Kashmir: The agony of ignorance

by L Subramanyan

Exactly 35 days ago, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah created history by abrogating Article 370 and began the process of integrating Jammu & Kashmir into the Indian polity in its entirety.

As to the legality of the act, the courts will decide. However, in the last 35 days, the Union Territory of J&K has been under a complete lockdown. While most Indians outside J&K welcomed Shah’s move as one of being ‘finally decisive’, there is still no word from the ground in J&K as to how the general public is reacting to the move.

And therein lies the dilemma for Shah and PM Narendra Modi. While tribal chest-thumping can capture the imagination of those who have no stakes in the issue, there is a sense of disquiet amongst the policy makers in Lutyens Delhi.

They do know that once the curbs on telecommunication and mobile communication are lifted there is going to be a reaction, a lot of it unfavourable to Delhi. The real question is what form will the reaction take?

However, the government at the Centre is at serious risk of losing its public narrative if the lockdown continues. While National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said that ‘not a single bullet has been fired’ and asked rhetorically as to what was more important – freedom or lives, the reply from the zone could actually be somewhat unexpected.

What is also unclear is the level of mischief that our western neighbour will resort to. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, rebuffed by the rest of the world over his pleas for help, is like a wounded brat supported by the Pakistan Army and the infamous ISI, who have every reason to keep the Kashmir pot boiling, to ensure that not only do the irregulars – militants, mercenaries, etc, are provided all assistance to create violent unrest in Kashmir, but to also mainly divert the discussion from Pakistan’s real problem – an economic blowout that has already happened.

Imran also has this very real need to stay relevant in the domestic politics of Pakistan, which can only happen if his masters – the Army and the Secret Service are kept happy.

Consequently, Kashmir is currently in unknown territory – pun intended. While the Indian government has announced that it will inject massive amounts of investments (figures touted around are in excess of Rs 1 lakh crore) and has already received supporting voices from the private corporate sector, the Kashmiri youth, who will be the main beneficiaries may still be chary when it comes to choosing between economic freedom and perceived political freedom.

Prolonging the lockdown may also have another undesirable effect – of converting the currently restrained Kashmiri politicians into leaders and creating a parallel narrative to India’s freedom struggle, when Indian freedom seekers such as Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, etc suffered jail to gain India’s own freedom from the British.

Such a narrative would play along nicely into the collective psyche of the Kashmiris and elevate these politicians into freedom fighters. Imagine Omar Abdullah as a freedom fighter, a la Nehru. One shudders.

While Shah may be statistically correct (depending upon the stat that one chooses) that 92% of Kashmir does not have restrictions, Shah and Modi know that the real test will begin only when the balance 8% gets free access.

In the long term, economic freedom will trump all forms of politics. However, for that to happen, Kashmir has to go through the period of uncertainty, along with Delhi, to discover the nirvana.

The real problem is when do the military boots cease and the messaging begin for India, given that it will never cease for Pakistan.