The Inheritance of Loss Progression

A journal from Kashmir, a year after losing autonomy

An Indian paramilitary soldier orders a Kashmiri to open his jacket before frisking him during curfew in Srinagar on 8 August 2019, three days after the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status and enforced a brutal communications blockade. The restrictions, which were an escalation of a decades-long status quo, have largely continued over the past year. Dar Yasin/ AP Photo
Elections 2024
05 August, 2020

THE CURRENT GOVERNMENT IN JAMMU AND KASHMIR opened the erstwhile state to tourism on 14 July this year, allowing people to visit its lush parks, gardens and its renowned Mughal gardens. Six days later, it also gave an indication that it would open up the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath, although it eventually decided against it. Countrywide, cases had risen to over 15 lakh by then, where Jammu and Kashmir had recorded about seventeen thousand cases and over three hundred deaths. The government’s decision to open tourism and consider opening the Amarnath Yatra, if arguably premature, seemed still in line with the phased easing of the nationwide lockdown that is ongoing across India. Nothing unusual there—but only if we overlook a small, upcoming detail in this chronology.

On 3 August, the government issued an order imposing a curfew in the Kashmir valley, until the next day. The curfew marked a year since the Indian government read down the Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution; introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act to reconstitute it; and imposed a brutal, militarised lockdown and communications blockade. In one fell swoop, India stripped its only Muslim-majority state of its autonomy as part of an Indian-integration project. In defiance of constitutional legitimacy and by stealth, it broke down the article that bound Jammu and Kashmir to India, and India to its obligations to the Kashmiri peoples. The gerrymandering of its boundaries, which divided and downgraded it from a state into two union territories, put Jammu and Kashmir under the absolute control of New Delhi.

When this new chapter in the political and geographical mapping of Jammu and Kashmir began, Kashmiris were trapped inside their homes like mice. Spools of razor wires and barricades had appeared, and soldiers stationed outside buildings multiplied, turning homes into prison cells. Pin-drop silence, imposed by stonewalling all communication channels including internet, mobile phones and even landline phones, resonated eerily. In the dead of night, thousands of people were taken into police custody or put under house arrest, including three former chief ministers. If the strongest votaries of pro-India sentiment in Kashmir could meet such fate, what hope did the others have? Millions of people, already accustomed to the mighty Indian state’s engagement with them through bullets, shot-gun pellets, tear gas and pepper sprays, were also made invisible and rendered voiceless for months.  

The method in this madness defines the way India sees and governs Kashmir—the territory it owns, the inhabitants it discards. The communications blockade and the heavy militarisation, which were only an escalation of frequent internet shutdowns and decades-long presence of Indian security forces, has continued over the past year. In March, when the rest of India went into a complete lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, Kashmir transitioned seamlessly from one lockdown to another.

Here, a brief history bears telling: in 1846, the areas in present-day Kashmir came together under the Hindu monarch of Jammu, staying that way until 1947, when India attained Independence from colonial rule. A few months after Partition, when the region split into two nations, the Jammu and Kashmir regions acceded to India under peculiar circumstances, with a promise of a special status and a plebiscite to ultimately decide its fate. But Kashmir was soon relegated to an unresolved dispute, its territory divided like the spoils of war between India and Pakistan. Soon after, the United Nations passed a resolution proclaiming the right to self-determination. It has since been in cold storage.

China subsequently claimed a portion of Kashmir—Aksai Chin, still a contested region between the two countries. India-administered Jammu and Kashmir continued to be governed by both the Indian constitution and its own state constitution, giving the region the autonomy to decide its own matters, barring on three subjects: communication, foreign affairs and defence.

This remained only technically true after 1953, when, through a slew of amendments, the Indian government began to water down Article 370. This was made possible by deposing popular Kashmiri governments and through the concurrence of Indian government-backed puppet regimes in the state. For instance, the state’s fiscal relations with the centre were brought at par with rest of the country, and the Supreme Court was given full jurisdiction over it. The Supreme Court advocate AG Noorani has noted that, through a series of presidential orders, “ninety-four of the ninety-seven entries in the Union List were extended to Jammu and Kashmir as were 260 of the 395 articles of the constitution.” The plebiscite-once-promised never came.

On the Indian side, Jammu and Kashmir had been broadly divided into three regions—Hindu-dominated Jammu, the overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir Valley, and the Buddhist-majority Ladakh. The political aspirations of these areas were not only diverse owing to the different religious and ethnic identities, but were often in abject opposition to each other, enabling powerful stakeholders to manipulate the differences and add to the complexity of the dispute.

