Govt gets wiggle room in Kashmir, but it may not be enough for calm

Three developments indicate that the gridlock in Jammu and Kashmir may be loosening. These include the visit of foreign diplomats to J&K, the ruling of the Supreme Court criticising both the indefinite internet restrictions and the misuse of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to prevent expression of dissent. A third indicator is the meeting between eight former legislators and Lieutenant Governor G C Murmu demanding restoration of statehood to J&K.

Together they suggest that the Modi government may be looking for ways to create some semblance of a return to ‘normalcy’ in J&K.

The most significant aspect of the visit by foreign envoys is not the boycott by the European Union and Australia envoys but the participation of the American ambassador. So far the US has virtually supported the Modi government’s actions by its silence barring a few comments on human rights violations. Does the US ambassador’s participation in the government sponsored tour indicate a wish to legitimise face-saving measures by the Modi government in J&K? One needs to go back a few months to answer this question.

Of the Islamic nations, only Turkey and Malaysia took exception to Indian action in J&K and criticised New Delhi in international forums. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan met on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly meeting in September last year. Underlining the silence of Islamic countries on Kashmir, they decided to explore the formation of a new alternative to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The Kuala Lumpur Summit eventually took place on December 19 and was attended by more than 400 leaders from 56 countries. However, it was boycotted by those who owe allegiance to Saudi Arabia which saw the summit as a challenge to its leadership of the Islamic world. Prime Minister Imran Khan himself withdrew from the Summit after he visited Saudi Arabia four days before the Summit to assure Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that Pakistan would never do anything to undermine Saudi interests.

In return, Imran Khan extracted a promise from Saudi Arabia of an OIC meeting on the Kashmir situation. The OIC issued a statement on December 22 condemning Indian action in J&K. The OIC meeting on Kashmir initially proposed to be held in Saudi Arabia was shifted to Pakistan. However, now the level of participation has been downgraded from foreign ministers of OIC countries to parliamentarians. Pakistan was seen to be left holding the short end of the stick on Kashmir. It is likely that the US came under pressure from that country, as well as from Saudi Arabia which is its proxy in the Islamic world, to lean on India on Kashmir.

Unlike the earlier tour of some right-wing MPs from Europe hastily cobbled together by fly-by-night operators hired by Indian security agencies, this time around the diplomatic tour appears to be well planned. Ground work was laid by releasing political detainees in batches, lifting the ban on post-paid mobile phones in the first phase, starting essential notification SMS services on mobiles in the second phase and putting together a rag-tag group of former legislators making a representation on behalf of Kashmir’s citizens.

Even as foreign ambassadors were being taken around J&K, the Supreme Court delivered its judgement on internet access being an integral part of the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of occupation, trade, etc. For good measure, the apex court also held that repetitive use of law under Section 144 of the CrPC to limit expression of dissent was abuse of state power.

Can one presume that the timing of the Supreme Court order and the release of 26 political detainees on the day of the foreign ambassadors’ visit to Kashmir entirely coincidental? The timing suggests carefully orchestration. Further relaxations by the government will now be projected not as political weakness, but compliance with the Supreme Court’s directives.

The meeting of the delegation of eight former legislators meeting the Lt. Governor of J&K creates an illusion of restarting the political process. Their 15-point charter contains only two noteworthy demands: the restoration of statehood to J&K and assurances about jobs and land rights for locals. Both point to ways that the Modi government has already signalled it intends to move in J&K. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had assured Parliament that "full state status will be restored to (the Union Territory of) Jammu and Kashmir at an appropriate time, when normalcy returns.” The demand by the eight Kashmir politicos for restoration of statehood is clearly in alignment with this.

The Modi government had also begun to consider measures to protect jobs and land for state residents after it found that even its supporters in Jammu were not happy with the rescinding of equivalent protections when Article 35A was revoked. The Centre is already considering a mandatory requirement of 15-years residency to apply for government jobs, buy land and for admission to professional institutes and colleges in J&K. The demand for domicile rights by the eight political stooges therefore seems right on cue.

While the Modi government may formally get the exit route it seeks in J&K, it may still not permit normal politics. Even those who have chosen to collaborate with the Modi regime may get little more than a seat on an advisory council to the Lt. Governor. Much depends on how the people of J&K see these developments. If they see them as a direct result of their own continuing civil disobedience and the pressure of international opinion, they may be emboldened to fight for the revocation of the August 5 decisions. Should that fail, one more generation of Kashmiris might decide to fight for Independence or look towards Pakistan as their saviour.

The Americans would have delivered both on Pakistan’s concerns on Kashmir by encouraging the easing of restrictions and to the Modi regime by helping it orchestrate an exit from an increasingly awkward situation. Before one knows, the Indian High Commissioner may be back in Islamabad and Pakistan may also send its high commissioner-designate to Delhi. 

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