Anuradha Bhasin, a veteran journalist based in Jammu, has given a moving account of the marginalisation of Kashmiri Muslims in her book A Dismantled State. In an interview with Frontline, she debunks the false narrative of normalcy in Kashmir and points to increased attacks on politically unaffiliated people in Kashmir, which follows the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and perceptions of a demographic realignment. Excerpts:
The government sold the narrative that Article 370 was the root cause of terror and violence in Jammu and Kashmir. What are the arguments you make in the book to counter that narrative?
I have tried to briefly sketch the outline of the political history of Jammu and Kashmir and talk about the political genesis of insurgency, its ebb and flow in the last three decades, and its flattened plateau coinciding with the peace process between India and Pakistan between 2002 and 2006. In a nutshell, political manipulations and democracy breaches are responsible for insurgency or an increase in it, and political outreaches and deliberative processes have had a calming effect.
I have also used data the government put out to claim, wrongly, that insurgency is waning post-2019 and compared that to data on insurgency in recent decades. Besides, there is something very problematic in the way the government is using data on the number of militants killed to make a case for an “improved situation”. This does not take into account the disproportionate rise in the number of killings of unarmed policemen and civilians by insurgents, including those acts committed on selective grounds.
Why is it that civilians believed to be working for the government or Hindus and people from outside the Union Territory are targeted selectively and becoming more vulnerable? This was not the case before 2019 when militants mainly targeted security forces and installations.
What changed in Kashmir after August 2019 in terms of economy, investment, and development? The government says Article 370 was an impediment to economic development.
The pre-2019 development indices are no secret and Jammu and Kashmir fared better than most States, including Gujarat. Hunger was unknown in Jammu and Kashmir, primarily because of radical land reforms, which gave land to the tiller.
These have now been undone and severely disadvantage the poor agrarian masses. Jammu and Kashmir had its own unique architecture of economy and investments rooted in its special status. Land reforms were the pivot of that, paving the way for a more equitable and sustainable model of development. Much of the development in the past was hindered by factors such as topography, conflict, and of course corruption, which was indeed rampant. But you don’t need to demolish constitutional provisions to crack down on corruption.
By altering the land laws, the government has made it easy for massive and reckless changes in land use of existing settlements to the detriment of locals. Businesses and mining projects are being given to outsiders with deep pockets, with whom local businessmen cannot compete.
This means there will be greater exploitation of land and its resources, which will have a disastrous impact on this Himalayan region’s already fragile ecology.
In the aftermath of August 2019, Kashmir has been in the news for recurring targeted attacks on civilians, particularly Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals. What has triggered this violence? How is it different from the attacks on civilians, particularly the Pandits, in 1990?
In the 1990s, most of the Pandits (barring some aberrations) were believed to have been killed for their association with the government or because they were suspected to be working for some security/intelligence agency. It was for the same reason that Muslims were also killed. In fact, more Muslims were killed in 1990. This is not to say that people have not been singled out for their religion and persecuted in the past.
Selective massacres have taken place in Nadimarg, Wandhama, Kishtwar, Talwara, and many other places. But looking at the overall statistics, these have been marginally low. Now, we are seeing Hindus and labourers from outside Jammu and Kashmir being killed. These are just ordinary civilians with no political affiliation and no connection with any security agency.
The change in Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the dilution of privileges that its residents enjoyed with respect to jobs, land, and businesses have deepened the fears of demographic change by political design. Previously, insurgents viewed security forces as the “enemy”, today it is more the ordinary Indian civilian.
As for Kashmiri Pandits, their vulnerability has increased for several reasons. One is the projection by much of the Indian media, particularly television, that Kashmiri Pandits can now feel safe and return to the Valley. Article 370 had nothing to do with the right of Kashmiri Pandits to go back to their original homes. Also, in 2020, the government began to publicise its scheme for the return of Pandits by starting to retrieve properties of Pandits. Locals and even some Kashmiri Pandit activists pointed out that some of these actions were taken on the basis of fraudulent claims against Muslims who had duly bought these properties, and yet they were, without investigation, vilified.