By the 1970s, Article 370 had become a hollow shell that offered the Indian state a fig leaf to camouflage its undemocratic handling of Kashmir. But it continued to bestow to Kashmiris a sense of unique identity, forbidding Indians from outside the state to settle there and get government jobs—until last year. Retaining Article 370 was never the bargaining point in the unsettled dispute for the Kashmiris, but its preservation was deemed a safeguard that would protect the unique identity of the state. Suddenly, it was all gone.

On 5 August last year, the people of the entire state, irrespective of the competitive politics and aspirations of the different identities, were united in their surprise as their world turned upside down. But they were disunited in the ways that they received and absorbed the news of the upheaval—in horror or with joy. Jammu, where I am based, seemed a small privileged oasis with phones and broadband internet functioning. Friends and acquaintances, people I share the same air with, had chosen to celebrate the denial of their democratic rights, a demoted political status and a move that would rob them of their own privileges and rights. Reality would dawn on them later, but even then, their experiences of the accompanying restrictions remained varied, like hierarchies in a prison, in this case mapped by lengths of coiled barbed wires and weight of military jack-boots.

Others, in India, too celebrated the move. Jammu and Kashmir’s full integration with India was music to their ears. Some were happier still that Kashmiris had been “shown their place.”

Ten days later, on India’s Independence Day, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, made Kashmir’s purged special status the centrepiece of his address to the nation. He spoke about how the effective removal of a special status would protect democracy, combat terrorism and Indianise Kashmiris. It was a victor’s mockery, directed at the brutalised and vanquished Kashmiris. Democratic triumphs are expected to come with peoples’ participation, but not in Kashmir.

In essence, a conglomerate territory that came together as a quirk of history was forcefully integrated into the landmass of India, politically and administratively, while keeping its people locked, invisible and silenced by an unprecedented militarised lockdown. So, in the year since, what has this meant for them?

THE HELPLESSNESS OF KASHMIRIS evinced itself in the breakdown of daily lives. Security forces raided home and picked up men and boys—some as young as nine years old—and tortured them brutally. They were beaten up with rifles, hanged upside down, given electric shocks, their bodies covered with purple bruises before they were let off, if they were. In villages in South Kashmir, the shrieks of torture victims were amplified on loudspeakers to create terror among the listeners. A few days after 5 August, a friend who flew from Srinagar to Delhi called me on the phone on their arrival, and cried inconsolably. All I could hear was my name and then, “Everything’s finished,” being said between sobs. Everything is finished. The words rang in my ears. If it was not the end, it was surely the beginning of it.

The numbers that emerged, were less than previous years. Since 2008, Kashmir had become an unending vicious cycle of unrest, violent protests and horrifying use of disproportionate power to quell that unrest, introducing Kashmir to a range of what are called “non-lethal weapons,” which are not meant to kill but do so nonetheless, or maim or blind. From bullets to shot-gun pellets, from tear-gas to chili sprays—recipes tried and tested in different conflicts of the world, which had failed and had been discarded by different states, were imported into Kashmir, becoming its staple diet. Every notable uprising saw casualties of these non-lethal weapons: in the summer of 2008, around eighty people were killed and hundreds injured; in 2010, more than a hundred and twenty people were killed and again, hundreds injured; in 2016, more than ninety people were killed and more than fifteen thousand injured, many of them maimed, blinded and scarred for life by the excessive use of pellet guns.

In terms of psychological impact, however, the past year was unprecedented. The brutality of a stringent lockdown, massive arrests, random attacks and raids, beatings, the eerie, ghost-like silence—conditions that are rarely framed as extreme violence—added to fear, unfathomable despair, a sense of impotency and a broken spirit. The silence of the lambs prevailed, as surveillance and repression became the only articulation of state power.

The entire political leadership was incarcerated. Many continue to be jailed or under house arrest, and those released were freed after signing promissory bonds that forbid them from participating in protests or criticising the revocation of autonomy. This scenario squeezed the space for any political activism. Though the pro-India politicians were known to largely toe the line of New Delhi in the last seven decades, they appear to have been robbed of even that agency. The Modi government is trying its best to fill in the vacuum by fattening the BJP’s cadres despite the lockdown, and also at the same time propping up a new anti-BJP leadership, comprising of some turncoats from the traditional regional parties. Their worth remains limited to municipal issues, in the absence of any legitimacy to own a political narrative. The process of delimitation of electoral constituencies is also likely to decimate the majority that the ethnic Kashmiris otherwise enjoyed.    

