It’s never easy being a jewel in the crown, and the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has proved to be no exception.
Medieval Mughal Emperor Jahangir once described it as a paradise on earth. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was “the crown jewel of India”. Yet the state and its people have endured endless hardship and upheavals, with little relief in sight.
The removal of the state’s special status on August 5 last year sent the pristine area in a new direction with much of its autonomy removed. The move downgraded India’s only Muslim-majority state to being centrally administered for the first time, bringing fresh insecurities to its people.
The state was then put under curfew. A long winter in the mountainous state stretched the agony until the coronavirus brought more anxiety in March.
China and Pakistan, which have long staked claims over the region, protested at the United Nations Security Council over the change in status but got little global support. Some even saw China’s recent incursions into Ladakh stemming from the events of August 5.
Now, India’s government plans to celebrate August 5 with Modi leading a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a Ram temple, something that’s been long cherished by many Hindus.
The new temple comes after seven decades of litigation between Hindu and Muslim groups over a plot of land that Hindus claimed was the birthplace of Lord Ram in the ancient religious town of Ayodhya.
In 1526, Mughal emperor Babur built a mosque after demolishing the original Ram temple, Hindus claim. The issue has remained contentious. In 1992, a mob of Hindu volunteers climbed on the mosque and damaged its dome. Ensuing communal riots claimed hundreds of lives.
In November, a five-judge Supreme Court bench unanimously ruled in favor of the temple, giving Muslims a separate plot of land for a new mosque.
For the ruling party, both the change of status in Kashmir and building the temple fill election promises while bolstering support from the majority of Hindu voters.
The removal of Article 370 that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the construction of the temple have been among the main aims of the Bharatiya Janata Party since its foundation in 1980.
The ground-breaking ceremony will help the party package both issues for its core electorate, send a message to non-Hindus as well as its belligerent neighbor Pakistan and to others around the world.
Pakistan, which aspired to rule Jammu and Kashmir since it was carved out of India in 1947, invaded and occupied parts of the state in 1948 and fought three wars with India to increase its stake. Pakistan has not given up on Kashmir.
Pakistan says it will confer its highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Pakistan, on Syed Ali Shah Geelani, 90, chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which is a conglomerate of pro-separatist parties in Jammu and Kashmir.
It will also name an engineering college in Islamabad after Geelani. Reports say Prime Minister Imran Khan may address the assembly of what India calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
For decades Pakistan has supported separatist parties in Jammu and Kashmir and helped terrorists intrude into India with funds and weapons. Frequent bombings, grenade attacks and shootings were among the reasons the Indian government gave for taking over the state administration.
After independence in 1947, India gave the state a special status in 1949 under which its assembly had powers over most aspects of governance except defense, foreign affairs, currency and communication. The state assembly could veto any law passed by the national parliament. Only permanent local residents were allowed to buy property there.
Over the decades, the region’s alienation from the rest of India increased, and with it growing resentment. Frequent attacks on security forces made matters worse. The area’s special status started to be seen as a shield protecting activities including smuggling across the huge mountainous borders.
The Modi-led BJP government made its move last year, promising peace, development, new investments and jobs with the change in status.
But the new order left most state-level political leaders redundant.
“The middle ground of politics or Kashmiri sub-nationalism has been wiped out. There are now only pro-India and anti-India forces left in Jammu and Kashmir,’’ said Altaf Hussain, a Srinagar-based journalist.
The state’s top political leadership was detained soon after August 5.
Some individuals were released in March as a countrywide lockdown was announced to contain the pandemic. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah, who was freed on March 24, said he would not contest an election to a downgraded and powerless assembly. Another former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, is still detained.
Senior Congress party leader and former union minister Saifuddin Soz on July 29 pleaded with the Supreme Court, saying he was being held illegally. His claim was denied by the central government and rejected by the court. However, the NDTV television channel showed him inside his Srinagar bungalow, guarded by a local uniformed policeman.
On a slightly positive note, central rule has helped neutralize the militants, a key government objective. Attacks on security forces have dropped sharply and the local population was often seen to be complicit against the central security forces.
“Militancy is on the back-foot and most of the militants, especially in south Kashmir, have been neutralized by security forces,’’ said Ayjaz Wani, a research fellow at the Observe Research Foundation in Mumbai.
But letting people from outside the state settle there has jolted the locals and given rise to insecurity about jobs and dilution of the local culture.
“The economy has been the worst hit in the past one year,’’ said Wani. He pointed to a government advertisement for 8,575 jobs for junior staff on July 10, which had 135,790 applications within a week. The number could soar to half a million, he said.
Jammu and Kashmir was also hit by curfews. Phone and internet services were cut for seven months, to be followed by the pandemic, which affected students and job-seeking youth the most. The central government is now contesting a lawsuit in the Supreme Court to avoid upgrading telecom services in the state to 4G from the present low-quality 2G.
The Election Commission is preparing for local elections after reviewing constituencies. This too is being viewed with suspicion by local leaders because they could lose their traditional vote banks, often drawn on religious lines.