Roughly three months after Kashmir lost its special status, on 20 November 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah told the Rajya Sabha that there is no curfew in Kashmir and that normalcy has been fully restored. Shah’s party, the BJP, has been echoing his words and the supporting arguments for his claim ever since 5 August 2019: that not a single bullet was fired nor were there protests against the Centre’s decisions. Therefore, they say, Kashmiris have welcomed the loss of their special status and conversion into a Union Territory.
Now, a year later, the district administration of Srinagar imposed a two-day curfew (which it withdrew on the morning of 5 August) based on inputs that separatist and Pakistan-sponsored groups will observe today as Black Day. While the BJP formulated plans to celebrate 5 August with a “One India Campaign” and as “Ek Bharat Ek Atma Diwas” across India, the party’s J&K unit devised a 15-day programme to tell people how to celebrate 5 August annually, “as the brightest date of their lives”. Meanwhile, police vehicles zoom around Srinagar city, imposing restrictions. Once again, there is a wide gap between the myth and reality of Kashmir.
Militancy and violence:
Contrary to claims that abrogation of Article 370 will help wipe out militancy and that peace, progress and prosperity will rule in “New Kashmir”, there has only been a spurt in violence and militancy over the last year. Between January and June this year, Kashmir reported 220 killings and 107 violent incidents. Of these, 143 involved militants compared to 120 in the corresponding period of 2019 and 108 in 2018.
The destruction of civilian properties during militant and security forces stand-offs also increased during this period. The trend of youths picking up the gun has continued unabated. Around 85 to 95 youngsters are said to have joined militancy in the first six months of this year, the J&K Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights body, has estimated. So far this year, 157 militants have been killed of which only 17 were foreigners. Local militants accounted for more than 88% of militant deaths in security operations compared to 79% in 2019. This demonstrates the continued trend of local recruitment. Recently in South Kashmir, the 48-year-old father of a slain militant joined militancy. There were heightened militant activities in Srinagar as well. Four militants were killed in the district in 2019, but this year ten have already been killed. The Indo-Pak border continues to remain hot with ceasefire violations at an all-time high. Ceasefire violations grew by 60 to 70% in the first six months of this year.
In the Rajya Sabha, the Home Minister had blamed Articles 370 and 35A for J&K’s poverty and underdevelopment. He said that they blocked democracy, increased corruption and thwarted development. “Article 370 ensures there is no PPP model, no private investment...healthcare suffers...there is no right to education...tourism could not take place because of Article 370,” he said. The BJP leadership started talking up a Naya or New Kashmir with all-round development and people at its core. But was J&K really an underdeveloped state? Was special status a hindrance to development? How has Kashmir changed over the last year?
Being a consumer state with limited financial resources, the erstwhile state is among India’s less-developed ones. The BJP and its supporters have been pushing the argument that Article 35-A prevented non-locals from buy land or properties and so private entities were unwilling to invest in it. It argued that the former state’s limited resources and low private investment created huge youth unemployment and a wealth drain as people migrated away for healthcare, education and work opportunities.
However these arguments are factually incorrect. Articles 35-A and 370 had led to a structural transformation of J&K’s economy. The massive “land to the tiller” process initiated in 1950 would not have been legally possible under the Constitution of India because the Right to Property was a Fundamental Right under Article 19. The land reforms carried out between 1950 and 1973 transformed rural Kashmiri lives for the better. That is why, at 0.68 in 2017, the Human Development Index or HDI of J&K was far better than of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. The poverty ratio in J&K is 10.35% which is less than half the all-India poverty ratio of 21.92%.
Rukmini S has estimated, based on the latest Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) data of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, that Jammu and Kashmir is ranked 15 among 36 states and Union Territories. It is performing better than many states, including those in the Hindi belt. The State-Wise Just Jobs Index created by Azim Premji University and the Just Jobs Network to study the quantity and quality of employment in different states puts J&K at eleventh position among 21 states. J&K did much better than Gujarat, which ranks 18, which Bihar is ranked at 20, Uttar Pradesh at 21, Madhya Pradesh at 17 and Rajasthan at 15.
The Periodic Labour Force Survey or PLFS 2019 records the unemployment rate in J&K at 5.3 while the national average is 6.1. J&K also did much better than many states on the Infant Mortality Rate, life expectancy, per-capita net state GDP, people served per government doctor and so on.
Further, contrary to the arguments against Article 35-A there always existed in Kashmir the provision to lease land for 90 years, extensible thereafter. That is how the prominent Birla Group could establish the Chenab Textile Mill in 1963, the Hotel Grand Lalit opened in the 1990s, the Indian Hotels group started operating hotel Taj Vivanta and Four Seasons, Radisson and ITC also came to the state. Many private hospitals were also established as partnerships between Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris. Educational institutions in the state include Biscoe-Mallinson, Delhi Public School, GD Goenka and others.
True, there is no massive private investment in J&K but the fundamental reason for this is the political crisis, not Article 35A.
The situation created over the last one year is not encouraging. BJP leaders promised 50,000 jobs to the youth of the erstwhile state, but a recent document on achievements over 2019-20 itself says that 10,000 vacancies are to be to “to be filled” in the first phase and that 25,000 more jobs are in the pipeline. Therefore, not a single recruitment has been made until now.
A report on “Jammu and Kashmir: Impact of Lockdowns on Human Rights”, compiled by the civil rights group Forum of Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, reports that in the first four months of the lockdown, industries in the state lost Rs.17,878.18 crore (roughly US$2.4 billion), while around 5 lakh jobs have been lost in the last year. These are the figures of the Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry or JKCCI, whose latest figures estimate overall losses at around Rs.40,000 crore. In the tourism sector alone 74,500 have reportedly lost their jobs.