In October, a small group of eminent women from Kashmir gathered at Pratap Park in the heart of Srinagar city to lodge their silent protest against the scrapping of Kashmir’s special status and the accompanying communication curbs. Not only were they not allowed to hold their protest, all 14 of them were whisked off in police vehicles and bundled into the central jail, accused of disturbing peace. They were let off the next day after signing bonds, confirming that they would not carry out protests. For the ordinary young men who were released from detention, the process of signing bonds is even more cumbersome. They are often required to get more than twenty people from their localities to give signed guarantees in their favour. An unspecified number of people are still detained and more continue to be arrested as the judiciary fails to respond to simple bail pleas and habeas-corpus petitions.

Denial of democratic rights; extra-constitutional laws that give Indian security forces unbridled powers to arrest, torture and kill without being held accountable; a horrifying graph of human- rights abuse, and of late, the squeezing the space for free speech, had already choked Kashmiris to the breaking point. All it took was one push, to snuff life out of millions in one go, at least metaphorically so. Ghulam Nabi Azad, one of the former chief ministers of J&K, correctly remarked that the people in Kashmir were “living corpses.”

Indian television channels, the loyal lap-dogs of government, dutifully and enthusiastically churned out narratives claiming “normalcy” and “calm” among “happy” Kashmiris. The extent of the despair and sufferings have been hovering like a ghost, invisible to the naked eye. 

I HAVE BEEN A JOURNALIST in the Kashmir valley for nearly thirty years. In these three decades, the militancy and Indian politics regularly shaped the contours of Kashmiri media. When I began as a cub reporter in 1989, the insurgency had just erupted. At the peak of the militancy in the 1990s, journalists worked in the shadows, at threat of attacks or intimidation. Rebel gunmen could barge into newspaper offices and demand that their statements be published, unedited. Security personnel enjoyed the same privilege, of regularly interfering in newsroom decisions. In the new millennium, journalists in Kashmir began to mature. A young crop of talented reporters brought freshness to reportage and also value to comment pages, paving way for a vibrant, active media that brought news to the people and their voices to the world. In recent years, even though the space for speech had shrunk, journalists had continued to publish news in Kashmir.

The sudden siege put an abrupt halt to the media’s growing trajectory. Local media outlets, otherwise full of talented youngsters churning out report after report, fell silent. Restrictions and lack of technology put newspapers out of business. The few that continued to print, despite all odds, were truncated versions of their original selves and offered no information other than photocopies of official handouts. Editorials and opinion columns disappeared, to reappear few weeks later, conspicuously skirting any politics. At a time when Kashmir was witnessing its greatest political upheaval since 1947, editorial writers safely chose, or had to chose, subjects like the beauty of the Valley, its potential for tourism, religious piety, and even Cambodia.

In three decades, Kashmir’s turbulence and the state’s complexities had ensured that the newspapers never ran out of news. But, when a new history was being created, we had no stories to tell. Desperate for remedies, I petitioned the apex court against the communication curbs. I submitted to the court that the restrictions were neither reasonable nor proportionate, and were impacting the press’s ability to operate. (The court’s verdict, in Januar this year, was only partly promising. It recognised access to internet as a right and also held that government cannot impose prolonged restrictions. However, it neither called for the immediate restoration of internet, nor defined “prolonged.”)

Changes overcame every bit of our work. On my way to my office, in an area that was under a spell of unannounced curfew, I had to cross several barricades. At one particular barricade, there was a fussy cop. Every day, it would take a bit of arguing and pleading before I was allowed to cross the point. On the fourth day after the revocation, when I explained that I was doing my duty just like he was, he blurted out, “What do we do? Even our arms have been taken away.” Unconfirmed reports that were doing the rounds in the run up to 5 August had said that Jammu and Kashmir police personnel had been disarmed. The cop pointed with not his finger but his gaze, at a man from the Central Reserve Police Force, who was sitting on a chair under the shade of a tree. “And now we take orders from them.”

The silence at the other end of the Banihal tunnel—which Srinagar to Jammu—was unbearable. My friends and colleagues, earlier just a phone call and a click away, had vanished. On 5 August, I had tried calling up several frantically and failed. My social-media circle was suddenly smaller. On Facebook and Twitter, I sometimes spotted some Kashmiris, sitting in parts of India or abroad, posting messages, echoing my own anxieties and the fear of the unknown.

