The story of India’s Pied Piper

Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Sep 08,2019 | Updated: 23:49, Sep 07,2019


An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard on a street during a lockdown in Srinagar on September 3. — Agence France-Presse/Tauseef Mustafa

HERE is a teaser, for the reader. Perhaps, demonetisation and general sales tax implementation were things to pass by when the Narendra Modi government braved a historic and transformative decision — the annexation of Kashmir. Again perhaps, the irony is that Modi has looked only at primary effects, ignoring the far more devastating, secondary and serious, tertiary consequences that start playing havoc in due course.

Three weeks after Article 370 had been abrogated, it is time to ask if the Modi government lined up the next steps in Kashmir and if so, what they are. In many ways, India seems to be experiencing the same disregard for second and third order effects now in Kashmir, with the initial (soothing) effects of Article 370 abrogation dissipating and tougher dilemmas setting in.

Consider first what we can conjecture based on the available evidence. It is apparent that the governance of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir will almost certainly be delegated to local councils. The fact that the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference boycotted these elections, which threw up a whole new rung of leadership, means that the new leaders have, indeed, been identified.

Then there are the 24 seats allotted to the Pakistan-side ‘Azad’ Kashmir. In the post-delimitation 114-member assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, these 24 seats, which the Modi government has maintained will remain vacant ‘until the area… ceases to be so occupied, and the people residing in that area elect their representatives’, could be given to who else but ‘nominated members’. That is, exclusively, if the Modi government is tempted to ‘nominate’  members to these seats, it could identify Pakistani dissidents from those areas.

It seems almost certain that when the delimitation happens, the 90 seats will get split between Jammu and Kashmir, with a possible bias towards Jammu. But this is where the ‘nominated’ members could ensure a marginalisation of the Kashmiri political elite. In effect, the political career of Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti is finished; even if this is not, the leaders most certainly will not have any powers. The inevitable question, therefore, is: why so?

Perhaps, because the top administrative level in the union territory will be filled by a new Jammu elite supported by ‘nominated’ members from the Pakistan side. With the lower rung of municipal corporators, which is where all the money-making happens, now having been closed off — not just to the Muftis and the Abdullahs but also to the Hurriyat leaders — there will be a significant shift in the region’s politics.

More than likely, the former mainstream political elite will no longer be able to sponge off central funds from the top nor raise funds from the bottom.

It seems a bit like Chanakyan genius, does it not? Excepting:

This is where the second important wheel in the clog comes in: the role of Indian security forces and the intelligence apparatus that have been incentivised and corrupted by a conflict economy and which never understood the meaning of good governance to begin with.

Consider what has happened so far. In order to keep some 10–100 thousand miscreants at bay, the Modi government has shut the communication network in the whole valley. As discussed before, this is obviously counterproductive, not just in terms of security but also in terms of population management.

People may tolerate the restrictions for a while but at some time, the ban will push them over the edge. Moreover, the forces and the police have never actually understood carrots and sticks, evidenced by the arrest of a doctor, urologist Omar Salim. By all means, target the stone-pelters, but why arrest a man making a public request? What message does this send?

Worryingly, an anonymous but clearly well-informed piece that came out a few days ago seemed to throw light on the extent to which the security apparatus of regime ancien in Kashmir has been compromised. In fact, it is being empowered by the new dispensation. For their part, this same old guard was ‘cannibalising members of the old corrupt gravy train into the new corrupt gravy train.’

Government supporters would obviously say this is not the case. Their main argument is that unlike the previous counter-insurgency attempts that would be followed by the election of the same politicians, the entire ecosystem has been targeted this time. Newspapers that used to coordinate stone-pelting and tacks according to some — banks that were used for money laundering; mainstream political parties that indulged in corruption in dispensing central governments funds; and the Hurriyat which allegedly received money from Pakistan.

They would also contend that unlike 1987, when the opposition felt that it had no options and, thus, turned to terrorism — the Muslim United Front’s Syed Salahuddin who went on to head the Hizbul Mujahideen while the MUF largely became the present-day Hurriyat — the Muftis, the Abdullahs, the Geelanis and the Mirwaizs have been part of the gravy train for so long that despite having no options, they will prefer a cushy life to one of exile and hard work at the behest of a capricious and murderous foreign government. Moreover, this felling of the old leaders has allowed a new crop of leaders to grow.

To a large extent this is true. But just like the central government’s, this narrative too falls into the same trap, where the Intelligence Bureau and the Jammu and Kashmir police are assumed as straight players that have not been incentivised and corrupted by a conflict economy. Even assuming that they have not been corrupted and accepting that intelligence gathering is by nature a highly amoral, dirty game full of shades of grey, the bureau and the police still need to be reined in, of which there are absolutely no signs.

It is pertinent to ask then: under what principle of counter-insurgency or good governance were Shah Faesal and Shehla Rashid detained, under what circumstances were they released and how was it different from the case of Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and how is the re-arrest of Shah Faesal justified while Shehla remains loose? At some point, the Modi government needs to introspect.

Be it the counterproductive communications blackout, the arrest of doctor Omar Salim, the unanswered questions of the arbitrary arrest and release and re-arrest of political leaders, and a lackadaisical approach in dealing with the Intelligence Bureau and the Jammu and Kashmir police, one is forced to conclude that the Modi government simply has not thought things through as thoroughly as it should have done.

It is unlikely for things to get better in Kashmir but if they do, while half of the credit must go to the government, the remaining half should be reserved for sheer dumb luck.

Nothing better to do than dilute serious blunders that India’s leaders continue to make.


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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