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For years now, the Bharatiya Janata Party has highlighted the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s as a strategy to mobilise support for its Hindu nationalist ideology. The most recent iteration of this was the BJP-backed movie, The Kashmir Files, which, as Scroll.in’s Ipsita Chakravarty pointed out was “not about Kashmir at all but about the wider national imaginary that has been under reconstruction since 2014”. And this is not only in theory: a report by Scroll.in’s Supriya Sharma found that the film played a key role in sparking off a communal riot in Madhya Pradesh.
Last month, however, saw a twist in this tale as Kashmiri Pandits took to the streets in Jammu and Kashmir to protest against the BJP. The catalyst: a wave of targetted killings by militants in the state, many of which marked out the state’s Hindu minority community (although Kashmiri Muslims working with the Indian state as well as Muslim migrants from other states have also been attacked).
Under the Manmohan Singh government’s Prime Minister’s Rehabilitation and Return Scheme, Kashmiri Pandits had returned to the Valley in small numbers. However, terrorised by these recent killings, Pandits and other members of the Hindu community are trying to flee Kashmir. The panic is understandable. In just the last month, as many as nine people have been shot dead by militants.
Rather than take measures to ensure their security, the BJP has been accused by Hindus in Kashmir of forcefully presenting a facade of normalcy in order to further its politics. The reason for this politics is not difficult to see. The saffron party has claimed that its highly militaristic policy towards Kashmir will solve the political dispute once and for all.
In August 2019, after being voted back to power in a landslide, the BJP removed the special status Jammu and Kashmir had been granted under the Indian Constitution. This included provisions that prohibited Indians from other states from purchasing property in the state – a safeguard against Kashmiris being swamped by inter-state migration. In addition, the BJP also partitioned the state and downgraded it to the status of a Union territory, ruled directly from New Delhi.
In some ways, this was the apogee of BJP’s muscular policy towards Kashmir. Even during its first term, the Modi government depended on an increasingly militaristic response to the alienation in Kashmir. This approach was maxed out after the abrogation of special status in 2019: the state was put under a total communications blockade, and almost all major leaders were arrested. This Draconian state of affairs lasted nearly two years. In theory, it was aimed at ending militancy in Kashmir and at stopping any protest against the sudden constitutional changes effected in New Delhi.
Yet, as is clear, with the targeted killings, the aim of ending militancy has not been fulfilled. Kashmiri minorities, in fact, are more in danger now than they were a decade ago. In effect, the revocation of special status and demographic safeguards has weakened India’s security position in the Valley.
For seven decades, India had built up a sophisticated system to “manage” Kashmir, using a mixture of military force and political measures: maintaining local Kashmiri leadership such as the Abdullahs and the Muftis and even talking to moderate separatists. The dislocatory changes of 2019 dynamited the entire edifice. New Delhi will have to now build a new Kashmir strategy.
Notably, even as the security situation became worse with the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the Indian government gained no extra powers in return. The protections for Kashmiris contained in Article 370, the legal statute that encoded Kashmir’s special status, had already been whittled away to nothingness long before Narendra Modi entered Indian politics. As legal scholar AG Noorani points out, the existence of Article 370, in fact, eventually gave New Delhi more powers in Kashmir than in other states. As he shows, New Delhi could impose long spells of Central rule only with an executive order – a power that the Centre did not possess with other states.
The only tangible change in legal powers has been the wiping out of demographic safeguards in Kashmir – something other states such as Uttarakhand and Himachal also have. Except, till now, even that has little existence on the ground. Given the security situation, it is quite obvious that Indians from other states will hardly be making a beeline to settle in Kashmir.
BJP vs Indian security goals
Even if the abrogation of special status and the clampdown on Kashmir has been a setback for the Indian state, it has been a victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has used the issue to push its hardline Hindu nationalist agenda in other states. Even setbacks such as Kashmiri Pandit anger will have limited impact: the BJP’s iron grip control over mass media ensures that in most cases, the protests have not got the airtime they deserve.
For Indian security interests, however, this is a worrying situation. The BJP’s feedback loop is far from optimal. In effect, even if the unstrategic decision to adopt a purely militaristic approach in Kashmir has failed, there seems to be little to nudge the BJP onto the right track. In fact, as has been clear since Modi’s first term, more conflict in Kashmir could even help the BJP politically, by giving it a plank in other states, much as the 2019 Pulwama attack and its aftermath did during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.