When PM Modi and Home Minister Shah met 14 Kashmiri politicians on 24th June, some hailed it as a win for democracy, portraying it as if the meeting itself meant a course correction on Kashmir. Soon after, BJP leader Ram Madhav boasted in an opinion piece that “not one party had skipped it” and that their attendance should be seen as “their willingness to leave contentious issues behind and move on”. It should not be, because all of what was discussed in the meeting relates to the past.
Meeting As Necessity
The meeting has been called a necessity for the ruling party because of its failure to deliver on the promises of peace, employment and development. In the Independence Day speech after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, the Prime Minister had said his government’s decision had been “welcomed by the entire country, without exception”, even as Kashmir reeled under a heavy communication and movement lockdown. While his promises of prosperity should be remembered and reminded of repeatedly, it cannot not be assumed that Modi and Shah called the meeting because they were guilty about not making good on them. Besides, even if they were, the meeting itself has done nothing to alleviate the plight of Kashmiris.
The “meeting as necessity” argument has also been used to claim an outside pressure on India; particularly from the US, who withdrew its forces from Afghanistan after two decades as the Taliban captured the region. There is logic in assuming that the restoration of 4G in Jammu & Kashmir was a result of pressure to end the longest internet shutdown in history, but there’s nothing to suggest there’s any pressure at present to demilitarize Kashmir or to restore the changes made on August 5, 2019. And perceptions about the West being a humanitarian watchdog are anyway deeply exaggerated and contrary to historical evidence.
From early on, there had been an irritation among the supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party about the only Muslim majority state in India enjoying special status. Articles 370 and 35A restricted Parliament’s legislative powers in Kashmir and permitted the state legislature to decide who could be a “permanent resident”, among other things. Clearly, these were seen as roadblocks in their plan of skewing the population on the side of Hindus, in effect to “change the electoral complexion of the valley in favour of BJP”, as Prof. of Philosophy Akeel Bilgrami has called it.
The plan was set in motion when the BJP abruptly pulled out of an alliance with the PDP in June 2018, leaving the state to be first ruled by the Governor, and then the President. The erstwhile state, now two union territories, has been under Centre’s indirect control since then. The Election Commission has also aided the plan by refusing to hold assembly elections, even as an independent team of election observers considered the situation “conducive” to hold polls immediately after the last general elections. People, meanwhile, have been left to the mercy of bureaucrats and the police, against whom there is no accountability or redressal.
The second part of this plan involves ignoring the embargo on delimitation till 2026 imposed in 2002 by the then state assembly of J&K and upheld as being constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2010. Despite the freeze, a delimitation commission headed by Justice(retd) Ranjana Desai was set up under the J&K Reorganization Act, 2019. The Act’s constitutional validity is currently under consideration in the top court. It is suspected that once the commission completes work, a majority of the new assembly seats will go to Hindu-dominated Jammu. Mehbooba Mufti’s party PDP has decided to skip the exercise citing that the outcome is “pre-determined” along with Awami National Congress. Other parties have decided to take part, perhaps to avoid a confrontation with the Centre.
Democracy Comes Later
PM Modi had tweeted after the meeting that the delimitation exercise has to happen “at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected Government”. In essence, statehood has been made contingent on allowing delimitation to happen without serious protest and contesting assembly elections under a Union Territory status. For an effective demographic change, the Centre must also demonstrate that living in Kashmir is safe again, and for the BJP, elections could help build that narrative. There is speculation that polls could be held next year in February-March with other poll-bound states.
The District Development Council polls held last year showed that people are waiting for the regular democratic process to restart. It also signalled that there’s support for People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an alliance of 5 parties. To counter the plan of the BJP, it is important that they avoid speaking in a multiplicity of voices, while keeping the alliance democratic. And it will be in their best interest to continue pursuing legal challenges to the changes made in 2019.
The meeting was a one-off event to give the delimitation exercise tacit legitimacy. It should be seen as nothing more than the next step in their plan to change the demography of Kashmir.
Hours after Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party announced its decision not to meet the Delimitation Commission, her elderly mother was sent a summon by the Enforcement Directorate to appear in person in relation to an old case.
This editorial titled ‘Demography First, Democracy Later: How Modi’s Meeting On Kashmir Was Misread‘ has been written by Tushar Kohli and represents the collective view of the Editorial Team.