Four years after India revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution — which gave partial autonomy to the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir — and downsized it into two federally administered territories, the region continues to be without an elected government and is being directly ruled by New Delhi.
30-year-old Majid Mir* was a staunch supporter of the pro-independence movement in the Indian-administered Kashmir some six years ago. He would regularly participate in protest marches calling for Kashmir’s succession and would chant pro-freedom and anti-Indian slogans asking the Indian Army to leave Jammu and Kashmir. But recently, he has had a political reversal.
Now Mir, a resident of North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, is a strong believer in the “idea of India” and wants to inform people why they should side with India. His political transformation reflects the changing perspectives around electoral politics in the conflicted region. After an election boycott before 2019, there is a growing hunger for elections among the population, who hope to escape from the quagmire of what they see as a semi-colonial lack of direct representation. But the question now is: When will the government hold these elections? The ruling Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be in no hurry.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is a disputed territory between two nuclear-armed countries — India and Pakistan, who claim it in full but rule over parts. The countries have fought three wars over the territory. And the region, which is one of the most militarized zones in the world, has been a hotbed for conflict since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Separatist militants have been engaged in an armed rebellion against India’s authority in the region for over 30 years.
In recent developments of this ongoing saga, Kashmir has been on edge since Aug. 5, 2019, when India’s right-wing BJP government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the article that had granted Kashmir special status and limited autonomy.
The move was strongly opposed by people in Kashmir and the government responded with a massive crackdown. Thousands of people, including pro-Indian politicians, were put behind bars for several months. The internet was shut off for over five months and the entire valley was put under indefinite curfew. At the time, the Indian government claimed that the move was necessary to wipe out the militancy and separatism in the region, and experts attest the crackdown was largely successful.
In August this year, India’s highest court asked the government when they are going to conduct the elections and restore the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir. In October the country’s Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar said that elections in the region will be scheduled, but refused to give any time frame.
Significantly, political parties hailing from Jammu and Kashmir have contested the nullification of the state’s status in the Supreme Court. After a prolonged wait of four years, the case has finally been granted a hearing. Both parties have presented their arguments, and a verdict is anticipated in the near future.
The region, which is one of the most militarized zones in the world, has been a hotbed for conflict since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Former chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah argues that the present administration appointed by New Delhi is not connected with the people and isn’t reaching out to them. “There is a huge gap between the common people and the administration because they aren’t accountable and haven’t had to face the people like an elected representative has to,” Abdullah a staunch pro-Indian politician said in an interview. “Thus people are fed-up with them and they want their own elected government” he added. Abdullah, along with many other politicians, was put behind bars for several months when BJP revoked the special status.
“Things might improve if the elections are held,” said Mehak Mir, a student from Kashmir University.
“This is a temporary peace,” argues Waheed ur Rehman Para, who is associated with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) saying, “There is a huge political vacuum in the region post abrogation of article 370.” Para acknowledges that the region has witnessed massive developmental works following the decision but maintains that infrastructural development is not the only thing that is needed. Hundreds of youth are still behind bars, journalists and dissent voices have been silenced. Unemployment is soaring alongside a drug epidemic.
Para argues that the Narendra Modi-led government gave opportunity to the people of Kashmir for talks and negotiations but they failed to reap its benefits. Modi dispatched party delegations to Kashmir for talks, gave amnesty to stone-throwers, appointed an interlocutor to hold dialogues with the spectrum of relevant actors in the region and declared a ceasefire.
Majid Mir, the former secessionist activist who now hopes for elections, was born in 1990, the same year that the armed uprising broke out in the region. Over time, the conflict made a deep impact on him and shaped his personality. He didn’t choose to violently fight against Indian rule, but he would occasionally participate in protest rallies — for which he was punished. For example, during the summer uprising of 2016, Mir was held under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA) and sent to jail where he spent over 11 months before he was released by a local court. Under the PSA, a person can be detained for over two years without trial. The regional police have held Mir in half a dozen cases and if convicted, he will face imprisonment for up to 20 years. But he said he “regrets” it now and wants people of his age to look forward to India and move ahead. “I don’t want people to suffer like me. My entire life has turned to hell. I have to spend most of the time in the court to defend my case,” Mir said. “This is a fight between big powers,” he added, “Unfortunately young people are getting consumed in the conflict.”
Political observers believe that keeping the Kashmir Valley without local government can bring serious instability in the region and further alienate Kashmiris. “The situation will never return to normal,” says Manoj Joshi, a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent global think tank based in Delhi. He argues that any set of people living under the “disturbed circumstances” that the people of J&K are living in would want an elected government. “Delhi needs to seize the opportunity, if everyone is willing to participate in the electoral process,” Joshi says.
* Majid Mir agreed to be interviewed using a pseudonym to protect his identity.