Year after revocation of Article 370, Alienation grows in Kashmir, Frustration visible in Jammu

A year after the BJP-led Central government revoked Article 370 and cut Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories (UTs) of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on August 5 last year, alienation in Kashmir has increased manifold while the economy and the polity lie in shambles. Frustration is also growing in the Hindu-majority Jammu as the people are beginning to feel the impact of the changes in the business atmosphere and polity of the region. Like in Kashmir, a sense of disempowerment has grown in the region, which has witnessed political awakening and development in the last three decades.

Two days before the first anniversary of the Article 370 abrogation, the district magistrate of Srinagar, Shahid Chaudhary, ordered curfew in Srinagar on August 4 and 5. Chaudhary said he was ‘recommending’ curfew in Srinagar in view of the report from senior superintendent of police (SSP), Srinagar, that the separatists and Pakistan-sponsored groups are planning to observe August 5 as ‘black day’ and stage violent protests endangering public life and property. The order flies in the face of the claim by the government that the situation in Kashmir was normal and also highlighted the government’s nervousness on the first anniversary of the event when Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special status.

On Tuesday evening, curfew was lifted in Srinagar. A government order said after assessing the situation, which remained incident-free, it was decided to lift the curfew. However, the said restrictions ordered earlier under Section 144 of CrPC and the Disaster Management Act in view of the prevailing situation due to COVID-19 disease will remain enforced across the district.

It said there shall be restrictions on public movement, including transport, and that commercial and other establishments shall remain closed. On August 5, the security forces also sealed party headquarters of the PDP in Srinagar. The party has said it will mark August 5 as a black day. The police also blocked access to Gupkar Road where residences of three former chief ministers—Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti—are located.

Most of Srinagar had already been sealed by security forces a day before the curfew order was issued by Chaudhary. That order brought back painful memories of last year’s security lockdown and communication blockade that cut Jammu and Kashmir from the outside world for weeks.

Though the lockdown helped prevent a backlash against withdrawing the limited autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, it created great anxiety in Kashmir and crippled the economy of the newly minted UT.

According to the Preliminary Economic Assessment Loss Report released by Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries( KCCI) in December last year, Kashmir’s economy suffered a loss of Rs 17,800 crore and 4.9 lakh jobs were lost between August and October 2019. “The loss to business in Kashmir now stands Rs 40,000 till August 2020,’’ said Sheikh Ashiq, president KCCI. He said the job losses vary from season to season. “Last year, most jobs were lost in the hospitality sector after the government ordered tourists to leave Kashmir three days after [Article] 370 was taken down.”

The impact of the BJP decision to strike down Article 370 on the horticulture and handicrafts sectors, which earn Kashmir Rs 8,000 crore and Rs 1,600 crore annually, respectively, has been equally telling.

Last year, most of the apple crop couldn’t be exported on time due to the lockdown. The farmers couldn’t contact the buyers due to communication blockade. The problem was compounded after militants attacked several apple traders and truckers in south Kashmir’s Shopian and Pulwama. Horticulture provides livelihood to 30 lakh people directly and indirectly in Kashmir. Handicrafts industry employs more than 2.5 lakh artisans. Most of the artisans were left jobless as the lockdown disrupted access to raw material and exports. In the carpet belt of Pattan and Sumbal in Baramulla, thousands of carpet weavers closed their looms and have taken to menial labour to earn a living. The condition of artisans dealing with shawls, Papier-mâché and wood carving is no better. According to Syed Kounsar Shah, an award-winning Papier-mâché artist, most artisans couldn’t sell their stocks due to the lockdown and communication blockade last year.

“We are arranging counselling sessions for some of our artisans who have become suicidal due to unsold stocks,’’ Kounsar said. “I feel equally desperate.”

Kashmir’s economy was already under strain due to conflict, but last year’s siege has left it in tatters. Since last August, the number of houseboat and shikara owners who have listed for aid with House Welfare Trust, a charity, has reached 600. Tariq Patloo, who volunteers for the charity, said the charity was floated on an emergency basis by the houseboat industry with the help of the community members settled outside Kashmir and abroad. “We provide food kits to the needy at night to maintain secrecy,’’ Patloo said. “Our community is not used to taking aid but since last August, tourism has taken a massive hit.” The condition of land riders is equally appalling.

“We have 26,000 cab drivers and all of them are without work since last August,’’ said Ghulam Nabi Pandav, chairman of Kashmir Tourists Taxi Operators. “Some drivers are working as labourers outside Srinagar to feed their families.’’ He said it was said that rivers of milk will flow in Kashmir after Article 370 is removed. “Where are those rivers?’’ he asked.

The crackdown against the separatist began in 2018 after the NIA arrested many of them for receiving terror funds including JKLF leader Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Abdul Gani Bhat and Bilal Lone. However, they have preferred to remain silent in the wake of scrapping of the special status. A senior separatist leader told the BJP’s politics of changing the ground realities in Kashmir will have serious consequences. He said the use of force has its limits and it will backfire .“Today, those who stood to India are completely alienated,’’ he said. “China has made a move in Ladakh and I am sure Pakistan is party to it.”

While the BJP has managed to silence the separatists, analysts believe that shrinking of political space in Kashmir will ultimately create conditions for more violence and instability.

The mainstream parties who called for Kashmir’s integration with India—NC and the PDP—have become the biggest casualty of the Article 370 move. Except Mehbooba Mufti, most political leaders who were arrested in August last year have been released, but none of them have spoken against the removal of Article 370. Omar Abdullah faced a lot of hostility on social media for his column in a newspaper in which he said he wouldn’t contest elections unless the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir is restored.

Though he later tried to clarify that he will not accept the BJP’s decision taken on August 5 last year, The clarification failed to dispel the impression in Kashmir that the NC leaders were ready to look beyond Article 370 and settle for statehood alone. The statement also led to the resignation of three-time legislator, Aga Roohullah, from post of spokesman of the NC. “I have sent across my resignation from the post of Chief Spokesperson of @JKNC. From here on none of my statements should be considered as such,” Roohullah said on his verified Twitter handle.

Farooq Abdullah, the NC president, told that the party’s primary fight will be in the courts because that is where they expect to get justice from. “There is no point expecting justice from the very government that snatched Article 370 from the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Farooq said. He said as a political party, it is but natural that “we will also keep the people abreast of what we plan to do”. “We were among the first to approach the Supreme Court and we have one of the best-drafted petitions. If by proactive you mean street protests, then the time [for] that has passed. We are a democratic mainstream party and will use every democratic means at our disposal,” he said.

The dominant impression in Kashmir is that the NC—the father-son duo of Farooq and Omar—have compromised on the question of Article 370 and want to get back to power sooner. Both the senior leaders of the NC have argued that they have not given up on the restoration of Article 370 and are fighting the case in the Supreme Court. Unlike the NC, Mehbooba Mufti—whose detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA) was extended for three months on August 2—has been defiant. Her daughter, Iltija Mufti, said she has not accepted the BJP decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy.

The outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has further aggravated the economic crisis in Kashmir as it has prevented the return of the tourists and opening up of business in Kashmir. Soon after the lockdown to fight COVID-19 was declared on March 25, the Centre announced the new domicile law in the UT. The law allows Central government officials to apply for domicile status if they have served for 10 years in Jammu and Kashmir. The law also covers employees of various PSUs and banks. It also allows domicile status to those who have appeared in class 7 or 10 in the education institutions of J&K.

The move has sparked fears of demographic change in Kashmir. The immediate beneficiaries of the law are migrants living in Jammu and Kashmir. According to the Census of 2011, around 29 lakh migrants were living in Jammu and Kashmir. Of them, 17 lakh have competed 15 years residency in Jammu and Kashmir. Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir constitute 70 per cent of the 1.25 crore population. However, after the new domicile law, the percentage of Muslims will considerably come down.

After some years, the perception is Jammu and Kashmir will cease to be the only Muslim-majority province in India. The BJP is banking big on demographic change in the former state. The party has already initiated delimitation in the UT; the process will grant more seats to Jammu. At present, Jammu has 37 Assembly seats compared with 46 in Kashmir. After delimitation, Jammu is likely to gain up to five seats against two for Kashmir. That will narrow the difference in the number of Assembly seats between Jammu and Kashmir and alter the power equation in favour of Jammu. There is also a fear that Muslim-majority seats in Jammu’s Chenab Valley and Pir Panjal will be delineated in such a way that the Muslim vote will be divided.

While the delimitation process has been welcomed by people in Jammu—especially in the Dogra heartland of Jammu, Udhampur, Samba and Kathua—the opening up of jobs for outsiders who have attained domicile status in Jammu and Kashmir under the new law has angered people no end. The move could backfire for the BJP in the next Assembly elections.

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