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Metamorphosis in India’s Paradise in Kashmir

An year has lapsed since India’s erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, which Persian poet Firdaus described as a ‘paradise on earth’ underwent a historic metamorphosis on 5 August 2019. The Indian parliament had passed the J&K Reorganisation Bill to abrogate Article 370 that accorded J&K a special status under the Indian constitution (with a separate constitution and flag) and Article 35A that prohibited non-J&K residents from seeking government employment, acquiring immovable property, receiving education and healthcare and settling in the state. J&K was bifurcated into Jammu & Kashmir as a single union territory with a legislature and Ladakh (Buddhist dominated with 65% landmass of J&K) as a separate union territory without a legislature. J&K’s assimilation was complete under the Indian constitution. So wither J&K?

The following key dimensions capture the broad transformations in J&K’s ground situation and future challenges.

Security: There is a significant decline recorded in terrorist activities, infiltration and stone pelting. From a high of 2,653 stone-pelting incidents in 2016, there is a 50-60% decline in incidents since the abrogation. In 2018, in 206 terrorist incidents, 86 civilians, 95 security personnel and 271 terrorists/militants were killed. However, during 2019/2020 (till 1 August), corresponding numbers are 135/85, 42/17, 78/34 and 163/154. Active militants have been reduced to 200-250 from thousands in the preabrogation phase. As opposed to 84 cross-border infiltration attempts during August-October 2019, so far in 2020 only 26 have been reported. Improving situation has resulted from better interoperability between the security forces, intelligence agencies and state police. Most important, tip-offs from locals symbolises a growing local disenchantment with terrorist groups, suggesting that militancy is on a life-support.

Corruption: For decades New Delhi focused on winning ‘hearts and minds’ through financial assistance, but it benefited just the powerful elites, politicians, separatist leaders and other groups with vested interests. Further, Article 370 prevented anti-corruption agencies from investigating corruption scams. Post-abrogation a sense of accountability amongst the local stakeholders before the law has taken effect. Altaf Thakur, a village head in Pulwama says there is now transparency and accountability in the system which is a major departure from the past. Sheikh Ashiq, Chairman, Kashmir Chambers of Industries and Commerce also testifies previous widespread corruption, which is now in check.

Development: Article 370 was widely deemed anti-development — prohibiting external investors, corporate or industrial houses from investing and acquiring land or property for setting up business and industries. Tariq Butt, a local journalist says post-abrogation no strikes have been called and people are hoping for development and investments. Youth is now hoping for employment under the burgeoning economic growth prospect, after the scraping of Article 35A. The Entrepreneurship Development Institute, Ahmedabad reported that around 87% industrial units in J&K lay sick till 2015, which needs now can be revived under the new political and administrative setup. PM Narendra Modi announced that import-export, food-processing and healthcare among others will receive a boost. The local shikara (house-boat) owners in the scenic Dal Lake in Srinagar show optimism too. Children aged 6-14 stand to benefit from the Right to Education provisions and women can marry outside J&K without losing their right to inheritance.

Democracy and Civil Liberties: The Modi government has diligently strengthened grassroots democracy in recent years, empowering ground-level people. Post-abrogation block level elections were held in October 2019 across 310 blocs with a 98.3% turnout. Block level and village level institutions received increased funding and powers to address local challenges. Village level elections due in February 2020 were postponed as much of the top political leadership remained under detention, and could be held later this year, if Covid-19 pandemic wanes. Baring the former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and top separatist Hurriyat leadership, all political leaders have been released. Internet connectivity which was suspended after the abrogation has been restored, and people seems to have braved these temporary inconvenience for long-term peace.

Ladakh: Bordering Pakistan and China this highly strategic territory, where the recent Sino-Indian military clashes occurred has experienced a second birth of sort. The young Ladakhi parliamentarian JamyangTsering Namgyal says that Ladakh had lost its identity under the previous rulers and only received 2% of the budget. Only two Buddhist MLAs out of four reached the J&K assembly whose voices barely mattered. But post-abrogation new healthcare, agriculture, telecommunications, infrastructure and connectivity schemes have been announced. Two new degree colleges were founded during 2019-20 and new ones planned in medicine, engineering and management. Ladakh’s connectivity has been boosted by cutting down over 160 kms, thanks to the new Leh- Singayla-Padum road (covering 280KM in 8 hours) which earlier took 2 days to cover 440 kms. The locals are upbeat and the youth exude hope and confidence, says Jamyang.

Challenges: Pakistan’s leverage in J&K has been curtailed to a great extent due to the growing stranglehold of the state authority and security apparatus and marginalisation of the separatist Hurriyat leaders. Yet, it would be naïve to assume that militancy and decades of alienation has been neutralised completely, says Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata

Hasnain, a former military corps commander. On-going political outreach must expand further to complement the military gains, he says. Aarti Tikko Singh, a local Kashmir Pundit and a journalist, who represented India in the US Congressional hearing postabrogation says that the real test lies in rehabilitating the exiled 300,000 Kashmir pundits back in Kashmir safely, and developing the extremely impoverished regions of Jammu. The government must address deradicalisation through a secularliberal curriculum in schools and higher-degree institutions, she believes. PunchukStobdan, a local Ladakhi and former diplomat says Article 370 is history and no one talks about it. People are happy and now ‘terror-free Kashmir’ is shaping the new narrative.

Indeed, Firdaus’ paradise has indeed turned a new leaf!

Dr Ashutosh Misra is CEO, Institute for Australia India Engagement and Editor-in-Chief India News