Inside one year of Kashmir: State undone into disempowered Union Territory

A year after the erstwhile state was downtrodden to a federally-governed territory, J-K sulks in a sense of grave disenfranchisement, and seemingly New Delhi has come a long way from any road that leads to reconciliation with people.

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On 31 October 2019, in Gujarat, Union Home Minister, Amit Shah was flagging off “Run for Unity” when he said that by repealing Jammu and Kashmir’s (J-K) decades-old limited autonomy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shut the “gateway for the entry of terrorism”. Back in Srinagar, G. C. Murmu took oath as the first Lieutenant-Governor while life remained off track.

Less than three months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also heads the Hindu-nationalist party, was chest-beating the revocation of articles 370 and 35A — when Kashmir was simmering under the clampdown. He, too, had said: “[After abrogation] we would collectively be able to keep [J-K] free from terrorism and secessionism.”

A year later, three of their associates — including a district general secretary of the youth wing — were shot dead in south Kashmir’s Qazigund village by militants, said the police. At least nine from the BJP were killed in 2020 only. 

The Hurriyat Conference, an organisation led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, called for a shutdown — “against demographic assault on the people of J-K” — to mark the 31st October. And one of the former chief ministers, Mehbooba Mufti, who was released after 14-month preemptive detention, placed the J-K flag in front of her and said: “When this flag comes back, we’ll raise that flag [Indian tricolor] too. … This flag forged our relationship with that flag.”

The unprecedented economic losses to the continued uncertainty suggest that Kashmir hasn’t changed much. But the all-powerful New Delhi has imposed new laws at an unprecedented pace too: from the status of a domicile, ownership of the land, to the powers of an elected Chief Minister, Jammu and Kashmir is nothing like before. 

A year after the official down gradation, J-K sulks in a sense of grave disenfranchisement, and seemingly New Delhi has come a long way from any road that leads to reconciliation with people.

“Demoralised, disillusioned, disenfranchised”: politics

In the erstwhile state of J-K, the Chief Minister held the most significant office. However, a notification by the Ministry of Home Affairs changed a lot about that.

The Transaction of Business of the Government of Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Rules, 2019, snatches the control from a CM on any matter related to the Indian Administrative Service, Police, Indian Forest Service, and Anti- Corruption Bureau.

Two former CMs have denied contesting for the office in the UT. Omar Abdullah, also vice-president of the National Conference (NC), has said he is “very clear” about not fighting any Assembly election “while [J-K] remains a [UT]”. His counterpart, Ms. Mufti, the president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), said she “has nothing to do with the elections”.

Both the leaders, along with all other prominent electoral political faces, were detained by New Delhi after abrogating the limited autonomy. Naeem Akhtar, who was Minister of Public Works in Ms. Mufti’s government, still feels like “a prisoner of war …surviving a day at a time”. For him, and many others, the past year “has been the existence of humiliation”. 

“Right now, these wars are on-going. Kashmir is the target, the name Kashmir, our identity, is the target. And a problem,” he told The Kashmir Walla in a telephone interview. While the spokesperson of the People’s Conference, Adnan Ashraf, believes that the abrogation and the clampdown “have completely eroded the mainstream”. 

“Earlier, this mainstream who would go to people, advocating for a peaceful resolution under the constitution — now, New Delhi has eroded that space,” he said. “Anyways, we were operating in a very limited space, but whatever we had is completely gone.” 

He added that the party’s workers on the ground are “demoralised and are completely disillusioned and disenfranchised from the entire system”. 

Even as a year passed, many remained silent, dodged talking about it, or spoke in whispers. However, Ms. Mufti’s release changed that — and breathed life into the unionists’ amalgam, which aimed to fight for the restoration of the pre-August 2019 status of J-K, People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. 

With National Conference President Farooq Abdullah chosen as a president for the Alliance, the unionists have stated that there would be “nothing about us, without us”.

However, the political space is still suffocating in Kashmir. 

