A joint demand came up just a couple of days ago from elected leaders of Leh and Kargil for the restoration of full statehood and the original “state subject” domicile rules.
Like a sharp spotlight, that joint demand lit up the gleaming slipperiness of whatever the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thought it gained from changing Jammu & Kashmir’s constitutional status.
The party and much of what passes for media had projected joy in Ladakh when those changes were made, on the basis of minor celebrations in Leh. That proved ephemeral. But the barely reported anger in Kargil was sustained. It spread. Two years on, both parts of Ladakh have united to seek reversal of those changes.
Even Jammu, the BJP’s bastion since 2008, is chaffing. People worry that “outsiders” might take their property and jobs, and that mafias might come in.
True, the BJP remains by far the first choice of Hindu voters, but only by default, because of the weakness of alternatives and the general acceptance for the basic Hindutva agenda.
New Faces In J&K Politics
As for Kashmir, silence prevails.
One of the BJP’s main objectives for Kashmir was to replace established political forces with new faces and parties. Top central leaders disparaged the established lot as “dynasts” and “Gupkar Gang”.
Efforts were made to get people — yes, even in the Valley — to join the BJP. Some did, but mainly from the bottom of the social ladder. One hears of inductees’ having been involved with drugs, petty crime, and militancy. Just as when they indulged in those activities, they no doubt seek monetary and other advantages now, too. It’s ironically fitting for former militants to join the BJP, since many militants targeted National Conference men and Communists in the 1990s, despising secularism.
Meanwhile, some of the earlier public faces of the party in the Valley have faded into the background.
The Move Hasn't Clicked As An Issue
On the national stage, too, it is obvious two years on that the move has not clicked as a political issue.
It figured during the Bihar Assembly Election campaign in October 2020, but not during the campaigns in five states this year. Even in Bihar, it didn’t create a buzz, like the “surgical strikes” did in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, or like “Pulwama” and “Balakot” raised the pitch for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Dazed by the sudden, commando-style operation when the Bills were passed, many were carried away by the rhetoric of integration and equal rights. Blind to the grievous blow to federalism from establishing the precedent of scrapping a state, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the YSR Congress, the AIADMK, and the Aam Aadmi Party supported the Bill.
Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) joined the Trinamool, the DMK, and the Congress in opposing it.
It was obvious by the next year that the move hadn’t been good for the country. China turned up, citing the “illegal’ Ladakh Union Territory, the liberal West was aghast, and the Taliban was resurgent.
All that was predictable. For the government, the constitutional changes fulfilled a promise made repeatedly to the supporters of the BJP and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres, that Kashmir would be integrated by removing Article 370 from India’s Constitution.
They cooed and roared alternately about how gloriously they had accomplished the founding objective of the BJS (1952-77), the party that was recast as the BJP in 1980 after BJS merged with the Janata Party to bring down Indira Gandhi after the Emergency.
Over the decades, the term “370” had acquired a life of its own — it was reviled in the minds and hearts of RSS supporters. Removing it was an article of faith for them, as if that would purge the nation of its major ills.
Conversely, “370” became an article of faith for many Kashmiris, too. Politicians from Sheikh Abdullah onwards propagated that faith, or perhaps misplaced faith. But faith defies logic.
Mehbooba Mufti had said combatively when she was Chief Minister that nobody would give a shoulder to the Indian flag in Kashmir if “370” was touched. Tunnel vision on both sides prevented clarity on how it would play out.
BJP's Delimitation Thrust
Now, there’s a new sort of polarising unpredictability. Since last winter, the ruling establishment has focused on freshly delimiting constituencies in the Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory in order to hold elections.
Perhaps the Democrats’ victory in Washington, China’s aggression, and the impending Taliban consolidation have pushed this “normalisation”. It’s likely to remain superficial, though. Even if statehood follows, it will probably be of Delhi’s disempowered sort (the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi has supervening power over the Delhi state Cabinet).
However, delimitation is a thorny bramble. Seven constituencies are to be added. Some of these may be reserved for special categories, such as those who came as refugees in 1947 from western parts of the state, or west Punjab. But it will be tough to create new geographical constituencies that are Hindu-dominated.
The most logical ones based on a sprawling but thinly populated area would be in places like Kishtwar district, the area of which is two-thirds that of the Kashmir Valley.
If, as many expect, five of the seven new seats go to the Jammu division, the Valley would still have 48 seats, with 42 across the Pir Panjal. If all seven new seats go to the Jammu division, the regional line-up would be 44 from Jammu and 46 from Kashmir.
Coalition On The Cards?
As things stand, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration could win. Not only would they likely get the large majority of seats in the Valley, but also several in the Chenab basin, particularly in Muslim-dominated Poonch and Rajouri.
It is even possible that the National Conference (NC) alone could win a near majority. It fared very well in the District Development Council elections last winter, which witnessed a good turnout. That continued the pattern of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when the NC won all three Valley seats.
BJP strategists will surely try their best to prevent this, seeing a BJP government in Jammu & Kashmir as the logical conclusion of the entire exercise.
They may cobble numbers with the Valley-based People’s Conference and Apni Party, which was formed after the constitutional changes and appears well-disposed to the ruling establishment — and vice versa.
The People’s Conference (PC) could win a handful of seats near the Handwara base of party chief Sajjad Lone. As long as Shia leader Imran Ansari remains in it, the party should win some in the stretch between Pattan and Zadibal, too. Constituency outlines could be gerrymandered to give Ansari’s nominees a leg up in places like Sonawari.
If the PC and Apni Party win at least half a dozen Valley seats, perhaps including Usman Majid (Bandipora) and Hassan Mir (Tangmarg), both now in Apni Party, the NC and its allies would have to take about as many from the Jammu division — and then prevent winning members being poached.
Tragic Polarisation, Fading Hopes
The constitutional changes polarised the people of the state on religious lines. This is tragic, not only for the body politic but for the defence of the nation in one of its most threatened regions.
A Pew survey conducted from London soon after the Kargil war had found that the predominantly Shia Muslim population of Kargil was the most loyal to India among all the disparate peoples of the erstwhile state. But there are signs of that slipping. There have been agitations against the constitutional changes in Kargil, perhaps the first-ever there.
The faith of Shias elsewhere, and Gujjar, Bakerwal, Pahadi, and Dogra Muslims, too, has been shaken. It had already been deeply wounded by responses to the rape and murder of a child in Kathua in January 2018, and the polarising agitations of 2008.
For the sake of national security, if nothing else, one hopes that narrow political objectives do not further damage fraternity among the disparate peoples of that mountainous land.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)