a shortage of weapons was holding back more youth from joining militancy. This may be changing as arms are being air-dropped from across the Pakistan border by drones. On September 22, the J&K police seized a cache of arms and ammunition including two AK assault rifles, a pistol and 90 rounds of ammunition from a village in Akhnoor in the Jammu region. The police claim they were intended for militants in the Valley. Media reports suggest that Chinese weapons, currently in issue to Pakistan’s border forces, are also being dropped across using Chinese hexacopter drones. Since January this year, Indian security forces have made 15 seizures of Chinese-made arms from individuals and locations near the Line of Control.

Such drone-sorties are also occurring in the adjoining state of Punjab. Media reports, quoting intelligence agency sources, claim that between September 9 and 16, at least eight drone sorties carrying a total of 80 kilogramme of arms and ammunition were sent across the border. Only one of these was detected by the police when the drone crashed two kilometres from the international border at Rajoke village of Tarn Taran district. Arrests of arms smugglers resulted in the recovery of five AK-47 rifles, four pistols, 9 grenades, Rs. 10 lakh in fake currency, 1000 rounds of ammunition and two electronic receivers. 

Arms drops like these could refuel militancy in Kashmir and potentially devour another generation of youngsters. Despite the frequent discovery of cross-border tunnels by the security forces, most of the militants are still local – up to March 2020, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 87.5% of the militants killed in the Valley were locals. Thus the Indian government’s tall claims that revoking the special status of J&K would end terrorism may amount to nothing.

The BJP expected better political outcomes for its trifurcation policy in Ladakh where Buddhists had welcomed the scrapping of Article 370 and the splitting of the state into three UTs. For the first time,  the common fear the Centre will bring a domicile law as it has done in J&K allowing “outsiders” to settle in Ladakh has united the Buddhists and the Kargil Muslims. As the threatened boycott of Autonomous Regional Hill Council elections on Oct 16 showed political trouble can flare up unless these fears are allayed and erstwhile protections are restored.  And if special status is given to Ladakh, how can it be denied to J&K? 

The Modi government remains caught up in fire-fighting operations and has been unable to proceed with a development plan for the region. Even the Hindu majority UT of Jammu is not happy over the government’s Kashmir policy. Not everyone may look forward to the Chinese coming in, but there is no systematic attempt by the Central government to recognise or address the root causes of local anger.

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