Whatever little appeared in the press after 5 August was still enough to puncture the claims of Indian home minister, Amit Shah, who bragged in October that “not a single bullet has been fired and not a single person has died” in Kashmir since Article 370 was read down. News reports had, by then, reported at least four deaths of civilians. In late August, media reports emerged that at least 152 people were being treated for injuries from pellet guns and tear-gas shells. The numbers may have been higher, as pointed out civilians in Srinagar’s downtown noted to the media. A report on Scroll said that to save the injured from being arrested, locals had devised their own ways of treatment, birthing homegrown “pellet removers,” who worked secretly with crude “blades and Dettol-soaked cotton.” 

The familiar voices of our staffers gradually emerged, first in Srinagar where the government set up a Media Facilitation Centre—the lone site for all journalists to access the internet—and then from Jammu’s hill districts, where mobile phones and internet began to be partially restored in a few months later. It was longer before we heard from our district correspondents in Kashmir. We were relieved to finally learn that they were fine. At first, it was virtually impossible to get them to file  a story. Fear and apprehension had made their story ideas run dry, and my suggestions drew an unusual silence. Gradually, as an editor, I learned to work with the comfort level and fears of my reporters, who continue to brave many odds to even say the little that they do. The monumental challenge of journalism only kept growing, what with a rise in surveillance of journalists, criminal cases against several and a new media policy—passed in July this year—cementing the climate of fear.

One journalist, Qazi Shibli, had been picked up even before 5 August, ostensibly for reporting on the deployment of Indian troops in the Valley, in July. He was detained under the draconian Public Safety Act, or PSA, that allows authorities to detain anybody without a charge for up to two years. This is commonplace in Kashmir—in fact, many have been dumped inside prison cells for much longer than two years. Many a time, after courts quash the PSA detentions or if two years are over, a fresh dossier under the PSA is filed against the incarcerated person to keep them out of circulation.

Shibli is no different. He was released in April this year after the threat of coronavirus prompted the Indian state to release some prisoners on bail to decongest jails. Soon after his release, he spoke to Kashmir Walla, a magazine, about his detention in a far-off jail in Bareilly, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. “That cell haunts every breath of yours. It was a cage. And it did to me what a cage does to the bird,” Shibli said. But unlike the caged bird that is at least allowed to sings songs of pathos, the imprisoned journalist was not allowed to write. The jail authorities did not give him any pen and paper despite multiple requests. They offered him books to read, which kept him alive. His freedom, even despite the coronavirus lockdown, was short lived. On 31 July, the Jammu and Kashmir police’s cybercrimes division summoned Shibli to a police station in Srinigar. He has been in police custody since.

The administration has filed criminal cases against several other journalists—in April, journalists Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra were booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for their posts on social media. The journalist Ashiq Peerzada, a special correspondent with The Hindu, was accused of publishing fake news. These actions against the press were suited to creating a climate of fear and acquaint others with the nature of its tyranny, for more was coming.

In July this year, the administration released its new media policy. It effectively gives government the ability to completely surveil publications and journalists, run “background checks” on them by giving the security establishment their information, to become judges and jury over “fake news,” “plagiarism” and “anti-national content” on basis of which criminal cases can be lodged. The new rules of engagement ensure that journalists either surrender and agree to turn themselves into publicity organs of the government, or rot in jails. Clearly, a free and independent media would have been a great hinderance to New Delhi’s Mission Kashmir.

Bit by bit, it seems like the end of the road for media professionals, and yet we continue to survive. That is what journalists are supposed to do—fight till they can, because the only other choice is helpless surrender.

THE SPLITTING OF THE ERSTHWILE STATE into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, which are far more pliable in the hands of New Delhi—the former with a legislative assembly with limited powers and the latter without one—also engenders a sense of disenfranchisement. A legislature with limited and controlled powers, whenever that comes into being, will completely reduce politics to municipal confines. This demotion empowers the Indian government to extend central laws, to amend or scrap any law without being ratified by the local legislature. Already, within a span of less than a year, the government has made more than one hundred central laws applicable to the region and revoked or tweaked dozens of other Jammu and Kashmir laws. Most of these changes came during the coronavirus lockdown—a sign of the deviousness of a state that encashes a health emergency for its political interests while ensuring that not even a murmur of protests can take place against it. 

The most damaging fallout of the diluted and degraded status of Kashmir is that its permanent residents will lose their exclusive rights over jobs and ownership of land, which were guaranteed in Article 35A of the Indian Constitution. No longer is any Indian citizen barred from acquiring immovable property in Jammu and Kashmir. When the Indian government read down Articles 370 and 35A, which defined the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir, the clauses in all the acts of the Jammu and Kashmir constitution, particularly with respect to jobs and land ownership, were automatically as good as gone. In May, the government modified the domicile provisions in the Jammu and Kashmir Civil Services (Decentralisation and Recruitment) Act of 2010. The changes allow domicile status to hundreds of thousands people who have lived in Jammu and Kashmir from 7 to 15 years, without any cut-off date and with retrospective effect.

