Sunday, August 11, 2019

Kashmiri Kahwa

My previous post was on the Surgical Strikes conducted by India on the terror camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the pride it had generated in the country. This one, even though on Kashmir again, is of a more personal nature but I hope you like it just the same. 

I have lived half my life in Punjab and have experienced the fears and follies of a population that wants to break away from the mainstream because of religious ideologies. As a young kid growing up in Chandigarh in post-terrorism days, it was a relief to be able to roam around the city without worrying about any untoward incident happening because of separatists. For those who do not remember, Punjab had once been gripped with the same poison of dissension that exists in Kashmir, fuelled by the same neighbours on our western border. 

My maternal side of the family is Sikh, and was based out of a small village near Jalandhar, but I grew up having visited them very sporadically because of the selective targeting of Hindus by the terrorists in my growing up yeas. Even though I was too young, I still remember some vivid memories from those days that shattered our illusion of peace even in Chandigarh – flashes of fire bursting out of dark guns in the middle of the night at the police  chowki near our house as we watched  from our windows in disbelief; our school bus stuck on top of a bridge which was booby-trapped and none of us allowed to step out till the bomb was diffused; my own cousin, one that I was quite fond of, getting abducted from the hinterland, never to be seen again… 

These are memories that have the potential to scar one’s entire childhood. But the only reason me, and others around me turned out fine (hopefully) was because we witnessed peace coming back to our land in front of our eyes. We saw the wounds heal in front of our eyes and prosperity return to what had once been known as the granary of the nation. We rejoiced to see the militancy fade away and hailed the forces, especially the chief of Punjab Police who had effectively put an end to all armed conflict in the region.

But even though terrorism was being wiped out of our home due to swift and strong action by the government of the day, it had already begun festering in our northern neighbour. Happy in our new-found carefree lives, we were blissfully unaware of what was happening in Kashmir till one day our school received three new students from the state - one in my class and two in my sister’s – that gave us the first inkling that there was an outward movement of a specific population. 

Over the next few years I kept encountering many new people, always Hindu, who had been displaced from Kashmir in a dastardly act of ethnic cleansing that took place in the early 90s {Read Kashmiri Pandits - 25 Years in Exile}. I made some close friends from amongst these people and on many a winter evening, over cups of hot, steaming Kahwa filled with almonds and walnuts, I finally began to understand the horrors that had been meted out to them. And I also realized that the state that I had visited few years back for tourism was now too dangerous to step into, if you were an Indian, and especially if you were a Hindu. It was a sense of deja vu for me and I could only wish that the situation in Kashmir would improve just like it had in Punjab.

Unfortunately, the same government that had decisively put an end to the militancy in my home state failed to even acknowledge the problem that existed in Kashmir till things had gotten completely out of its hands. Over the next decade, things only got worse till they reached a boiling point in 2010, when security forces fired on peaceful protesters leading to a vicious cycle of violence between the populace and the forces.

Of course, our enterprising neighbour Pakistan took full advantage of the opportunity, turning peaceful protesters into stone-pelters, flushing them with cash and using children in their teens to lead the assault so that when they got hit by the forces who were only defending their position, it would have an additional emotional impact. This helped create a narrative for the world to see India as a nation that repeatedly trampled on the residents’ human rights with impunity. 

 As I followed the developments with disappointment, writing with anguish on the way things were being handled, {Read - The Kashmir Conundrum} one thing began to become clear to me that Kashmir was no longer fighting for a geographical or ethnic rather for a religious identity that made it eschew a rapidly developing but predominantly Hindu India and veer towards Pakistan even though it was a failed economy and the terror hub of the region. 

Many people had begun to highlight this shift in ideology, which was also the original basis of the ethnic conflict that had made thousands of Kashmiri pandits homeless overnight. A big reason for this stubborn refusal to merge into the mainstream by the Kashmiris was Article 370, introduced at the time of Nehru government, that gave the state of Jammu & Kashmir a host of special rights including their own flag and prime minister. The two big parties on the Kashmiri political landscape were equally responsible for keeping the things at status quo, since it helped their own agenda and the previous central governments were too scared to take any strong action.

To make matters worse, there were complaints from the Buddhist Ladakhi constituencies of discrimination against them by Kashmiri politicians even as Jammu residents cried about how illegal Rohingya immigrants were being settled by the Kashmiri government to change their demographic which had been predominantly Hindu till now. The residents of Jammu and Ladakh regions, that form a major chunk of the province, were resentful with the Kashmiri politicians who kept the development of the entire state on a hold because of their political agenda.

It was in the backdrop of all this activity, that the BJP had promised in its election manifesto that it will scrap the Article 370 if voted to power. While it wasn't able to do this in its first term, the current Modi government, perhaps buoyed by the strong mandate given to it by the people of India in the recent Lok Sabha elections, decided to take the bull by its horns on 5th August 2019. 

