Two months after the government’s August 5 Kashmir gambit, the official claims of near normality are mostly disbelieved. While mass protests have been stymied, questions persist, including overseas, over the denial of fundamental rights to the Kashmir Valley’s seven million residents, as indeed the constitutionality of the government’s actions.
The move reflects Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proclivity for dramatic political or economic moves aligned with his core beliefs or the ideology of the BJP and RSS. The American phrase “shock and awe” captures the manner of major policy changes. But some common features emerge from four key policy shifts —demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax, the National Register of Citizens and now the reshaping of J&K and elimination of its semi-autonomous status.
All these actions initially evoked popular support, except among those seriously affected. Each was marketed as “no-pain-no-gain”. The declared objectives were, however, tweaked conveniently. Demonetisation was to entrap black money, cut off terror financing and end fake currency. It is now generally accepted as having destroyed the informal economy and retarded growth. GST was to create a single market, plug tax leaks, bring ease-of-business and boost the revenues of the Central and state governments. Falling collections, periodic review of rates and inability to stabilise the mechanism even after two years underscores the poor conception and implementation. The NRC left the Assam BJP embarrassed and people confused as the claimed high figure of “intruders” was incorrect and of 1.9 million persons excluded, many are Hindus. Home minister Amit Shah now threatens to extend it to West Bengal and the rest of India, raising a spectre worse than demonetisation. But all these were electorally useful for the BJP, but with questionable medium to long-term effects.
Operation Kashmir rests on sanguine assumptions aligned with the BJP’s ideology and popular support. The looming Maharashtra and Haryana elections also conditioned the decision’s timing, as confirmed by opening salvos by home minister Amit Shah. But this move and the NRC also have international implications. Visiting Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina was reassured that the stateless persons of Bangladeshi origin were not her concern. But is putting them in internment camps a viable solution? In case of Kashmir, a diplomatic blitzkrieg at bilateral and multilateral levels was launched to contain the fallout, as Pakistan, supported by China, reacted aggressively. India argued abroad that Article 370 was a temporary clause and the constitutional amendment a domestic issue. Domestically, it was presented as necessary to stymie the danger of terrorism after the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan, like in the 1990s.It was also needed arguably for Kashmir’s development. However, by alienating Kashmiris, terrorism becomes more likely as no counter-insurgency operation works without winning people’s hearts and minds. As regards development, if reducing a state to Union territory status begets development gains, at least two Hindi belt states are fitter cases for it.
The Supreme Court, moving with inexplicable caution, is examining its constitutionality. The human rights angle also awaits the court’s attention. The balance between national security and fundamental rights, despite the special conditions of Kashmir, remains tenuous. The Economist editorially commented: “The court’s refusal to curb repression in Kashmir should alarm all Indians”. The New York Times, despite carrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Oped on Mahatma Gandhi on October 2, as well as several other US publications, have denounced the Kashmir situation.
Multilaterally, India stymied Pakistan both in New York, where the UN Security Council refused to discuss the issue, and in Geneva, where Pakistan could not gather enough votes to force a debate in the UN Human Rights Council. On the negative side, leaders of China, Turkey and Malaysia raised concern over Kashmir in their UNGA speeches. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei decried it earlier. Worse, two of three Democratic top-runners in US presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have voiced concern. Senator Chris Van Hollen, whose diplomat father had served in India and Pakistan, denied permission by India to visit Kashmir, was happily taken by Pakistan to PoK. The House Foreign Affairs Committee announced a Asia-Pacific and Non-Proliferation Subcommittee’s hearing on human rights in J&K on October 22. Concern is also rising among other US senators. Inadvertently, Mr Modi invited this by excessive bonhomie with President Donald Trump at his Houston function.
The Modi government is trying to browbeat the Valley’s population and political leaders into submission. The US President, who is distracted by the impeachment proceedings and the 2020 election, may ignore the Kashmir imbroglio if India satisfies his trade agenda, but the US Congress and the Democratic presidential aspirants are another matter. One of the latter may well become the next US President. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have stayed neutral, other than UAE ambassador endorsing the Indian constitutional changes, but their tolerance of strong-arming of Muslims may have limits. China will persist in supporting Pakistan unless, improbably, India grants trade concessions and acquiesces in Chinese moves in India’s periphery. This testing of mutual redlines precedes the Naredra Modi-Xi Jinping informal summit on October 11-12.
The Modi government has thus succeeded tactically in unhinging Pakistan’s terror-cum-dialogue policy. Pakistan says no dialogue unless India undoes constitutional changes; India insists it will only discuss terror. But this state of permanent antagonism and gridlock is not sustainable. Pakistan uses the nuclear flashpoint theory to invite global intervention. Pakistan hopes that as international pressure forces India to relax the security clampdown in J&K, local protests will mushroom. The last time Kashmiris, inspired by the Palestinian intifada, took up stone-throwing. This time Hong Kong and even Iraq may inspire them.
Like demonetisation, GST and NRC, the Kashmir gambit has achieved some tactical success. But strategic gains depend on various factors. First, the restoration of normality and containment of protests, if any, without brutal force. Reviving J&K’s statehood, perhaps already envisaged, but without causing any further hurt by fresh delimitation to reduce the Valley’s electoral power. But risk factors linger -- like the outbreak of Pakistan-backed indigenous militancy; or major a terror attack in J&K or elsewhere in India, provoking public sentiments and demands for Balakot-2. A ruling in the Ayodhya case favouring Ram Mandir and majoritarian triumphalism can embitter Muslims generally, and particularly in the Valley. Finally, India-Pakistan relations are now broken, and need fresh thinking. The fear is as the Indian economy falters, the government may opt for distraction by majoritarian and jingoistic politics. These, sadly, are poor substitutes for good governance, development and peace in South Asia....