Earlier, permanent residency in Jammu and Kashmir was possible only by inheritance, and its documentary proof was the Permanent Resident Certificate, or PRC. The PRC was once a prized possession guaranteeing Kashmiris the right to jobs, higher education and ownership of immovable property in their state. Now, its only use is as valid proof for acquiring a fresh domicile certificate that is required for jobs in government sector.

Sometime in June this year, the online process of getting domicile certificates began. Among the first few to be granted domicile was the top bureaucrat Naveen Chowdhary, who hails from Bihar and has served in Jammu and Kashmir for almost three decades. Within a few weeks, 25,000 certificates had been issued. The government of India argues that this is only fair treatment of those who have been working in the state for many years. But the relaxed rules of the application process and verification as well as the pressure on the issuing authorities, who may face punitive action if they fail to dispense with an application within 15 days, are evidences of India’s haste to expand the numbers of domicile-certificate holders for political expediency, and its blindness to the anxieties at the local level across the two new union territories.

Kanwal Singh, a Jammu-based youth activist, said that the flawed employment and recruitment policies and the lack of government initiative to guarantee employment had been a source of frustration for the youth even before 5 August 2019. “The addition of the domicile rules has further dampened our hopes,” he said. “There are about four lakh unemployed youth with post-graduate degrees alone. By creating a class of elite outsiders, who may be better qualified, the locals are anxious that their share of jobs will be squeezed.” By law of inheritance, the number of prospective eligible domiciles will keep increasing every year, he lamented.  

In Jammu and Kashmir, people have long relied on government jobs because an environment for investments in the private sector was largely non-existent. But, Singh said, “even if that comes into being with the latest changes, our educated youth are not as skilled and trained in various professional fields including Information Technology sector.” The manner in which the recruitment process is being implemented betrays a systemic sidelining of Kashmiris. For instance, the recruitment process for high and mid-rung positions at the prestigious J&K Bank were stalled after 5 August 2019 and has now been started afresh only after the introduction of domicile law. Few months ago, the government laid off contractually appointed staffers in the municipal bodies and the health department, undermining the previous process of giving contractual employers preference against available vacancies. “It appears that the domicile law protects our rights, but its liberal nature is actually opening the doors to a huge influx of people while trampling ours,” Singh said.   

Under the new legal changes, different sections and clauses in the laws that dealt with land-ownership and sale, such as the Transfers of Property Act, the Jammu and Kashmir Alienation of Land Act, and the Jammu Kashmir Land Grants Act, amendments are being made that allow any Indian citizen to purchase, sell, own, and lease land in Kashmir.

A remarkable piece of legislation, the Agrarian Land Reforms Act of 1976— a sequel to the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950—which addressed the skewed land ownership vested in the hands of a few classes by abolishing feudal practices of land ownership and gave land to the tillers in a region where 80 percent of the population was agrarian in nature. According to the 1976 act, all land in excess to the ceiling of 12.5 acres, with the exception of orchards, was expropriated by the state and then transferred to the actual tillers.

The land reforms, made possible primarily because of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, had bridged the socio-economic gaps to a great extent. In a country of teeming millions who are so poor that they go to bed hungry, Jammu and Kashmir was one state where hunger was unknown. Possession of land in an agrarian society is not just entitlement, but empowerment. For the poor, it offered food security and economic returns. For Dalits, it also offered social dignity, immensely mellowing down one significant aspect of caste oppression. But still at the bottom-most rung of hierarchy of castes, the prospect of losing land to powerful, manipulating and bullying land-sharks is now worrying many Dalit leaders. Dalits in Jammu and Kashmir had reason to receive the abrogation of Article 370 with cautious optimism, because it implied that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, pertaining to atrocities against Dalits, would now be applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. In July this year, a Dalit man was murdered in Udhampur over a land dispute, feeding the fear the community feels.

Similarly, Ladakhis who celebrated being granted the status of a union territory are now worried about cultural and ecological disruptions. The question of land and domicile rules have invoked anxieties of demographic influx with deleterious social and economic impact, across the erstwhile state. In the Kashmir valley, additionally, the settlement project also means a demographic subversion of its Muslim majority status, which many believe is akin to turning Kashmir into another Palestine.

So, if the land in Kashmir is up for grabs, who will benefit?

