In Jammu and Kashmir, a year of loss and suffering
Citizens have been denied their democratic freedoms. Development has got stunted. And the future is uncertain
On August 5 and 6 last year, the Narendra Modi administration took two steps that fundamentally altered the lives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). First, it removed the special status that the state enjoyed in the Indian Union under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Then, Parliament enacted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, which demoted and divided the state into two Union territories.
To ensure that there was no protest against these steps, the Modi administration arrested all the state’s political leaders the day before, except those belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), imposed Section 144, and snapped all communications in and with the state.
The BJP claimed these measures would improve security, and give the people of J&K the same rights as prevailed in the rest of India. One year has passed. How do we assess those claims? Take security first. There has been a sharp rise in insecurity on the borders, but some improvement internally. We are still struggling to reverse the Chinese incursions into Ladakh, and cross-border firing by Pakistan has risen sharply. Internally, however, there has been a drop of around 30% in casualties comparing August 2019-July 2020 with the same period in the preceding year. But we also find a rising trend in casualties from April 2020, which is worrying. The reduction in casualties was achieved at considerable human cost. According to figures given by the J&K administration, this came at the cost of the detention of 6,600 people — including children — under the draconian Public Safety Act, the continuous imposition of Section 144 to date, the restriction of mobile telephony and Internet to 2G services, and a new media policy that allows security agencies to censor media outlets.
Most of the detainees have been gradually released, but the majority of political leaders spent anywhere between eight-to-11 months in detention. Many of them were released only after agreeing that they would not criticise the August actions. Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is still under detention and there is controversy over whether Congress leader Saifuddin Soz is under house arrest or not.
Since the August lockdown was only gradually being relaxed when the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, J&K has suffered one year of closures. According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, businesses across all sectors of the economy have lost close to ~40,000 crore in the Valley alone. Even discounting these figures, the economic cost to the former state as a whole must be even larger.
Losses in education and health are similarly grave. Schools had just reopened after the August lockdown and winter vacations, when the pandemic struck. Online classes barely worked on 2G networks. In a recent report issued by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, of which I am a member, teachers, students and researchers spoke in the same voice about the damage done to human development, of which education is a critical pillar. University students often missed college admissions, teachers and researchers could not participate in conferences or send papers for publication.
Health care professionals faced the same problems. Doctors could not seek specialist advice on serious illnesses or participate in exchanges of the latest information on Covid-19. In the first few months after August, pharmacies could not get deliveries of medicine and clinics were closed.
Because of the ban on 4G networks and the continuous imposition of Section 144, most of these problems persist, along with a host of others. The media has been deeply affected, both editorially and financially. Anyone who reads the local papers can see the difference before and after August 2019. There is some reporting but no comment on either the August actions or their implementation over the past year.
Though challenges to the removal of special status and reorganisation of the state are pending in the Supreme Court, the Modi administration has proceeded to implement both. New domicile rules have replaced the permanent resident certificates, raising fears of further job and industry losses as well as long-term fears of losses of land and other privileges. The latter impact Jammu more than the Valley; reportedly 2.9 lakh applications for domicile certificates have been made in Jammu as against 73,000 in the Valley.
The past year has been one of a terrible loss for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Not only has development been rolled back and incomes fallen, political rights to representation, civic rights to information and communication, and human rights to freedom of expression, protection against arrest and attendant rights, to bail or a speedy trial, have all been denied.
The only gain has been in counter-insurgency, and that too small in absolute numbers. We should, of course, be glad that even a couple of hundred lives have been saved — but we should equally ask whether banning 4G has really contributed to it, and how a drastic curtailment of rights can possibly be justified in the name of counter-insurgency.
Worst still, we are yet to hear the voices of the people. One year has passed, but we do not know what they feel about losing their special status under Article 370 and its implementation, or what they feel about being divided and turned into two Union Territories. We don’t even know whether these government actions are constitutionally valid.
Many ask, what can be done now to win Kashmiri hearts and minds. After what they have undergone, I am doubtful whether forgiveness will come so easy. But the first step would be to restore special status as well as statehood, hold elections and open a dialogue based on the promises made within the Instrument of Accession. The fact that the Modi administration is unlikely to take these steps does not make them any the less necessary.