India’s Farthest Frontiers Frozen in Time

On August 5, 2019, all clocks stopped in Jammu and Kashmir. Or so, it seemed. Time hasn’t moved since for millions in the state with the lockdown in the Valley well into its fourth month. Thanks to the abrupt and sudden abrogation of Article 370, life as the Kashmiris knew it, has come to a standstill.

First, they kept waiting to hear from their loved ones whom they couldn’t establish contact with, since their internet and mobile connections were snapped. Then they kept waiting to hear what was going on in their state capital, as their leaders were put under house arrest. Next, they kept waiting to hear from outside Kashmir to know just what the leaders in Delhi had in mind for them.

Silence. Silence. And more silence. Not just for hours or days, but for weeks and months on end.

India’s leaders had left Kashmir in limbo. They have been in this state of suspended animation for months, not knowing when they can speak to someone, when they can get back to school, college and work, when they can bring in some income to keep the home fires burning.

Time has stopped for ordinary Kashmiris, with their statehood taken away

Meanwhile, in India people have been celebrating the Centre’s decision and hailing it as a bold move and I agree with Ram Guha when he calls it triumphalism. Political leaders even made it the campaign issue for elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, trying to portray it as a bold and visionary decision to unite India, when all the while they were playing the religion card. It is another matter that it didn’t quite work and that BJP and Shiv Sena were slugging it out to form a government in Maharashtra.

Back in Kashmir, there is untold suffering and what few media reports there are speak of terrible torture and heavy-handed measures, as usual. People of the state aren’t new to this, considering they’ve lived under AFSPA for decades. However, this time it is different. They have been kept under lockdown, their voices have been taken away. Their leaders have been taken away, yet another way to make sure the people don’t have a voice. Most important, their statehood has been taken away and they weren’t even consulted on the matter.

Tick-tock. Time must crawl here, if it moves at all. No work, no interaction with people, nowhere to go, nothing to do. The entire state has been turned into a prison. People’s homes are being raided at all times of day and night, searching for suspected “terrorists”. The state has turned on its own people. And according to some media reports, even the pro-India people in Kashmir are now too shocked to be a party to this and feel betrayed by the action.

India and the rest of the world are being told things are back to normal. It took over 3 weeks for restrictions on the streets of Srinagar to be relaxed, so Kashmiris could at least stock up on groceries or buy medicines or say their prayers at a nearby mosque. It took more than 2 months for mobile connections to be restored, and then, only post-paid connections. Prepaid connections and the internet are still down. Their political leaders are still under arrest. Does this look like normal to anyone? Thanks to some media outlets who have continued to report on the Valley, we know better. According to this article in The Economic and Political Weekly, whose authors are from Free Speech Collective, media has all but been suppressed and the Centre is resorting to all kinds of measures to control communication in the Valley. And thanks to a report by sociologist, Nandini Sundar, of Delhi University and lawyer, Nitya Ramakrishnan, who visited Kashmir recently, we know what life is like for ordinary Kashmiris. You can read the report which I received on social media, by clicking on the link below.

In India, during this time, two states have had their elections, an entire quarter of economic activity has taken place, we have celebrated a festive season, opted to stay out of a regional trade organization, and heard a Supreme Court verdict on the 70 year-old Ayodhya case. We have even had Pakistan open the Kartarpur corridor, after the initial violent reaction to the Indian decision in Kashmir.

Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s birth anniversary came and went. As yet another PR exercise, it was called Unity Day to celebrate the unity of India, but not with the people of Kashmir. I thought the Centre might release the leaders of Kashmir on that day and invite them for talks, but I suppose that was too much to expect from the government. It’s something the great Sardar himself might have chosen to do, but they lack his magnanimity. Instead, they chose Unity Day to announce the formal creation of two union territories, as if to rub salt into Kashmiris’ wounds.

They talk of development and economic growth for the people of Kashmir. But as economists like Jean Dreze and Prabhat Patnaik point out (which I shared in my previous post on Kashmir), Kashmir is already well-developed – even better than Gujarat on human development indicators – and there is no likelihood of big industry setting up base there as transportation and logistics costs make it unfeasible. Jammu and Kashmir’s economic growth has been relatively good in recent years, though erratic; the biggest problem, however, is urban unemployment which is said to be around 70%.