This week, New Delhi imposed new land laws in Kashmir; from a cursory view, it allows any Indian citizen to buy land in J-K, except agricultural land. Instead, the government has eased laws that look at land transfer and restrictions on changing land use — and a hole that allows the sale to a non-agriculturist. The order that has repealed and amended several laws rolls back over seventy years of reforms that empowered the region’s Muslim majority. (Read detailed explanation by Muzamil Jaleel here.) 

New Delhi also granted much-promised domicile law. However, it received huge hue cry from many sects of society. The new law defines domiciles as 15 years of residence, seven years of education, ten years for central government service, including the hundreds of thousands of forces’ personnel who were stationed here for strategic military purposes, and their children; thousands of migrant families registered by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner. And the spouse of a domicile.

“On 5 August [2019], not many people in Kashmir took the project to change the demography seriously,” said Mr. Ashraf. “One year down the line, those fears have become a reality. It looks real.”

The new laws, he said, are a precursor to demographic change. “It looks like the government has started on that long path to change the demography,” he told The Kashmir Walla.

Now, the government has also introduced an elected District Development Council — further layering the governance model. The unionists have claimed that it is to disempower people without their elected legislators.

But space for politics is disallowed. A protest rally against the new land laws by the PDP was foiled — it’s office sealed and leaders detained, again. Mr. Abudullah was barred from leaving his residence to offer prayers on Eid-e-Milad. 

Mr. Akhtar, a senior PDP leader, is of a belief that the hardline policies will not solve the existing trust deficit between the Valley and New Delhi. “If conflicts were sorted out in this way, there would have been no conflict left so far,” he said. “Many powers tried to crush popular sentiments under the jackboot, by its methods, but they haven’t worked anywhere else.”

He added: “If no political space is allowed … then everything is directed by New Delhi — good or bad. There is no buffer now. Whatever happens, it comes to their office.”

“A colonial imposition”: Bureaucracy

To disempower Kashmiris on every level, New Delhi has also made sure that “there is hardly any Kashmiri in the policy decision making,” said Noor Baba, a political analyst and former head of the Political Science department at the University of Kashmir.

“There is no democratic dispensation or no elected representatives,” he said of the bureaucracy and the governor’s administration. “Whatever little empowerment there was is no longer around. It has led to complete alienation among people and their voices have been silenced.”

Stats back Mr. Baba’s argument. In the governor’s secretariat, out of thirteen officers, none is Kashmiri — or even a Muslim. The Valley that houses about 68 per cent of the population of erstwhile J-K state is overwhelmingly Muslim. 

Manoj Sinha, the Lieutenant Governor, is a seasoned politician and trusted aide of the BJP, who has held ministerial office in Uttar Pradesh. The trend is similar among the officers appointed to the top bureaucrats: Director-General of Police (DGP) Dilbagh Singh, Chief Justice Gita Mittal, Chief Secretary B.V.R. Subrahmanyam. Similarly, none of the divisional commissioners or the police chiefs of J-K is from Kashmir.

“The people are completely isolated, disempowered — they are keeping Kashmiris out of all power,” Mr. Baba added. “It feels a lack of trust, and [power to] impose what you want.”

However, even before the abrogation, the bureaucrats had worked under a one-way communique from New Delhi — without much say in the important policy decisions. In January 2019, its star boy, Shah Faesal, resigned to “protest against the unabated killings in Kashmir”. He also cited in his resignation: “the marginalization and invisibilization of around 200 million Indian Muslims at the hands of Hindutva forces reducing them to second-class citizens”.

Although he was detained for a year after August 2019. After the release, he quit the political party he founded and chose to remain silent.

“The bureaucrats work under federalism. There was no vibrant democratic system, so the bureaucrats had to follow the orders whatever it was,” said Mr. Baba. “But earlier, there was at least symbolic representation — that is not here now.”

A political scientist based in Srinagar, who asked for anonymity fearing reprisal from the government, said the reality is “we are now on the receiving end”.