Twitter was abuzz with something big about to happen in Kashmir. In a midnight swoop, the top political leadership of Kashmir had been put under detention and the telecom and internet services in the state had been shut. There were rumors of Indian Army movement towards the border as Pakistan was reported to have done the same. The journalists who were used to knowing everything beforehand with the previous governments were making wild speculations since they had no clue whatsoever as to what was transpiring.

It was on this stage that the Home Minister Amit Shah came into the Rajya Sabha at 11 a.m. with the proposal to revoke two key constitutional provisions that gave special status to Kashmir — Article 370 and Article 35(A).

No one had imagined in their wildest dreams that a mainstream political party would dare to remove this article but clearly BJP had thought this through from all legal as well as constitutional angles. They had withdrawn support to Mehbooba Mufti led PDP almost a year back passing on the powers of the Legislative Assembly to the governor. The second step was the decision of revoking the article once and for all in consultation with the governor as well as the President of India!

BJP leader and advocate Ashwini Upadhyay said, "The third sub clause of Article 370 allows the President to notify that Article 370 has ceased to exist. The President can consult the Governor in the absence of the Legislative Assembly".

Article 370(3), notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this article, the President may, by public notification, declare that this Article shall cease to be operative or shall be operative only with such exceptions and modifications and from such date as he may specify, provided that the recommendation of the Constituent Assembly of the State referred to in clause (2) shall be necessary before the President issues such a notification.


Even before the reality of this move had sunk in, the central government quickly introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019, that will bifurcate the state into two Union Territories - Jammu and Kashmir with a legislature and Ladakh without one. 

Article 3 of the constitution provides the avenue for re-drawing of boundaries through a Bill tabled in Parliament on the President's recommendation after holding consultation with the legislature of the affected state. J&K's Article 370 shielded it from the application of Article 3, which was used to create new states, like Telangana thus, the only possible way to break the state into two or three parts, to give autonomy to Jammu and Ladakh was through its abrogation.

What was perhaps more surprising than the way the bill had been introduced were that both the Rajya Sabha as well as the Lok Sabha passed it with a thumping majority! The PM quickly announced the new changes on Twitter not just in English and Hindi but quite interestingly also in the three languages of the region - Kashmiri, Dogri and Bhoti.




There were various reactions, ranging from disbelief to anger to jubilation and full-fledged support for the decision from various political parties. Many opposition parties sought to derail the bill but what stood out at the end of the entire exercise was the decision of a majority of the elected representatives of the country to help the central government pass this bill not just for the betterment of the new union territories of J&K and Ladakh but also for the purpose of national security.  

Accordignly, one of the strongest voices to shine through the political debate was of Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the BJP MP from Ladakh who shut the entire opposition with his pertinent points that laid bare the discrimination the region had faced since independence. He highlighted how having a centrally administered Union Territory of Ladakh was the best option for the country given its border with China that sees regular intrusions. Namgyal's fiery speech not only won him kudos from the high and mighty of the political brass of the country but have also  turned him into an overnight social media sensation.

While the people of Kashmir valley may take time to come to terms with this decision, what is abundantly clear is that the people of Ladakh and Kargil shall definitely benefit from this momentous achievement. The work has already begun at Zojila, where India's longest and Asia's longest bi-directional tunnel will begin operations. Situated at an altitude of 11,578 feet on Srinagar-Kargil-Leh National Highway, the Zojila pass remains almost closed from December to April, cutting off Leh-Ladakh region from the rest of the country. The 14.2-km-long tunnel, when complete, will ensure an all-weather connectivity keeping our border areas secure from the opportunistic neighbour on the eastern side of Kashmir as well.


There were also some poignant moments in the aftermath of the announcement with the ex-Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj ji passing away the night of this historic achievement. Growing up in the small town of Ambala, from where my father’s family hails, she was a classmate to my paternal aunt and losing her felt like another personal loss. That she passed away after hours of tweeting her happiness on the abrogation of Article 370 is perhaps the only consolation me and other admirers of her work would have as we wish for her soul's salvation.

Back in 2014, prime minister Modi had said that his government will work for honour and dignity of both displaced refugees from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir who are settled in Jammu, and the internally displaced members of the Kashmiri Pandit community. Article 370 did not allow the refugees from POK to become citizens of Kashmir and also took away the citizenship of any Kashmiri woman who married a non-Kashmiri Indian. Paradoxically, if she married a non-Kashmiri Pakistani, that person would automatically get the citizenship of Kashmir. With the first hurdle in the resettlement of these communities gone, I hope the day of the rightful residents of Kashmir can return again irrespective of such gender-based and country-based discrimination. 

Now that the bugles have been sounded, I hope that at least in my thirties I can see Kashmir find itself follow the same path of recovery and rebuilding that Punjab did in my childhood. The abrogation of article 370 will help to balance out the demography of Kashmir once again and I hope that my displaced Kashmiri Hindu friends can once again have their Kahwa sitting in their ancestral homes overlooking the majestic mountains of Kashmir. 

Jai Hind!