A radical new approach in Kashmir may bear fruit, but authorities must tread cautiously.
“A Sovereign within a Sovereign”, aka “One Country, Two Laws”, can be tricky to navigate. Scores of heads were spiked in fantasylands of “Game of Thrones”; real blood was shed by the buckets in chronicles of history. On a split-screen this morning, two very contrasting images jump out – an airport in standstill but filled with thousands, and a city deserted except for the camouflage and barbed wire. Two images are tied by a thread of misadventures and malapropos of interpretation of the same concept.
Last week India replaced a State-sponsored identity solution by abrogating Article 370 with an organic one fueled by shared prosperity over time. Article 370 was an anachronism to start with. Its explicit goal was to keep Kashmir inside India by according it a unique status of a Sovereign within a Sovereign – its residents were not citizens of India till 1954 and Indian nationals needed a permit to visit till 1959.
Indian laws were not laws inside Kashmir unless they were passed by the State separately. Successful examples of Sovereign within Sovereign concept – US treaties with Sovereign native tribes come to mind – did not go that far, a fact not lost on successive state and Union governments. Subsequently legislative and court diktats whittled away vestiges of “sovereignty”. Article 370 did not stop elected state leaders to be deposed, and jailed, repeatedly over seven decades. It did not stop President’s Rule from being imposed at the will of the Center, repeatedly. It did not stop state security apparatus from being supplanted by paramilitary forces – estimated seven hundred thousand are manning checkpoints and installing barbed wire as we speak.
Article 370 was a de-facto toothless byline from a troubled past. It was meant to give residents a sense of separate identity so they can feel Indian, and it failed miserably. It just made eight million people a false sense of being separate, and unequal, thus making a nefarious few exploit the situation with outside help.
Article 35 is even more troublesome. This land is my land, it said to anybody not deemed Kashmiri, and it cannot be yours – no ifs and buts. If there is a Heaven on Earth, breathtakingly beautiful Kashmir must be part of it, promising bounty for all. Except that it is not. Decades of mismanagement, false policies – and insurgency since 1990’s – have spectacularly failed in so doing. Kashmir is not the poorest state of India, nor it is the most laggard by metrics of human development, but it is far below its potential. Of particular note is the spectacularly underutilized youth who are more educated than many Indian states, adding to disenchantment and fueling insurgency. Native American tribe territories in US have similar laws and with predictably similar frustrations. Kashmir needs capital and expertise from outside, and making them hostage to state’s meager sources is an insult to injury.
The combined effect of, and mismanagement around, Article 370 and Article 35 was sinister. It left proud, ready, willing and able Kashmiris with a begging bowl looking for pennies from Delhi; and for some, incitement from across the border. Seven decades of dancing around helped situation fester and with no clear path forward. Successive coalitions in the state and the center were too willing to exacerbate, and thereby exploit, status quo.
State-sponsored identity solutions have an organic tendency to fail miserably. Prosperity breeds fellow feeling and a sense of participation in the system that helped spawn these blessings as history, especially that of US, teaches us. Dual laws breed consternation and aggravation on all sides, Hong Kong experience is a concurrent testament. Abrogation of Articles 370 removes any false pretense of separation from “mainland” India amongst Kashmiri people. Removing Article 35A helps bring capital, monetary and human, come in from outside of it – thereby jumpstarting a process of counting bounties of natural beauty. Combined, India removes a state-sponsored identity solution with an organic one that is fueled by shared prosperity, face to face interaction in everyday existence and shared destiny.
The billion-dollar question is, are we on the right path?
Bonfire of the Vanities inflamed Kashmir for ages, ambers are hot to the touch, potentially combustible with the lightest breeze. Last week’s clampdown did no favors – India cut off all telephone, internet and mobile connection throughout the state. By some accounts, more than 400 people lined up to use the lone telephone at a government facility, newspapers were cut off from wires with journalists hand-cranking old machines to produce handful of copies before ink runs out, locals needed curfew-pass to go out of their home even if with medical emergency, with television switched off locals had no idea what’s on their plate. Talking about plates – closure of most shops, and streets, even during Eid-al-adha, meant no comforts of a shared feast at a supposedly festive day. In a series of interviews done by The New York Times, nearly all of 50 Kashmiris expected India’s actions to increase a sense of alienation and in turn fuel rebellion when the vice grip is loosened. Srinagar felt like a ghost town – “feels like a jail, a big open-air jail” with a population “left besieged, confused, frightened and furious by the seismic events” of last week.
If India has reasons to be worried, draconian steps are not helping. Insurgency is always asymmetric warfare – a few hundred young rebels roam the valley, claims The New York Times, “poorly trained and outnumbered by an Indian force nearly 1,000 to one”. What is apparent to residents, and the world, are ubiquitous stern faces in uniform and behind barbed wire, sandbags cum makeshift bunkers, and ever-present checkpoints. Sheer show of force, in and by itself a default stance of the mighty, is not a carrot-and-sticks gambit we need.
Taking direct ownership of the outcomes, the Center must now act with care. It must do three things simultaneously – a. bring normal life back to the streets of Kashmir, including in troubled cities b. stanch the flow of support, arms and new fighters from across the border and c. bring in promised goodies of private-public partnership in reenergizing of Kashmiri economy. The urgency in the first is immediate, second is a continuous vigil to be supplemented by a muscular presence in global bodies and alliances of shared interests, the third is a near-term project accompanied by proper legal and infrastructural support.
Kashmiris never has seen the triumvirate in a synchronized dance, and that is the big opportunity. That said, no one – repeat no one – shall anticipate an easy process. Mistakes will be made, the goal is to identify one bad step and retrace to the giant leap for India. Kashmiris – above all else in India – have seen victims of misguided policies, of being pawns of bigger games, of being taken advantage of by leaders closer to home and by leaders from afar. A radical break from the past shakes them awake, and, if coupled with visible benefits, they shall feel a sense of commitment and benevolent intention from Delhi, missing for so long.
If executed appropriately, radical moves of last week shall be the best thing that happened in Kashmir for decades. Amen!
[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Blockchain and Wealth Management. All opinions are of the author alone and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission.]