Thirdly, the government began to take credit for bringing back Kashmiri Pandits under the Prime Minister’s rehabilitation package. That policy started under Manmohan Singh and the majority of those who had enjoyed the benefits were already working and living in the Valley for over a decade, but this was done silently to pave way for the process of assimilation. Such false claims, peddled as some kind of a triumph of the present Indian government, also made the lives of Pandits vulnerable.
The 1990s period is very different from today. Militancy was new to Kashmir then. It had erupted suddenly and there was enough money and arms pumped in also by Pakistan to support it. It was proliferating and militants were trying to mobilise ground support through the use of mosques and Islamic slogans. This made the Pandits feel threatened. There were very few targeted killings. Mostly, people were killed not for their communal identities but for their affiliations with the government or political parties.
It was a deadly phase of militancy but various estimates have put the total number of Pandits killed in 1990 at 32-36. Recent government data stated that 89 Pandits were killed in three decades. In December, the Indian government said that nine Pandits had been killed in Kashmir since 2020. That’s a large number compared to the last three decades, even compared to 1990 when the number of militants in Kashmir was higher and they had sophisticated weapons.
Apprehensions about a demographic change persist in the psyche of Kashmiris. The authorities also seem determined to include non-locals in the electoral rolls. How do you see the future unfolding?
This is extremely disturbing. Kashmiri Muslims have always been wary of designs to effect a demographic change in Jammu and Kashmir. The RSS and the BJP have in the past spoken about demographic change as a remedy. But now, by changing the political status of Jammu and Kashmir in the most undemocratic manner, a set of new rules, laws, and policies are being framed to begin a process of systemically outnumbering the locals in jobs, businesses, landholdings, and voting pattern. This makes the apprehensions of a demographic change valid.
It is difficult to say how Kashmiris will ultimately respond to this systemic way of downsizing and disempowering them. But prolonged spells of lack of democracy, coupled with excessive distress and despair of the local population are likely to have an adverse impact on not just the peace and security of this fragile region but also the health of Indian democracy.
How has the absence of an elected State government impacted the lives of the common people in Jammu and Kashmir?
Elected governments are important for meeting the day-to-day demands of the people with respect to their basic needs, jobs, education, health, and development. But it is unlikely that these needs can now be fully met even after the election of a State government.
There has been a massive restructuring of political and economic institutions. Laws have been recklessly altered and all issues of development and day-to-day life are linked to this. It has caused much uncertainty and there is little that local governments can do in such a scenario. Besides, the reins of power are now directly in the control of New Delhi. Much will depend on how any new State government (hypothetically) will be able to overcome the many limitations and address the issues of the public.
How is the Kashmir question expected to influence national politics, in particular the 2024 elections?
Kashmir has always been a political issue in national politics, especially so for the BJP. The Modi government has nothing else to show in its report card. It has failed miserably on all fronts, including the economy. So, it is likely to use Article 370 abrogation and Kashmir as the centrepiece of its electioneering and build a false narrative of how Kashmir has become better. The Kashmir narrative may also be used for further communal polarisation in pursuit of electoral benefits.
There are petitions filed in the Supreme Court to review the decision taken by the government in August 2019 to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. From a realistic point of view, what outcome is to be expected and what is your general opinion on the state of the judiciary today?
It is for legal experts to take a call on how the judiciary is functioning and there is already enough talk about that by some of our great legal luminaries. I am no expert. As I have pointed out in my book, several legal experts have pointed out glaring constitutional and legal flaws in the actions of August 5, 2019.
According to them, the BJP government did not have the legal mandate, and any challenge to the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act would be on solid and legal grounds.
The manner in which the petitions related to Article 370 have been frozen without a hearing adds weight to their argument.
- Political manipulations and democracy breaches responsible for insurgency.
- Insurgency not waning post-2019.
- Before 2019, militants mainly targeted security forces and installations, not civilians.
- Loss of special status disadvantages poor agrarian masses.
- Govt altering land laws, giving businesses and mining projects to outsiders with deep pockets.
- Change in special status have deepened fears of demographic change.
- Kashmiri Pandits’ vulnerability has increased.
- Modi government likely to use Kashmir narrative for further communal polarisation.