BY Barkha Dutt
A year after the effective nullification of Article 370, nobody believes that the special status of J&K will be restored and almost everybody believes that its statehood will be returned
Once upon a time Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was prime time’s favourite hunting ground. Rampaging broadcast hosts stomped all over it to proclaim who was patriotic and who was anti-national. Now, these anchors have diverted all their energy to the camp wars of the film industry and the Kashmir story is a forgotten headline, pulled out every now and then from the archives to make a larger point about nationalism.
The specificities of the situation, whether it is militancy, the key players, the restoration of statehood or the prolonged detention of mainstream politicians is too substantive and serious to find any space in salacious, gossipy television noise.
Perhaps that explains the absence of any real attention to the political exit of a young man once embraced, even by the Right-wing, as the great new hope. When Shah Faesal, a doctor, topped the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), his posters were juxtaposed with those of Burhan Wani, killed in an anti-terror operation in 2016. Faesal was the perfect antidote to the trope of the educated local militant. For every story about the school topper who picked up the gun, there was Faesal, the somewhat shy, mild-mannered brainiac who had encouraged an entire generation of young Kashmiris to find a future, not just within the Indian Constitution, but within the government. This year too,16 Kashmiri candidates cleared the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) selection process.
Faesal, who had famously captured the binary forced on his ilk by admitting that politicians from the (erstwhile) state were slotted as either “separatists or stooges”, made a low-key departure from electoral politics. All he would say is that “things in Kashmir had changed forever”.
Why are we not more worried? Why are we not more puzzled? A year after the effective nullification of Article 370, nobody believes that the special status of the state will be restored and almost everybody believes that its statehood will be returned. But what no one knows is what we have achieved by the abject humiliation of those who stood by our Union and Constitution.
Sure, some of them may have flirted with autonomy and slogans of self-rule. And others were propped up by support from New Delhi. And, yes, J&K’s mainstream politicians have to reflect on why there was such little support on the street for them. But by rubbing their noses in the ground and handing an entire generation of young separatists an “Aha-we-told-you-so moment”, what precisely has been gained?
Faesal is not the only politician who once had the approval of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to have fallen out of favour. An even more dramatic example is that of Sajjad Lone, brother and son of separatists. If his father was assassinated by those affiliated to Pakistan, for being willing to talk peace with a BJP government (Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister), the son walked many more steps in that direction by fielding candidates in the 2002 assembly elections. Later, he called Prime Minister Narendra Modi his brother and openly allied with the BJP. Lone was known to be a favourite among Kashmir-watchers of the Sangh parivar. He has not uttered a word since his release from detention.
And then there are former chief minister Omar Abdullah’s candid remarks in a new book, India Tomorrow. Speaking to authors Pradeep Chhibber and Harsh Shah, Abdullah reveals the absolute sense of “anger, frustration, resentment and bitterness” he felt about being locked up. At the heart of his bewilderment is “why”. What had he done and what did jailing him do for Kashmir? He even goes so far as to indicate that he may not remain in electoral politics if statehood is not brought back. “I do not see myself being the chief minister of a Union Territory,” he tells the authors, adding that such an entity does not even have the power to appoint a peon.
In some ways, the BJP has achieved its political end. By shifting the goalpost to the restoration of statehood and domicile laws, the government has deftly ensured that literally no party is talking about special status any more. A bunch of petitions in the Supreme Court could take years to adjudicate. And every single mainstream politician has already made peace with the fact that Article 370 is not coming back.
But if that debate is buried, it is even less explicable why we need to weaken political activity.
The BJP promised that the end of Article 370 was going to be the close of business-as-usual in Kashmir.
But if anything defines business-as-usual, it has been New Delhi’s attempts at political engineering in the Valley.
The humiliation of the mainstream politician is one such illustration.
If J&K is truly integrated, why are we so fearful of democratic lawful politics?
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal