Jammu and Kashmir's diversity is the key

Jammu and Kashmir's diversity is the key

The main challenge relating to J&K is internal, and the ability of the polity to handle its diversity

Representative image. Credit: AFP Photo

Apart from taking stock of the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir during his recent visit there, Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked the delimitation commission, a body assigned to redraw poll constituencies in J&K, to complete its task by March 2022, thus signalling that election could be held in the spring and summer of 2022. Only seven seats will be added to the current strength of the Assembly.

Much had been made out about the China challenge. The military tussle is in uninhabited areas at heights over 11,000 feet above sea level, and is a highly specific military situation far away from the populated areas of the newly carved-out J&K. The impact of the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan on J&K is limited. More importantly, the heavyweights in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) -- Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries -- have refused to buy the Pakistani line on the abrogation of Article 370. In fact, the UAE has promised to fund various infrastructure projects in J&K.

The main challenge relating to J&K is internal, and the ability of the polity to handle its diversity. Egregious anti-women laws and a rigid conceptual understanding of domicile that excluded some inhabitants living in J&K for 6-7 decades no longer exist. However, a situation of political unease and threat to demography has heightened in the Kashmir valley. While the abrogation of Article 370 is a factor in this, there are political dynamics that preceded the August 5, 2019, decision and are rooted in structural realities that requires an in-depth understanding.

First, some building blocks of J&K’s demography must be understood. At least 22% of Muslim-majority J&K are non-Kashmiri-speaking Muslims, particularly Gujjars and Pahari speakers, a linguistic group comprising upper caste Muslims such as Rajputs, Syeds, and other caste groups. They are present in Jammu as well as in the peripheral areas of Kashmir valley. The Kashmiri-speaking Muslims in the valley are around 40-45% of J&K’s population on this side of the LoC. Across the LoC, the population is entirely Pahari-speakers and Gujjars. Ethnically, the Kashmiri-speaking Muslims in the valley, which is still the largest group on the Indian side of J&K, are the most vocal critics of the abrogation of Article 370.

The discourse among other groups, post-abrogation of Article 370, has largely been community-centric. For instance, Pahari Muslims want Schedule Tribe (ST) status, just like Gujjar Muslims. The latter group, whose political, social and economic rights have got greater political validity after abrogation, is eager to get greater privileges, at par with other ST communities, in the country. Jammu Hindus, who include a broad set of Dogri, Punjabi and Pahari-speakers and North India’s typical caste configurations, want domicile protection similar to that of Himachal Pradesh. This has more or less been done.

Second, within the valley, less acknowledged is the fact that apart from killings of Kashmiri Pandits and a Sikh teacher, who were locals, the militants also killed Muslims from the rest of the country. In October 2019, five Bengali Muslims were killed in Kulgam and, on October 16 this year, a UP Muslim was killed. While The Resistance Force (TRF), a terrorist outfit, defended these killings to protest over the alleged demographic change being effected, the signalling is that only Muslims of Kashmiri ethnicity will be considered natives and their principal territorial concern is the valley. The Kashmir valley’s territory is nearly half that of Jammu province, though the valley’s population size is bigger by at least a million.

Directly or indirectly, the killings are meant to further isolate the Kashmiri-speaking Muslims not only from the rest of the country, including Indian Muslims, but from other stakeholders within J&K, including co-ethnic Kashmiri-speaking Hindus, popularly known as Kashmiri Pandits, and Jammu residents, who include Hindus as well as large non-Kashmiri-speaking Muslim minorities. In short, the killings are meant to wean away the Kashmiri-speaking Muslims of the valley from other stakeholders, who form at least 50% of J&K’s population on the Indian side.

Third, instead of debating and executing some of the concrete ideas, such as institutionalised regional federalism, that could have accommodated divergent political and economic regional, sub-regional and ethnic urges, J&K politicians have garnered votes by reinforcing regional, religious, sub-regional or even ethnic polarisation. For decades, the ruling political elites or even the Opposition could not grasp the nuanced and well-researched proposals presented to them, such as regional autonomy, which drew from similar experiments from across the world.

Fourth, the polarisation between the two regions, including religious polarisation within Jammu province, and the splitting of votes in Kashmir valley, has created a political reality in which forming political coalitions is a necessity for the purpose of forming the government. Within the valley, there are a set of political entities, including the People Democratic Party (PDP) since the 2002 elections, which have challenged the National Conference in the valley’s 45 seats. In Jammu province, the BJP, whose influence was restricted to the three Assembly segments of Jammu city, is now a formidable force in J&K as it won 25 seats out of Jammu’s 37 seats in the last election. The party swept the Hindu-majority segments and narrowly won in religiously mixed Doda, Bhaderwah and Kishtwar Assembly segments by Hindu consolidation and division of Muslim votes. That explains the PDP-BJP coalition in 2014.

Before that, the Congress, which was once popular in Jammu, stitched an alliance with the NC and PDP, which got significant seats in Kashmir valley, in 2009 and 2002 respectively. However, such coalition governments were inherently unstable as the parties had to appease their divergent bases, which invariably led to obstructionist or sub-optimal decision-making process and furthering polarisation.

Only religious polarisation in Jammu could guarantee the BJP’s performance in the 2014 Assembly elections. In Kashmir valley, parties will aggressively oppose the abrogation of Article 370. In the absence of political sagacity and intellect exhibited by any formidable entity within J&K that could glue the mosaic, the upcoming electoral process in the new context will only turbocharge the religious, ethnic and regional drift. Only time will tell how these multiple paths drifting within J&K will manifest internally and externally.

(The writer is the author of two books on J&K, including Across the LoC, Columbia University Press)