It came as a huge surprise to those who have dealt with or were posted in Kashmir in security establishments when the Prime Minister asserted that Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution were responsible for separatism and terrorism there. He was addressing the nation three days after the constitutional changes passed by Parliament on August 5, 2019. For the PM, the changes were “historic”, but any student of history of Kashmir would disagree vehemently.
There was no separatism before and after the constituent assembly of India adopted Article 306A (later Article 370) in the draft Constitution on October 17, 1949, despite serious differences between Sheikh Abdullah and the Indian leadership. Abdullah wanted to fiercely protect the autonomous status of the state, which the Indian leadership was unwilling to concede. The differences later became irreconcilable.
This triggered unsubstantiated allegations against Abdullah, culminating in his unconstitutional dismissal and arrest without charges on August 9,1953. For the first time since 1947, the people in Kashmir realised how shallow were the democratic and secular credentials of the rulers in Delhi. This unconstitutional and illegal act gave birth to the first separatist organisation, Plebiscite Front, which was formed exactly two years later in 1955 by Mirza Afzal Beigh, a close confidant of Abdullah.
Ten years later, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru realised the folly of incarcerating Sheikh Abdullah, when the pent-up anger against India poured out in the streets of the Valley in December 1963 following the disappearance of the holy relic from Hazratbal in Srinagar. This was despite Nehru having installed his protégé Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad as PM and liberally pumped in funds for development.
Holding of free and fair elections in 1977 restored the faith of Kashmiris in democracy to some extent and from that time till the death of Sheikh Abdullah in 1982, Kashmir remained peaceful. Once again, in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi subverted democracy by removing Farooq Abdullah as chief minister. She was angry with him for hobnobbing with opposition leaders.
But the real trigger that led to massive upsurge of separatism was the manipulation of the democratic process jointly by the National Conference and Congress in 1987 elections. Separatist and terrorist organisations proliferated. The state faced unprecedented protests and violence.
The reality is that in Kashmir separatism took root and spread far and wide as Kashmiris helplessly watched trampling of the Constitution and mutilation of democracy, with the judiciary looking the other way. The media joined the bandwagon by creating the necessary smoke screen of blatant lies. It was increasingly being believed by Kashmiris that they were being deliberately treated unjustly and disempowered because they belonged to a minority religious community. They were not even allowed to protest against the injustice, with rulers in Delhi and Srinagar joining hands to suppress the dissent.
It is not that democratic manipulations and electoral malpractices have not taken place in other states, but J&K should have been dealt with utmost care and sensitivity because of its unique history. It was the only Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority country that was divided on the basis of religion in 1947. Besides, there was the international dimension in the form of the UN resolutions.
But more than that we should not have forgotten that we have a hostile neighbour sharing border with Kashmir. While India can entirely blame Pakistan for terrorism in the state, it can’t absolve itself from creating the required ground situation for the same.
The changes that took place on August 5, 2019 have been far more humiliating for Kashmiris than what has happened in the past. The status of Jammu and Kashmir has been downgraded and the domicile law is intended to change the demography. Both are highly emotive issues. It would be too early and naïve for the government to pat its own back on the absence of mass upsurge after the changes.
Nehru realised the mistake ten years after arresting Sheikh Abdullah and made necessary corrections. But those were the days when weapons had not been inducted in the erstwhile state and separatism had just taken root. This time around the government will not have the luxury of ten years. Kashmir of 2020 is vastly different from that of 1963.
(The writer is a former Intelligence Bureau officer, who served in Pakistan)