India’s Republic Day celebrations are an occasion to rejoice in the rituals of democracy whose norms are finely laid out in the constitution formally adopted on January 26, 1950. The constitution itself derives its core values from the country’s inspirational freedom struggle. Principal among these are justice, liberty and equality, along with the promotion of fraternity.
In Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A on August 5, 2019, January 26, 2021 was the second Republic Day which annulled Jammu and Kashmir’s long-time autonomy and downgraded its status to a union territory. In advance of the announcement, which sparked widespread anger among Kashmiris, many prominent political leaders were detained and kept under arrest for months, including three former chief ministers.
Previously, separatist groups would call for a general strike on days celebrated by India. But this time, the call was given only by a representative of the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The leaders who would generally greet the people on Republic Day chose not to speak this year and remained mute.
Kashmiris have always been disappointed by the authorities, who have now taken hard stand against those expressing or even suspected of having anti-India sentiments. The region has witnessed a number of civil uprisings and killings of hundreds of protesters. Now many Kashmiris prefer to remain quiet after seeing the authorities detain around 4,000 in the region following the August 2019 move.
Before the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status and the ensuing crackdown, young protestors used to come out to demonstrate regularly. There were also incidents of stone throwing targeting the Indian paramilitary forces guarding the area. But most Kashmiris avoid such activities now out of fear of getting arrested – or killed.
Kashmiris have been observing Republic Day with a shutdown since the 1990s, after the armed struggle began against the Indian authorities following a series of protests and attacks in the region. The day is celebrated in India to commemorate when the Constitution of India became effective on January 26, 1950.
The valley had a separate constitution and flag until the move of August 2019, when its special status was scrapped, taking away what little autonomy Kashmiris had. At the same time, the region was bifurcated into two federal union territories, Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh.
The Indian authorities have long blamed Pakistan for the violence in the region. To counter any terror attacks on Republic Day, the authorities blocked mobile internet services. It’s pertinent to mention that high-speed mobile internet has been continuously blocked since mid-2019, following the August changes to Kashmir’s status.
After the shutdown of mobile internet services prior to Republic Day, Kashmiris who are outside the region or have wired internet connections took a dig at the authorities for its blackout.
The suspension of mobile phone services and mobile internet services on January 26 and August 15 – the India’s Independence Day – has been a normal part of the security protocol in the region. However, this year the mobile phone services remained unaffected on Republic Day.
January 26 marked the second shutdown of the year 2021 in the region. The first shutdown was imposed on New Year’s Day after the killing of three local
rebels in an alleged “fake encounter” – a staged gun battle – on the outskirts of Srinagar on December 30, 2020.
Meanwhile at a few places in the region, the day was celebrated by Indian officials and workers amid tight security, including air surveillance by drones, with the main event held at Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium. The stadium, however, had a deserted look, as few Kashmiris showed up to celebrate.
The first tableau of Ladakh union territory to be showcased in the Republic Day parade has triggered a controversy with the leadership of Kargil district charging the local administration of “partial representation” and “ignoring its religious and cultural heritage in the tableau”.
The union territory of Ladakh was carved out of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state on October 31, 2019, and has been functioning as a separate Centrally-governed union territory, after the BJP-led Central government re-organised Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.
The union territory includes Buddisht-dominated Leh district and Muslim-majority Kargil district.
Last January around Republic Day, attention was focused on the women of Shaheen Bagh. Their peaceful round-the-clock picket protest organised mostly under tents in the short but bitter Delhi winter was awakening the conscience of the country, inspiring protestors from all walks of life to stand up for India’s constitutional commitment to secular values. Activists, poets and thousands of ordinary people committed to inclusion in the tradition of satyagraha honed by Mahatma Gandhi were opposing amendments to the citizenship law which sought to segregate refugees by religion to be eligible for Indian citizenship. Their protest, which might seem like a distant memory today, was cut short by a brutal riot, police crackdown and a hard COVID-19 induced lockdown.
A year later, the quest of the present national government to craft a ‘New India’ has instigated another massive peaceful mass mobilisation that flows across religious and regional lines. Farmers and their supporters are deeply apprehensive about three interrelated laws designed to alter the character of markets for agricultural produce with implications to benefit the interests of big business at the expense of small and marginal cultivators. The laws were hurriedly drawn up and pushed through parliament with undue haste and without proper debate about their implications on both livelihoods and states’ rights over agricultural activities which are precariously balanced with the remit of the Central government in the constitution.