An invitation to land speculators and loan sharks

The truth is that the Centre’s decision was taken mainly to open the gates for outsiders to purchase land in Kashmir; an invitation to land-grabbing realtors and land and loan sharks, a key BJP constituency. They probably plan to develop tourism in a big way; imagine a valley then, whose residents are kept at home while tourists swarm and roam their streets, take boat rides in their lakes and rivers, ski on their slopes…

As a sampler of how things might be in the new Kashmir, foreign parliamentarians from 27 EU countries were invited to visit the valley. I needn’t mention, of course, that an NGO of dubious credentials organized the visit and has vanished since. Nor need I add that the parliamentarians were almost all from far-right, Islamophobic parties in certain EU countries, who doubtless support the Indian government in its decision.

Tick-tock. The silence in the Valley must be deafening. Economic activity has come to a halt in the valley during the months when Kashmiris would have liked to earn some income and stock their larders for harsh winter months ahead. But to tone-deaf governments at the Centre, right from the days of accession of Kashmir to India, it has never mattered.

Just as it has never mattered what goes on in the North-East of India. India has recently conducted a large Supreme Court monitored citizenship determination exercise in Assam and 1.9 million people were deemed illegal immigrants. The latest development is that the NRC exercise will be replicated across the country and will be repeated in Assam. According to this article in India Today, many believe it is being conducted again in Assam as around 50% of the 1.9 million were found to be Hindus, the core constituency for the Hindu nationalist BJP. This only proves, as I have suspected, that the citizenship determination exercise was always an ethno-religious determination exercise, since most illegal immigrants are perceived to be Bangladeshi Muslims, whom the Home Minister has already called “termites” at a public rally.

Lifting the fog on integrating frontier states of the North East; Image: Sayli Satpute on Unsplash

It goes against the Assam Accord and will create entire generations of useless people in Assam, since they will not be allowed to take up a job or conduct any economic activity. Their children will probably not go to school or else, the state will end up looking after them until they reach working age, when again they will not be allowed to take up employment. And so, the cycle repeats itself. This isn’t just being tone deaf, it is being downright stupid. The Indian government will have to decide soon what it intends to do with the large number of illegal immigrants and early indications are that Bangladesh will not accept them, reeling as they already are with the pressure of caring for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.

Meanwhile, large parts of the North East too remain under AFSPA; Manipur and Nagaland remain restive. After the photo-op peace declared between the leader of the Naga insurgency group and our Prime Minister in 2015, not much has been reported in the Indian media. Until now, that is, when suddenly there is talk of a deal with NSCN (IM), the deadline for which just passed on October 31, 2019, Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary.

Media reports, brief as they are on this, only say that the main sticking points remain a separate flag and a new constitution for Nagaland. I don’t know about you, but this sure sounds like trouble to me. We have just stripped one state of its Constitution – Kashmir – and we are going to agree to a separate constitution for another. Why? Because they are not Muslims? If that’s not bad enough, I also happened to read a newspaper report which said that the Nagas have been asked to consult with Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh on a Greater Nagaland for the Naga people.

As a country where no government has bothered to resolve our border issues with China for over 70 years, we should be greatly troubled and move cautiously. Besides, the Naga insurgency itself operates from camps deep in Myanmar territory. All our talk of Looking East or Acting East is nothing but sloganeering. Neglected by successive governments, here too, time has stood still for decades. Though many North Eastern states have been growing at a steady clip, we must remember that it is on a small base, and like in J&K, the biggest problem is of urban unemployment. Many people from the North East now seek employment in India’s larger towns and cities and are often at the receiving end of racist slurs, like “Chinkies”, ‘Slit-eyed” etc.

Tick-tock. Imagine India then as a giant clockface, with Kashmir at XII and the North East at III. In these parts, we haven’t allowed time to move forward; it is always either 3 am or 3 pm. For over 70 years, we have used India’s farthest frontiers only as outposts, from where we like to assert and declare our sovereignty. While we keep their people under armed forces special powers. They are strategic as far as our external interests are concerned, but not as regions and peoples that deserve to grow and flourish.

For years, we have heard our leaders’ constant refrain “Kashmir is an integral part of India”. Now we know it was always meant for an international audience. The people of Kashmir, meanwhile, will continue to be exiled in their own land.

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