“Home minister is lying on the floor of parliament that I am free. I remain under house arrest. A big lock has been put on my gate,” former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah told the media from the balcony of his house on August 7, two days into the revocation of the Article 370 which granted the state special status within Indian Union. He said his son Omar Abdullah, also the former Chief Minister, was in jail.
And then Abdullah’s eyes welled up, his voice choked.
“This is not the India we know. We pray for the return of democracy and secularism in the country,” he said,
Abdullah continued: “I may die because of my health. But we will fight (for the restoration of our autonomy). We will fight in court”.
The former Chief Minister’s outburst alternated between impotent rage and the utter helplessness which often reduced him to tears. And as he cried on television, many Kashmiris watching him in their homes cried alongside him. Abdullah breaking down had a powerful metaphorical resonance, plunging Kashmir into a version of a ‘Jesus wept’ moment.
No, Abdullah has no spiritual dimension. Even his politics has been mired in controversies. He is not revered in the state. In fact, his name evokes a deep contempt from a significant section of population who do not approve of his hitherto pro-India stance. As a winning candidate in the last parliament election from Srinagar he polled just under five percent votes. He still can’t walk the streets of the Valley without Z-plus security. But he has the stature, being the three-time chief minister and the senior-most mainstream politician in the state. For the past forty years his mention has been intrinsic to any discourse about Kashmir. In the run-up to the scrapping of the state’s special status, as the centre moved to put the state under a clampdown, all mainstream parties in Kashmir closed ranks under his leadership. But to no avail.
And now held in his home Abdullah in tears articulated the tragedy of his similarly trapped people. Numbed by the abrupt and the unimaginable repeal of the Article 370, Abdullah’s choked voice stirred up their emotion. Here was a leader whose family had been instrumental in tying Kashmir’s lot with New Delhi. Though it was the then Hindu king of the state Maharaja Hari Singh who acceded to India in 1947 following a tribal incursion from Pakistan, it was Abdullah’s father Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who brought Kashmiris around to Singh’s contentious decision, rejecting Muslim majority Pakistan to which Kashmir was entitled to join as per the logic of the partition. The two-nation theory which became the basis of the partition envisaged division of India along Hindu and Muslim majority nation states. But before Sheikh went along with India he got New Delhi to grant J&K a special status under India’s constitution. This gave Kashmir a degree of autonomy in governing itself and more importantly also guaranteed the preservation of the state’s cultural identity and the demographic character.
This history lends house arrest of Abdullah, Sheikh’s son, detention of Omar Abdullah, his grandson, their profound context and meaning. New Delhi has unilaterally withdrawn the constitutional guarantees that had persuaded Sheikh, the most popular Kashmiri leader at the time, to go along with Maharaja’s decision to accede to the country. It has, in one fell swoop, demolished the basis of Abdullah’s political ideology and standing in the state. It has done the same to the politics of Mehbooba Mufti, also a former Chief Minister. And also that of Sajad Lone and Shah Faesal, two influential new entrants to the political scene.
The mainstream politicians in the state largely operated in Kashmiri sub-nationalist space, somewhere in the middle-ground between the proponents of Kashmir’s merger into India like the BJP and allied outfits and the separatist groups like Hurriyat and militant outfits who either sought Kashmir’s independence or its accession to Pakistan. Revocation of Article 370 has wiped out this middle-ground from the political landscape of the state. Now politics in the state can either be assimilationist or separatist. The mainstream politicians can no longer credibly cast themselves in the role of the protectors of Kashmir’s identity or as seekers of more constitutional concessions to resolve the Kashmir issue within the framework of India’s constitution. When it came to withdrawing the Article 370, New Delhi didn’t deign it worth its while to consult them, otherwise regarded as its own men in the state. It has further humiliated them by detaining them much like it has thousands of other people across the state. In case of Mehbooba, even her daughter Iltija Javed has been put under house arrest.
So, once the siege is lifted and the government decides to release the leaders, what are the options before the state’s pro-India politicians? Very few. By reducing Kashmir to the status of a union territory, the union government has ensured their future politics has little sway to shape the course of events. In the new dispensation, the state is entitled to have an elected legislature but New Delhi will remain in-charge of the state through a Lieutenant Governor who will have the final word in keys matters of governance. This allows a drastically downgraded political space for the politicians to operate in. There is not much outside basic governance that the leaders can promise to people and be able to execute when in power.
Politics as it existed in Kashmir is dead for now. Its terms of reference no longer operate. Political parties will have now a fairly circumscribed role. It is New Delhi which will lord over the truncated state.
Apparently, New Delhi has effectively cut to size the Valley’s larger than life political battleground with its national and international ramifications. But Kashmir being the overarching issue that it is, things are unlikely to pan out as intended.
Faced with an existential choice, the political parties are likely to unite and fight the arbitrary constitutional onslaught on the state,” said a political activist, on the condition of anonymity considering the prevailing situation in the state. “We will fight legally and politically. This is the only politics that will hold credibility in the state. Politics for power will have few takers as it will only justify the New Delhi’s constitutional grab”.
Should this happen, it has the potential, for once, to hurtle the mainstream politics to the foreground and vie with separatist groups for the attention of people. The bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal has already made his choice known by declaring he will not operate as a stooge by which he meant an assimilationist but as a “resolutionist” who seeks solution to the larger Kashmir problem.
Similarly, separatist politicians, all of whom are either in jail or under house detention will have to hone their politics to the new reality. The struggle for them has only gotten tougher. By divesting Kashmir of its special status and downgrading the state to a Union Territory, New Delhi has changed the game in Kashmir.
One thing is certain. There is now no political middle space left in Kashmir. It is now a choice between surrender and resistance in Kashmir. A similar situation exists now in India’s relationship with Pakistan. And this is a frightening scenario to be in.
Meanwhile Abdullah continues to be under house arrest, twenty five days after the repeal of the state’s special status. Other leaders also remain detained. A little distance away from them at Hazratbal the grave of Sheikh is also being guarded. It has been like this since 1989, when the armed separatist movement began in Kashmir. The point of permanently guarding the grave is to protect it against vandalization from the same people who once adored him.
Sheikh is blamed for persuading Kashmiris to join India as against Pakistan and thus held responsible for the conflict over the state ever since. Now, with New Delhi withdrawing the remaining constitutional protections extended to the state in lieu of accession of Kashmir to India, making the state vulnerable to a large-scale demographic change, there is a reason for people to be more angry against Sheikh and hence the need to protect the grave more.