The rightness or wrongness of the decision will now depend on what it can accomplish in terms of making Kashmir a normal place.
The legalities, the democratic niceties, political pros and cons regarding the abrogation of Article 370, the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and giving Jammu and Kashmir on one hand and Ladakh on the other Union territory status has now been reduced to a matter of academic debate. The BJP government has accomplished what it has always wanted: take away Article 370, which had given a special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
What is of interest now is the promised effects of the change. The rightness or wrongness of the decision will now depend on what it can accomplish in terms of making Kashmir a normal place. Will private businesses venture into Kashmir — as it is Kashmir that remains the focal point and Jammu will remain in the political shadows? And whether this will make Kashmir a more peaceable place? Of course, the security forces have to remain there in full strength as there is no other way the troublemakers can be held at bay. What then will be the development boom in the presence of these troops?
Alternately, the central government is prepared for the long haul, the troops will be out on the streets for a year or more, and as it is now a UT, the Centre can take all the decisions, leaving nothing to the local administration. The promised elections and the Assembly and the UT government that will emerge from them might remain tame affairs. The Centre is likely to keep a strict vigil on who will contest the elections and who will get elected. There has always been the suspicion that elections in Jammu and Kashmir have been far from transparent, and the image is not likely to change, at least for now. It will be a matter of interest whether the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party will take part in the elections when they are held. That might leave the field open for the BJP to grow roots. There is also the possibility that elections may be put off for a longer time under the pretext that there is a need for time for the new system to take root.
What Prime Minister Narendra Modi is confident of is that when the material well-being of the people in Kashmir is taken care of, then they will strengthen the democratic structures and processes on their own. It is more of a political calculation and less of a pious intention. Political legitimacy will accrue gradually, and the central government is unlikely to show any haste that it has shown in altering the status quo.
One of the interesting points in Prime Minister Modi’s televised address to the country on Jammu and Kashmir is that panchayat elections have been held successfully and the elected sarpanches are eager to make the local bodies function effectively. There was a clear hint that in the old system which functioned under the shadow of Article 370 that the sarpanches did not have much scope to work. Now that the Centre is in control, they will be given funds which they can spend for development works on the ground. It is of course futile to argue that Article 370 did not come in the way of a functioning panchayat system.
Mr Modi is depending on these potential improvements in local governance to prove his point that the abrogation of Article 370 and stripping the state of its statehood were meant to make things better for the people, and to use his own phrase, improve the “ease of living”.
There will be a section of the people who will cooperate with the Centre and establish themselves in local politics, which was effectively denied to them by parties like the NC and PDP. The question is whether these new players who would be taking their place in the system will gain legitimacy on their own, or will they be suspect in the eyes of the people.
There is little doubt that the people at large are not too fond of the NC or PDP, but that doesn’t mean they will take to the BJP and its collaborators with any great enthusiasm. What the Narendra Modi government may not countenance is the possibility that the people, stepping out of the shadows of the old political parties, are likely to assert their new democratic rights with greater vigour, which might translate into criticism of the government, protests and new demands. The dilemma of the Modi government would be about the degree of political freedom that it would allow the people.
The assumption of Prime Minister Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah and the security aides of the government would be that material well-being would serve as a political anodyne, and that there should not be any trouble beyond that. It is but natural that Prime Minister Modi is not reckoning with the unpredictability of political freedom. In the new Jammu and Kashmir, the tussle will be between an administration that wants to assure the “ease of living” and a people who might be looking beyond the “ease of living”. The people in Jammu and Kashmir, like people elsewhere in the country, may not want to remain docile because their material needs have been taken care of. It is also possible that the people in this troubled UT, who have lived with turbulence for too long, might bite the Prime Minister’s bullet of “ease of living” and stay quiet. They might be satisfied with more players from the Valley in the national teams of various games, more people in the national administrative services.
The signs of what is happening to the people of Kashmir will have to be seen in what they write in Kashmiri, the language which is known for its biting satire as it does for Sufi outpourings. What happens in the Kashmiri language will be the real barometer of the state of affairs in the minds of the people in the Valley. The people of Jammu will have less to quarrel with the central government because their main quarrel was with the Kashmiris. There was a time when Kashmiris resented the dominance of Jammu through its Dogra rulers, followed by Jammu’s resentment of Kashmiri dominance in the last 70 years. Now that there is no scope of a quarrel with the traditional rivals, the Kashmiris, it would be interesting to know what the people of Jammu will do with their Dogri language.