On 26 May this year, a unit of the Indian army in Pattan, about twenty-six kilometres from Srinagar, sent a requisition to the government for purchasing 129 kanals—a kanal is about an eighth of an acre—of land in the area. Administrative officials feigned ignorance of the request at first, claiming they were busy with the coronavirus. Finally, the sheep husbandry department, which owns the land, denied the army’s request. But the next time, who knows what will happen?

The army’s request at Pattan was the first of its kind, as earlier the army could only seek permission to use the land. Not that it did so often—the seeking, that is. It would simply forcibly take over land, or occupy it on a lease, rent and compensation basis, frequently without paying a penny. In 2018, the former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said that over 4.30 lakh kanals in the state of J&K were under unauthorised control of Indian armed forces. These have included residential houses, school buildings, other public buildings, and agricultural fields. The impact of the army’s take over goes beyond the parts directly or officially under its control, s military camps, arms depots, border fencing and landmines render several square kilometers of adjacent area also inaccessible.  

In 2003, as a symbolic move to ease the footprints of militarisation, the security forces vacated many public and private spaces they had been occupying since 1989. One of the beneficiaries was a farmer who had lost access to his orchard to the army. After getting it back, he remarked, “I’ve tasted the apple from my own trees after 15 years.”

Two months after the reading down of Article 370, the government handed over at least 727 hectares of forest area in part to the army, and approved the felling of over 1,800 trees. On 17 July, the administration gave the go-ahead to amend two more laws, to allow notifying any areas in Jammu and Kashmir as “strategic areas,” where the Indian armed forces could carry out unhindered constructions and other related activities that align with their “security needs,” as an official statement put it. Where might becomes right, what qualifies as “strategic” and who defines “need”? The Jammu and Kashmir administration has also withdrawn a 1971 circular which made it mandatory to get a no-objection certificate from the Home Department for acquisition or requisition of land in favour of the Indian Armed Forces, making it easier for the army to acquire land without waiting for the bureaucratic process of clearances.

The rules for a mandatory ceiling on the sale and purchase of land have not changed—that is, the 12.5-acres ceiling in the Land Reforms Act—but monopolies over land holdings by outsiders could be created through institutional access, creation of economic zones and the powers of the state government to grant state and forest land for different purposes, including for defence. India is also creating land-banks for inviting investors from outside to set up businesses and industries. To this end, 42,000 acres of state land in Jammu and 15,000 acres in the Kashmir region have been identified for development. Most of this land is ecologically sensitive because it is either part of or close to rivers, streams and other water bodies, according to an official I spoke to.

The investments will open the doors for monopolistic controls over large swathes of land by investors with deep pockets, while dispossessing people with smaller land holdings and impacting the sustainability of smaller businesses. In view of the continuing disturbed conditions of parts of Jammu and Kashmir, employment-generating big business investments, other than those aimed at exploitation of its vast natural resources, may have to wait for now, if they come at all.

An indication of this comes from recent bidding of mineral blocks in Jammu and Kashmir. In December 2019, the government opened bidding on over two hundred mineral blocks in the river Jhelum and its tributaries. By the time the bidding ended, local stakeholders, who had a monopoly over sand-mining and stone quarrying as part of exclusive entitlement until last year, had been pushed out by the more powerful outsiders, leaving the former virtually empty handed. Lack of internet connectivity was one disadvantage, disabling local bidders from participating in the online bidding process. But the inability to match the big money of outsiders, who come with the latest machinery was another. The supposed level playing field was also queered by the fact that bids were advertised in newspapers outside Jammu and Kashmir, and not locally. By the time some of the local contractors got to know, the bidding process was over.  

Giving details of bidding for sand mining in the Pulwama district, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, “The auction bid for 15 blocks in Pulwama has jumped from the previous Rs 2 Crores to a whopping Rs 17.82 Crores. There is no way that the local contractors can compete.”

The steep rise in the bids is likely to have economic and ecological implications. Those investing higher figures will undoubtedly extract their pound of flesh. While it will result in increase in material costs for the consumers, the introduction of heavy machinery into the process will likely leave the sand-diggers jobless. Excessive mining will also impact the ecology of the region. The outcome of the process for bidding for mining reserves of stone and coal, which took place last winter, was similar to that of sand mining, revealing that a pattern had been set in place for other contracts related to mineral extraction to follow. Jammu and Kashmir is fairly rich in natural sources including minerals, forests and water.

