View: Govt's decision to alter J&K's status was driven by internal and external considerations
India’s ambiguity over Kashmir suited China, which has protested conversion of both Ladakh and J&K into UTs.
The policy was largely informed by how India should manage the rest of the world on Kashmir. Its starting point was an admission that Kashmir could be used to leverage India. This strategy worked at two levels: domestic and external.
On the external side, the effort was to create institutions and processes that conveyed the impression that democracy was taking roots, human rights were not violated, & military presence was being gradually reduced. And this was mostly an honest endeavour, regardless of who was in power.
The problem was that results were always below par. Which brings us to the policy’s domestic dimension. Governments were elected in low-turnout elections — which by itself wasn’t a problem, until it became the norm. Local leaders could not widen their support base. However, they remained very helpful in projecting an image of improved normalcy.
Matters came to a head when a whole new generation of stone-pelting Kashmiris took to the streets between 2008 and 2011. None of the local leaders or elected politicians could calm these protests. Delhi was left stupefied, wondering what ‘azaadi’ meant.
At that point, it had become clear that while India could continue to maintain a positively benign external posture, the internal picture on the Valley had been disturbed, if not disrupted. The hope that a new generation of Kashmiris will take ownership and carry forward the democracy project had not quite worked.
The ground was, thus, fertile for change. Many pundits have argued that Article 370 hardly made much of a difference on the ground. It provided the basis for Article 35A, particularly special laws related to land ownership and inheritance. And that there was no need to fret over J&K, since similar provisions have been enacted by other states too.
Yes, the special status made matters cumbersome for enacting central laws. But that was dealt via the governor’s office. In other words, there were potential bureaucratic solutions to any of these problems.
No Pendulum Policy
The issue was that Article 370 became a symbol of an unfinished agenda. It was almost as if J&K was in a permanent state of transition, headed to some form of undefined special status.
This gave wind to ‘azaadi’ slogans and purposeless militancy. What stood out in both cases was that youth were being misled by external elements that wanted to keep the Valley on the boil.
Frankly, there was nothing unique within the Indian Constitution that could be created for J&K. And for all the peace negotiations, no government in Delhi would reach a political settlement with Pakistan on how to ‘jointly’ govern Kashmir. So, in many ways, it was just a matter of time.
The NDA government, with its massive majority, took a call to put an end to whatever gave birth to the notion that a special carve-out was possible for J&K. In doing so, GoI had to unsettle the hinges that held its external message on Kashmir.
For the first time, the outside environment did not determine Delhi’s messaging to Kashmir. This time, the policy was shaped inside-out. This unsettled a long-held narrative on Kashmir, taking it out of the limelight. And it worked, because the world paid little attention to Kashmir as India grew as an economic power, became a nuclear weapon State, stitched a strategic partnership with the US, and won support for its terror narrative on Pakistan.
Yet, internally, Kashmir moved in another direction, posing a domestic political question that probably could no longer be left unattended. India’s ambiguity over Kashmir also suited China, which has sharply protested the conversion of both Ladakh and J&K into Union territories. None of India’s decision changed their boundaries. So why this anger?
One, China could be viewing this as a response to its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). But much as India stands in opposition to the project, the notion is absurd and raises the question of Beijing’s hidden intent. China, by coming out openly against India, has put an end to its own policy of ambivalence towards India. It’s an unexpected fallout, but perhaps the most significant in strategic terms.
The list is getting longer. China thwarted India’s nuclear ambitions by blocking its entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), supported Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, held Pakistan’s hand on terrorism, and, now, taken a strong position against India on Kashmir.
Look Over the Great Wall
One never thought two weeks ago that Indian initiatives on Kashmir would turn into a Sino-Indian stand-off. And that’s a formidable challenge. Beijing turned the heat on Moscow, which is why Russia consented to a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The fact that Russia went with China to let the meeting happen is an indication of how power equations have dramatically changed between the two countries. Britain was the other surprise package.
Looking ahead, China will wait for that one incident, or example of excess, to use the two routes available to have another go in the UNSC: peace and security, and human rights. India will have to keep tight control on the situation and not lend that moment to China and Pakistan. In other words, calm as the surface may be, the contest is very much on.