Clearly, a colonial kind of imposition by them,” he said. “You don’t trust people, you impose administration of your choice without popular participation.”

“Worst crisis ever”: crackdown on institutions

Unlike the popular belief in August 2019, Kashmir had not lost everything it had. There has been an on-going crackdown on various institutions in the region for the last year. And the media has perhaps taken the saddest shape. More and more journalists are ending up becoming stories. 

Nearly twenty journalists were summoned, questioned, or booked by the police in the past year. Two among them, Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were booked under the country’s draconian anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for their social media posts that were perceived as anti-national by the federal authorities. 

Numerous journalists were called in for questioning, and a few were allegedly beaten up and mentally harassed too. The Kashmir Walla’s editor, Fahad Shah, was summoned and interrogated twice for the newspaper’s coverage critical of the government forces and was once illegally detained in south Kashmir for hours. 

Recently, the government sealed offices of two media publications — an English daily Kashmir Times and a local wire agency, Kashmir News Service. The editor of the newspaper, Anuradha Bhasin, called it a “vendetta for speaking out!”

Ms. Bhasin’s newspaper, which she inherited from her father Ved Bhasin, had been operating from the office for three decades. Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Ms. Bhasin said: “The media is operating under its worst-ever crisis with new forms of censorship and a climate of fear.”

The fear is real. Many senior journalists The Kashmir Walla tried speaking with for the story were reluctant. One of the senior members of the Kashmir Editors Guild said, “I cannot talk on the record. You can see how the situation is, so we avoid talking about it.” 

Two journalists working with national publications, Basharat Masood and Hakeem Irfan, were questioned and allegedly asked to reveal their sources. They had reported on the necessity to sign a bond — that allowed unprecedented surveillance to the government agencies — for the restoration of broadband internet after the gradual uplifting of the communication blackout.

And it was not limited to the press fraternity — many other institutions critical of New Delhi were cracked down upon. In the week leading to 31 October 2020, two prominent human rights watchdogs and advocacy groups — J-K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) — were raided by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The raids were also conducted at the residence of Agence France-Presse’s Kashmir correspondent Parvaiz Bukhari and the office of Greater Kashmir daily. 

“Several incriminating documents and electronic devices have been seized. Further investigation in the case is continued,” the NIA said of the raid that was carried out at ten locations, including “residence and office of Khurram Parvez (co-ordinator of the JKCCS), his associates Parvez Ahmad Bukhari, Parvez Ahmad Matta and Bengaluru-based associate Swati Sheshadri; Ms. Parveena Ahanger, Chairperson of [APDP] and offices of NGO Athrout and Greater Kashmir Trust”.

Both APDP and JKCCS had been collecting, archiving, and publishing important reports on human rights violations in J-K. Recently, the JKCCS had detailed a report on the rights abuses and impact of communication blackout after the August 2019 move.

This invoked sharp reactions from the unionists and other civil society members; Ms. Bhasin said that the raids were “attempts to impose silence even on our whispers”. While Ms. Mufti saw it as “another example of the Government of India’s vicious crackdown on freedom of expression and dissent”. She said, “Sadly, the NIA has become BJP’s pet agency to intimidate and browbeat those who refuse to fall in line.”

Many other institutions working to make the administration more transparent have faced several roadblocks too, including Right to Information (RTI) activists. “Since the abrogation government offices — except the Lieutenant Governor’s office — have hardly cared to respond to information seekers. Most offices today are reluctant to provide information under RTI,” wrote the chairperson of J-K RTI movement, Raja Muzaffar Bhat.

By cracking down outspoken institutions, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said New Delhi is “systematically weakening the country’s long-respected democratic institutions.”

She further added that it is “… [the] Government of India’s vicious crackdown on freedom of expression and dissent,” and called on them to stop “using authoritarian tactics against outspoken critics and journalists”.

As Kashmir lives through the laws that shape their future, and an aggressive phase of New Delhi, the role of free media and the human rights defenders has never been more starkly realised.

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