Prior to 2019, power projects were seen as the pivot of Jammu and Kashmir’s development, even as the contesting local narrative saw  the then-state as having lost out in the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, signed without compensation to it. Political and social groups in Kashmir have also contended that the power projects have yielded minimal power supply to the state while a major share is taken by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, through unfair power-sharing agreements. Many see the NHPC as an exploiter of the Valley’s water resources. Such models of development are not always welcomed by the local population and in fact add to its sense of betrayal, besides hurting Jammu and Kashmir’s ecological interests. 

In the last year, Indian government has justified its action on grounds that Jammu and Kashmir’s integration would bring development in the region and ensure an end to terrorism. Both are misplaced conjectures. The only business investments thus far, in mining, smack of an exploitative model. The continuation of law-and-order tensions will ensure that it stays that way, though some investments could be seen in the plains of Jammu, which are relatively calm.

The signs right now are dismal. The last one year witnessed massive business losses. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce pegged the loss between August and December in the Kashmir Valley alone to Rs 18,000 crore. By July this year, combined with impact of the coronavirus lockdown, the losses had more than trebled, to Rs 40,000 crore. Over one lakh jobs were lost in the private sector. Tourism and horticulture, the mainstays of economy, remain in shambles. Despite the evasive calm and slight easing of lockdown since November, tourism did not resume, primarily because of the lack of internet connectivity.

The season of Kashmir’s world-famed apples, in September and October, had only knelt a devastating blow to the orchardists. After many years, growers in 2019 had boasted of bumper crop but, caught between lockdown and threats of militants—who demanded that the farmers boycott any activity in protest—they had no markets in which to sell their products. In several attacks spanning the last fortnight of October, six apple truck drivers and traders were killed, and some apple orchardists assaulted or threatened. There has since been a steady spike in the killing of civilians by unidentified gunmen. In June and July this year, two elected members of the local bodies at the rural level were shot dead and another kidnapped, and later released.

AMONG THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT’S BIGGEST CLAIMS is the assertion that the reading down of Article 370 has decimated the militancy. It flags the statistic of over 100 militants killed in the first half of this year and a dip in new recruitments to substantiate the claim. This glosses over the data of 200 militants that continue to operate. While young men are disappearing, presumably to pick up the gun, militants and arms are also being aggressively pushed from across the borders in Pakistan, by state or non-state actors.

A statistical explanation of insurgency-related violence alone leads to a half-baked analysis of the trend and the likely future. According to government figures, infiltrations were down from 323 in 2018 to 202 in 2019, local recruits declined from 219 to 119, and there was also a sharp fall in militancy-related incidents from 318 in 2018 to 173 in 2019. Fatalities related to militancy were down from 451 in 2018 to 270 in 2019. But this is not very comforting trend, as the second-half of 2019 was spent virtually under lockdown and enhanced surveillance, disabling the mobility of insurgents. Further, a quick reading of history of insurgency in Kashmir also suggests usual gaps between triggers and a rise in militancy. The rigged elections of 1987 are commonly deemed to be the last straw that pushed young men to cross the borders into Pakistan and return back with arms and guerilla-warfare training. So, it took two years after the trigger event for the militancy to erupt and another year for it to rapidly spread. In the late 1990s, the Indian security apparatus was able to successfully crush militancy through a brutal crackdown. By the time the appeal of militancy began to wear off, the peace years between India and Pakistan had begun, renewing hopes of dialogue on Kashmir. But the rapes and murders in Shopian in 2009, followed by the killing of 120 civilians in 2010, once again triggered insurgency—this time a home-grown militancy. Yet, it began making its presence felt only after 2012. 

2019 was turning point in Kashmir where any hopes of dialogue, resolution and reclaiming space were killed and buried, silenced by an aggressive, militarised lockdown. The extent of despair, anger, hatred and humiliation that Kashmiris feel is a rich fertiliser for not just a revival of militancy but its most virulent, radicalised form yet. With the Indian state clamping down on all signs of democratic spaces within Kashmir, religion and mosques have become the latest refuge for the youngsters. A Turkish drama titled Ertugrul, which traces the trials, tribulations and conquests of the emperor that lead to the foundation of the Ottoman empire, has become extremely popular among the youth. Even among the intellectuals in Kashmir, opinions are divided on the historic authenticity of the story, which resonates with Kashmir’s despair and imbues hopes of assertion against the existing impotence. Some observers, however, are worried that such romanticism and symbolism may end up glamourising violence in the name of religion. Whatever be the case, a section of youth seeking liberation from an oppressive climate appears ready to toy with drastic adventurism.