These losses do not include the economic distress caused to the unorganised sector, daily-wagers, labourers and other minor sectors. In the five months after August 2019, Kashmir’s economy lost about Rs.178.78 billion (Rs.17,870 crore) and more than 90,000 handicrafts, tourism and information technology jobs. The apple industry, worth Rs.80 billion (Rs.8,000 crore), around 8% of the state GDP, suffered the most. Almost all startups had to wind up because they needed internet and phone connectivity, which were no longer available.
Between December 2018 and January 2020 the administration conducted online auctions of sand and minerals from riverbeds, which robbed lakhs of locals of livelihood and threatened the fragile environment. A majority of these contracts went to non-locals as local contractors could not access the Internet.
A deliberate but counterproductive step was taken by New Delhi when it demolished the space for mainstream politics in J&K. The process of discrediting local parties began long before August 2019. Tasaduq Mufti, the brother of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, had said (when Mufti’s party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party was still in coalition with the BJP), that the base of mainstream politics in Kashmir, particularly in the Valley, was being deliberately eroded. The National Conference and PDP were described as corrupt, dynastic nepotists, pro-separatist and pro-Pakistan and constantly blamed for corruption and underdevelopment by BJP leaders, which undermined the pro-New Delhi constituency. J&K’s special status used to be the core political plank of these parties, whose politics revolved around autonomy, self-rule, dialogue, cross-LoC trade and so on. Now their position is much weaker, as all of these issues are gone. Their vocabulary and their conscious emphasis on separating electoral politics from the larger political issue of Kashmir had kept the mainstream parties going. What plank do they have now?
After all this, the Centre still failed to create a credible political alternative. Initially it promoted the representatives of panchayats and municipalities who had been elected in a futile 2018 local election that the NC and PDP had boycotted and whose seats are mostly lying vacant. Two Kashmiri sarpanch delegations even met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shah and Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. However, this idea was given up in view of their limited capacity and lack of political acumen to handle the fragile political situation of the region.
Then an old New Delhi strategy was rolled out and in March the Apni Party, consisting mostly of ex-legislators of mainstream parties, was created. The new party said it will abide by the Supreme Court’s decision to abrogate Article 370, but fight for restoration of statehood and a strong domicile law. This party did not go down well in Kashmir. It is taunted as “Unki Party” (New Delhi’s party) and “B-Team of BJP”.
While BJP claims that grass-roots democracy has been strengthened there is actually no political process as several leaders remain in detention. Interestingly, while India decimates mainstream political leaders, Pakistan has conferred its highest civilian award to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The absence of an elected government and representatives has bureaucratised the entire governance and administrative structure of Jammu and Kashmir.
Perhaps the worst impact of the last year has been on education. Amit Shah had said in Parliament that 20,114 schools had re-opened, that 50,272 or 99.48% of students had sat for their examinations (99.7% in the case of Class IX and X). Fact is students only started trickling into schools in mid-February, but then a countrywide lockdown was announced in March.
Earlier, no Kashmiri parent wanted their children to leave their homes considering all means of communication had been blocked. In the first week of March, internet services were restored but the speed was restricted to 2G. During the lockdown the administration directed educational institutions to conduct online classes but the ban on high speed internet has made it almost impossible to function. As a teacher I witness student’s and teacher’s difficulties first-hand: in far-off places they find it particularly difficult to connect to online meeting apps used for conducting classes. Teachers can barely upload readings and students spend hours attempting to download them.
Anxiety in all three regions:
There is a widespread perception in Kashmir that the abrogation is a step towards changing the region’s demography. This narrative was strengthened by the new domicile law and rules of the Home Ministry. Considered the weakest domicile arrangement in all of India, the new framework has panicked Jammuites and Ladakhis too. The initial euphoria of Jammu residents has been replaced by fear of losing land and jobs. They feel betrayed, as a majority of new domicile certificates have been provided in the Jammu region. This is no surprise, for convincing people to settle down in conflict-torn Kashmir is not easy, while Jammu will attract people. In Ladakh, where the government is yet to formulate a domicile law, there are fears regarding land and jobs. Ladakh observed a complete shutdown on 24 July to demand a domicile law and to express anger and apprehensions against official policies for employment-generation and recruitment.
Kashmir back on international stage:
It is not just that the United States President Donald Trump offered to “mediate” on Kashmir. A resolution of the the United States Congress in December with around 40 co-sponsors also urged the Indian government to end the restrictions and stop mass detentions. Many important legislators including Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, Elizabeth Warren, raised serious concerns about the situation in Kashmir.
On 8 August 2019, the United Nations General Secretary called for “maximum restraint” in J&K. There were “informal and closed-door consultations” among UNSC members on 16 August. True, no formal statement was issued, but many saw it as an important development as far as internationalisation of the Kashmir issue is concerned. On 6 August 2019, China’s foreign ministry expressed “serious concern” about India’s actions in Kashmir, focusing especially on the “unacceptable” changed status for Ladakh, parts of which (Aksai Chin) Beijing claims as Chinese territory.
The recent actions by China in Ladakh region are being viewed in this context. Many claim that India’s actions of 5 August last year have made China a third party in the Kashmir issue. There was unprecedented international press coverage of the Kashmir situation.
The government of India and the BJP have popularised all over the country that changes effected in the erstwhile state are an improvement over the past. Yet facts on the ground contradict its claims and position. New Delhi’s position on Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh show that things can change, but not always for the better.
Aijaz Ashraf Wani is author of What Happened to Governance in Kashmir? published by Oxford University Press, 2019. The views are personal.