The initial excitement over the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir and the reorganisation of the State has given way to a more considered assessment of its implications, both domestically and externally. While there is a cautious wait-and-watch approach to how the Kashmir Valley will react once the curfew and telephone restrictions are relaxed, the consequences of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s political audacity are being felt in domestic politics.
Anecdotal and media reportage clearly suggests that the moves on J&K, followed by the Prime Minister’s statesman-like broadcast to the nation, have been greeted with a spectacular measure of elation. The jubilation owes to two factors.
First, there is both awe and admiration of the fact that of all Prime Ministers since Independence, Modi has had the guts to take a bold step on a problem that has plagued the country since 1950. The conventional wisdom on the ground was that successive Governments were afraid of tackling the issue head-on because J&K was a Muslim majority State and, therefore, had to be treated with kid gloves. Coming in the wake of the successful triple talaq legislation, the belief that Modi will not be deterred by communal blackmail has been strengthened.
Secondly, while the abrogation of Article 370 is undeniably an internal matter of India, it has implications for India-Pakistan relations. The predictably hysterical reaction in Pakistan and Imran Khan’s warning (or even threat) of Pulwama-like incidents being repeated has once again rekindled patriotic determination. It is a fact — however unappetising that may sound — that anything that causes discomfiture in Pakistan is widely appreciated in India, and vice versa. Consequently, the belief that all ambiguity over J&K’s status in the Indian Union has been put on rest has triggered the conviction in the rest of India that the separatist problem is about to be tackled with iron fisted determination. This may well be an over-simplistic assessment of reality but perceptions on the ground tend to be black and white.
The biggest beneficiary of this patriotic over-exuberance has unquestionably been the BJP. The talk in the Central Hall of Parliament that a snap election will see the party secure as resounding a majority as Rajiv Gandhi did in 1984 is no doubt facile. However, it explains the extra bounce in the steps of BJP MPs and the willingness of many regional parties to swim with the tide in Parliament. In normal circumstances there may have been much greater disquiet over the exceptional security measures in the Kashmir Valley but the sheer force of public support for decisive action has dampened the mood of any potential opposition. Even parties such as the BSP and AAP were compelled to vote with the Government in Parliament.
The Congress, in particular, has been wrong-footed. The large numbers of prominent Congressmen who spoke out of turn and supported the Government is quite astonishing. This division in the ranks was also seen in the Trinamool Congress. This party which has tried to take a tentative lead in Opposition regroupment after the general election debacle was forced to skirt the larger question of Article 370 and focus on procedural shortcomings.
Yet, there has been some opposition to the Government’s J&K initiative. The opposition of the Kashmiri regional parties to the move was expected — although a PDP member of the Rajya Sabha overdid things by tearing up a copy of the Constitution of India in the Well of the House, an incident that was understandably underplayed in the media. The very existence of these parties has been threatened by the Modi-Shah attacks on the three families that benefitted disproportionately from keeping J&K a few steps away from the national mainstream.
Equally predictable were the agonised protests of the intellectuals who see every Modi move as a step towards fascism. Their detachment from the public mood was evident during the general election and that pattern has been magnified after last week’s developments. This intellectual class is sustained by links with a global fraternity of liberals that exercise a stranglehold over a section of the media and academia. There is a certain halo around being lonely voices of dissent in a hostile environment and these intellectuals are celebrating it. In effect, they are waiting and praying for things to go wrong.
However, what is a little more disturbing is the sudden convergence of sentiment between the opposition in the Kashmir Valley and Muslim groups in the rest of India. Hitherto, Muslim opinion in the heartland had kept away from the separatist trends in J&K, a feature of the emotional de-linking of J&K from the rest of India. However, since last week the protests appear to have converged and there is a trend towards seeing the events in the Kashmir Valley as an assault on minority rights by the Modi Government. In a sense, we are witnessing a merger of the Opposition to changes in Muslim personal law with the opposition to the full Constitutional integration of J&K.
These are early trends but they could be ominous. In the past few years, the expressions of Kashmiri Muslim identity had become subsumed by the radical Islamism that was influencing the community globally. If there is now a developing linkage between that radical Islamism and the frustrations of a community that feels marginalised by the re-election of a BJP Government at the Centre, the consequences could well be disturbing. There is, after all, Pakistan waiting in the wings to fish in troubled waters.