Additionally, the growing tensions between India and Pakistan, and of late, the Chinese transgressions in Ladakh, which were in part inspired by India’s actions in Kashmir, herald new challenges for the sub-continent. Any prolonging of these border conflicts could spiral beyond control, with possible involvement of global powers, threatening peace not only in the region but also the world. 

In June this year, as Indian and Chinese armies were engaged in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation at the disputed and undefined Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, and tensions peaked with the killing of 20 Indian soldiers, young men and teenagers emerged in the streets in Srinagar. Gathering in small numbers, stones in hand to pelt at Indian security-men, they waved Chinese flags and mocked them with slogans saying, “China has come.”

Kashmir is accustomed to witnessing angry protestors or mobs using Pakistan as a metaphor to assert themselves politically against India, though the popular sentiment is more vocalised through slogans and symbols of “azadi,” or independence. After 2016, young boys have used a variety of things to irk soldiers on the streets, such as symbols of China and even the Islamic State. But these instances were aberrations and went mostly unnoticed.

2020 was different. The display of Chinese symbols has become more than an expression of anger. A journalist friend explained, “Enemy’s enemy is a friend.” Young men driven by pure helplessness, which is translating into hatred, are viewing China as a savior, he explained. Though symbolic, these few incidents are a reflection of two things. One, the lack of general awareness about China’s chilling annihilation of Muslims in its Uighur province and the repressive security laws in Hong Kong. Two, the enormity of sense of injury and loss, and the accompanying sense of extreme despair that prepares them to burn down their own house for the simple pleasure of discomfiting India.

These signs should be worrying the Indian establishment. The possibility of escalation on the borders, the strong alliance between Pakistan and China, and the inter-operability of their armies, coupled with the prospect of a hostile population within, could be India’s worst nightmare.

A man holding a bag of flour walks through a crowd of Indian armed forces during restrictions in the old city of Srinagar, on 16 February 2019. Even before the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status, its 1.25 crore people were accustomed to the government’s militarised engagement with them, through bullets, tear gas, pellets and pepper spray. Masrat Zahra

IT IS DIFFICULT to view Jammu and Kashmir in isolation from India and its dominant political narrative. It is a two-way lever. India’s Kashmir narrative, as curated by the Indian rulers and its loyalist media, pumps up the majoritarian Hindu appetite for contempt of Muslims, Kashmiris, Pakistan and terrorists—identities that blend and blur into one another in their minds. Conversely, pan-India’s ruptured secularism and politics of hate stretch into Jammu and Kashmir and exacerbate the divisive politics within.

Under Modi, India’s democratic institutions are being hastily hollowed out and its constitution blatantly violated. His warped understanding of democracy and scant respect for foundational principles of India’s constitution—equality, secularism and liberty—have infused India with illiberalism, jingoism, chauvinism and centralisation for the realisation of a totalitarian state and a Hindu India. He ably uses a blend of two strategies. One is to tweak laws to disempower people, particularly minorities. The second, to patronise an army of Indians similar to the Nazi Brown Shirts, who go about freely, masquerading as self-styled moral police to check the barometric quotient of nationalism in others and physically and psychologically harm them if they seem to fall short. When minorities and secular Indians rose up in protest against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 that excludes Muslims, his government sought to quell the rebellion through tyrannical methods of thrashing the protestors, and intimidating and arresting activists and Muslims. These methods appear to have been borrowed from the government’s manual for handling Kashmir. Ironically, while Modi’s government is claiming to integrate Kashmir, it is effectively only making India an extension of Kashmir.

The revocation of Kashmir’s special status was inspired by Modi’s contempt for Kashmiri Muslims and his desire to set up a Hindu India. While popular politics of Hindu majoritarianism made the revocation possible, Kashmir has now been reduced to a testing laboratory for realising the latter. The strong resistance within India to alter the constitutional core principles of the country could script a story which may be unflattering for Modi.

But there is enough nationwide acceptance for tyranny in Kashmir. And so, it is likely to continue to descend into an abyss as its people come to grips with the fact that their existence as it was known—in maps, politics, economy, and collective and personal lives—ceases to be. Last year, they were not only inflicted by a major loss, they inherited a loss of continuing progression. The Indian state has set a house of termites on their walls, which stand erect as they are gradually and constantly hollowed out. Those imprisoned within exist like living corpses even as they go about their daily lives, illustrating the writer John Berger’s concept of “undefeated despair,” which he used to describe the survival skills of ordinary Palestinians. Kashmiris live that today, as they have ever, celebrating marriages or births, cracking jokes, getting together, even as they try to resurrect, resist through art, poetry, writing, congregating, and organising.