The false promise of normalcy and development in Kashmir

Womic Baba & Anam Zakaria

Womic Baba & Anam Zakaria

This August marks a year since the Indian government abrogated Articles 370 and 35(a) of the Indian constitution, revoking Indian-administered Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and formally annexing the disputed region.

Article 370, although reduced to an “empty husk” through a series of legislations since 1953, allowed the region to have its own constitution, flag and laws. Article 35(a) enshrined the rights of indigenous Kashmiris towards land, education and jobs.

The move lent credence to the widespread belief in Kashmir that India wanted to effect a demographic change in the region. Even before the abrogation of the articles, Kashmiri scholars like Sheikh Showkat Hussain observed that the manipulation of population census data and the settlement of residents from outside the region had laid the foundations for altering the ethnoreligious makeup of Kashmir.

In its defence of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(a), the Indian government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has claimed that these constitutional amendments will bring development and normalcy, ending violence in the conflict-ridden region. In October 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured his supporters at a public rally that it would take no more than four months “to normalise the abnormal situation that has persisted [in Jammu and Kashmir] for 40 years.”

The government also claims that by taking away Kashmir’s special powers and integrating it with the rest of India, it will be able to bring the region at par with other Indian states and strengthen national unity.

In late March this year, the Indian government made all doubts about its intentions disappear by announcing a new domicile law allowing Indian citizens from outside Kashmir who fulfil certain criteria to obtain domicile status, which in turn enables them to lay a claim on land and government jobs in the region. These developments signal the arrival of settler colonialism to Kashmir with the aim of marginalising its majority Muslim population.

A development mirage

As with any colonial project, New Delhi is also crafting compelling narratives of progress, modernity and development to justify its actions in Kashmir. Yet, it seems increasingly clear that it is the government’s aggressive policies towards the region that have hurt its development path and its economy.

Kashmir’s economic history shows that it enjoyed a relatively stable economy compared to other Indian states for decades before annexation. In the mid-20th century, it underwent a social transformation that had few parallels in South Asia.

In an interview with an Indian daily last year, noted economist Jean Dreze emphasised that Jammu and Kashmir had been able to maintain key development indicators at par with other Indian states because of Article 370 which allowed for the radical land reforms of the 1950s.

The reforms abolished the feudal economic structure and extortionate taxes on peasants and put an end to the feudal exploitation of their labour. This reshaped the socioeconomic landscape of the region, improving the lot of many Kashmiris.

As a result, Kashmir has historically ranked better than the national average in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality and poverty. The Indian government’s actions, however, threaten to undo this progress. The local economy has already suffered immensely due to its policy of militarisation.

In the lead-up to August 5, 2019, the longest communication blockade in any democracy’s history was imposed in the region. Thousands of additional troops were moved in, businesses and schools were shut down and a complete lockdown was enforced. By mid-March this year, the spread of the novel coronavirus necessitated another lockdown. These events have dealt an unprecedented blow to the economy.

A preliminary assessment conducted by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce (KCCI) estimates that Kashmir’s economy has incurred losses of up to $5.32bn and more than 100,000 people have become unemployed since India stripped Kashmir of its special status.

Kashmiris of various political leanings unambiguously believe that the Indian state is deliberately trying to disenfranchise them with its policies. With a federally appointed lieutenant governor calling the shots, even pro-India politicians have raised concerns that an influx of outsiders, combined with the suspension of safeguards for the locals, will shred Kashmir’s social, political and economic fabric.

In July, the Indian government granted approval to the Indian armed forces to carry out construction activities beyond military cantonments to reconcile “security needs with developmental aspirations”. On the ground, this policy could translate into entire areas being taken over and developed for the use of Indian soldiers.

Earlier in June, a majority of sand mining tenders along the river bed of Jhelum and its tributaries were bagged by non-locals for the first time. The bidding process was held online with local contractors disproportionately disadvantaged, as high-speed internet connectivity remains restricted in most parts of Kashmir. Until last year, only local contractors held rights for the extraction of minerals.

The abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(a) has set the foundation for companies from big urban centres to lay their footprint in Kashmir which, in absence of legal safeguards, could lead to the exploitation of the local population and the extraction of natural resources, with profits being moved out of the region.

Under the guise of unleashing Kashmir’s development potential, indigenous Kashmiris are being squeezed out of economic gains reaped from their land. Hand in hand with demographic changes in the region, these neoliberal ambitions reinforce the nexus between colonialism and capitalism, which is hurting Kashmiri livelihoods.

A militarised normalcy

After the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, Indian media and officials have repeatedly insisted that Kashmir is “limping” back to normalcy. Kashmiris have lost count of the times they have had to “limp” towards normalcy after an armed uprising against Indian rule broke out in Kashmir in 1989.

A year after the abrogation of the constitutional articles, Kashmiris still have access only to 2G internet and arbitrary internet and mobile phone shutdowns are routine. This not only hampers economic activity and makes it difficult for Kashmiris to connect with one another, but has also gravely impacted the spread of vital information about the COVID-19 pandemic and the ability of local authorities to trace contacts of infected people.

Over the past year, activists and journalists from the region have also accused authorities of preventing them from performing their professional duties. After the communications blackout was imposed, a media facilitation centre was set up by the authorities, which consisted of five computers with internet connectivity and one landline phone connection for the entire journalist fraternity of Kashmir, including those who went there to report from outside.

The new media policy regulating reporting on and from the region has further expanded government powers, allowing the way for authorities to register a case against any journalist deemed to be writing fake news or engaging in unethical or anti-national activities. The definition of what may constitute as “anti-national” or “unethical” remains murky.

Several Kashmiri reporters have already been summoned by authorities, harassed and beaten, while charges have been brought forth against noted journalists for indulging in “unlawful activities” and for “anti-national” social media posts. Two local journalists, Haziq Qadri and Irfan Malik, were arrested last year and there have been constant fears that the authorities are preparing to arrest more.

More than 7,000 people including some pro-India politicians were arrested by the Indian authorities before and after the events of August 5, 2019. A number of detainees were sent to prisons outside Kashmir. While most pro-India politicians have been released, many – including people with serious underlying health conditions – remain incarcerated in the country’s overpopulated prisons as coronavirus continues to spread in India at an alarming rate.

Additionally, Kashmir is seeing a major surge in violence. Currently, there are more than half a million Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. Many Indian army camps are located adjacent to residential areas and, in some cases, entire villages are surrounded. Cordon and search operations against Kashmiri fighters, a regular occurrence in the rural hinterland, have recently returned to towns. Locals, including women and children, have to routinely pass through checkpoints and military crackdowns remain frequent.

Gunfights between rebels and Indian soldiers which more than often take place in residential areas have increased. In the month of May, more than 20 houses were gutted in a fire that started during the course of a gun battle in the densely populated downtown area of Srinagar. In June, at least 35 rebels were killed in different parts of Kashmir bringing the number of rebels killed this year to 116.

The worst feature of the conflict in Kashmir is, undoubtedly, its persistence. In the last 31 years, at least 70,000 people have been killed. Thousands have been forcibly disappeared, tortured, raped, and sexually abused. Even when Kashmir is dumped from the news cycle, the conflict continues. This absence of the region from the news is seemingly referred to as normalcy by Indian media and officials.

As the world grapples with a pandemic, the Indian state is engaged in and, in fact, has upped the tempo of violating the basic rights of Kashmiris. The facts on the ground are changing fast and for the worse of the locals.

Government claims of bringing “normalcy” and “development” are increasingly taking a rather dystopian form. With newfound legal legitimacy shielded by the moral cover of “development” and “normalcy”, the inscription of violence on Kashmiri bodies continues with more impunity. There surely is a prospect for wealth accumulation and development in Kashmir, but as with any colonial endeavour, indigenous people are unlikely to benefit from them.

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