NEW DELHI (AP) — Kashmir’s top pro-India politician had a stark message Friday — the eve of the fourth anniversary since India revoked the disputed region’s special status, throwing the Himalayan territory into political chaos:
“Democracy stops where the boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir begin.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Omar Abdullah said India’s 2019 decision to strip the region’s statehood, its separate constitution and inherited protections on land and jobs have pushed the territory into a “democratic void” and led to a clampdown on civil liberties.
“It’s a very abnormal calm that exists” in the region, Abdullah, a top leader of the National Conference party that has governed Indian-controlled Kashmir for decades, told the AP.
India’s sudden move, accompanied by an unprecedented security clampdown and a complete communication blackout, divided the region into two federal territories: Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir, both ruled directly by the federal government without a legislature of their own and run by bureaucrats and a security setup with no democratic credentials.
The move’s immediate implications were that India’s only Muslim-majority region lost its flag, criminal code and constitution.
Since then, India has enacted a slew of administrative changes, including a controversial residency law that made it possible for Indian nationals to become permanent residents of the region.
The changes were brought by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, and the move resonated in much of India, where his administration was cheered by supporters for fulfilling a long-held Hindu nationalist pledge to correct “a historical blunder.”
In 1947, when Britain divided its Indian colony into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan, the status of what was then the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was left undecided. India and Pakistan soon began a war over Kashmir, which ended with both countries controlling parts of the territory, divided by a heavily militarized frontier. A 1948 United Nations referendum gave Kashmir the choice of joining either Pakistan or India, creating a disputed region, but it never happened. The part of Kashmir controlled by India was granted semi-autonomy and special privileges in exchange for accepting Indian rule.
Abdullah’s party was at the heart of post-1947 politics in the region and later brought revolutionary land reforms that mainly gave Muslim farmers possession of land they tilled for the minority Hindu rulers and its elite.
But many in Kashmir believe that, over the years, the party became India’s enforcers in the disputed region. The party has also been accused of legitimizing New Delhi’s high-handed militaristic policies there.
Meanwhile, Kashmiri discontent with India started taking root as successive Indian governments breached the pact of Kashmir’s autonomy. Local governments were toppled one after another, including Abdullah’s NC, and largely peaceful movements against Indian control were suppressed harshly.
Kashmiri dissidents launched a full-blown armed revolt in 1989, seeking unification with Pakistan or complete independence. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces were killed in the raging conflict.
Modi’s government, however, says the region has prospered with greater developmental work and that militancy was largely wiped out after the 2019 decision.
But many Muslim Kashmiris view the changes as an annexation, saying new laws were designed to change the region’s demography and could also alter the results of a vote for referendum, if it were to ever take place.
“There is still a constituency that does not agree with accession to India. I don’t represent that constituency. I never could,” Abdullah said. “But that constituency needs to be taken into account. It doesn’t just miraculously disappear.”
His party is one of the many petitioners that have challenged the constitutionality of the 2019 changes in India’s top court. A Supreme Court’s five-judge constitution bench, which includes the chief justice of India, began hearing the petitions Wednesday.
India’s notoriously slow justice system ensures many cases remain pending for years — sometimes even decades. Nonetheless, Abdullah said he was hopeful that the wheels of justice would turn in their favor.
“You are basing your trust and your faith in five individuals who are tasked with interpreting the Constitution and the law and in arriving at a judgment,” he said about the court proceedings.
“We are optimistic,” he added.
Yet, Abdullah said, he was aware that it would be a lonely battle, as many Indian opposition parties have not openly supported their demand for the return of the region’s special status, but said they would like its statehood restored and elections held.
“It might be a lonely battle that some of us will wage and we’re ready to do it on our own,” he said.
Abdullah, who was detained for more than seven months after the 2019 changes, dismissed the Indian government’s claims of normalcy and development in the region. Instead, he said the region’s people have seen their civil liberties curbed, with an unprecedented squeeze on press freedoms and increase in detentions as India has shown no tolerance for any form of dissent.
“There are a number of reasons why the government of India needs to be held to account on its claims of being the largest, and the mother of, democracy,” Abdullah said. “Because if that be the case, then … why is Jammu and Kashmir being denied its democratic right to an elected government?”