Kashmir: The absence of trust

Sanjay Jha
National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress party

The doctor appeared indignant, camouflaging his visible frustrations behind a laboured countenance of equanimity.

“I just operated upon the young boy. He is in his teens and it was a major surgery. He is recuperating well. He is desperate to assuage his paranoid parents that he is fine. But he cannot reach them. No mobile or landline phones are working. There is no Internet access. And he is convinced that a courier will never get there in the circumstances either. He is very disturbed. Now just imagine the plight of his poor parents back home who must be worried as hell.”

This conversation took place a few days after India’s Home Minister Amit Shah of the National Democratic Alliance government made the stunning announcement in the Rajya Sabha on August 5, 2019 that Article 370 and Article 35A, which accorded a special status under the Indian Constitution to the state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947, stood abrogated.

The erstwhile state would now be divided into two separate Union Territories (and thus be under the supervision of New Delhi’s commandments). Ever since, barring recent fleeting periods where curfew has been relaxed and where a nervous government appears to be testing the troubled waters with selective opening of schools, shops, clinics and banks, the state has been under an oppressive lockdown, particularly the sensitive Kashmir valley.

The government has tried to use its formidable propaganda pyrotechnics to send the message via carefully chosen photos and video bytes that all is well and serenity prevails. But no one is buying it.

There was an attempt to show the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval having an animated confabulation with poker-faced locals, but it looked so stagey, it was a gargantuan embarrassment that backfired.

The Indian state’s track record on transparency usually evokes unrestrained sniggers of contemptuous dismissal. Currently, it has touched a freshly discovered nadir. The credibility of the thin-skinned Big Brother inspired authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is wretched, albeit many mainstream media channels have vociferously aggrandized NDA’s political grandstanding.

In Indian democracy, nothing succeeds like confusion. And a few good friends in high places.

The constitutional correctness and legal fidelity of Article 370/Art 35A amendments will be appraised most certainly in the Supreme Court of India (a young firebrand lawyer told me that it would not normally even survive a high court examination) but that is like traversing a diabolical minefield. No one can second guess the likely outcome given the complexity of the historical bondages.

But what must worry Indians is the political malfeasance behind the dubious curveball that was engineered before the landmark announcements. Why did Modi’s government lie to the people of India and, particularly, the people of the Jammu and Kashmir that the massive phalanx of army troops being deployed (estimated to be 40,000 additional to the existing contingent of 700,000 in the ethereally beautiful state) was a counter-terrorism measure against a potential cross-border jihadi plot to massacre pilgrims of the annual Amarnath yatra?

The large-scale army movements had understandably created substantial consternation and speculative theories floated around about the authentic motivations behind them. One of them included the annulment of Article 370, which has featured repeatedly in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto.

The BJP, to its credit, has never concealed its public commitment to rescind Article 370, which begs the question, why indulge in psychological manipulation of a fearful populace? Several BJP leaders have frequently articulated that they found Article 370 ‘sacrilegious’, a Herculean impediment to their shibboleth of national integration.

Frankly, the BJP was never coy about its Kashmir stratagems. True, the government can argue that since it could have resulted in a spontaneous, violent public outrage they did not want to give anyone an inkling of the proposed steps.

Fair enough; but Prime Minister Narendra Modi still had another option: say nothing. At least when you say nothing you do not speak a lie. There is no subterfuge. Governments are not obligated to share problematic issues in threadbare detail if it concerns border security or people’s safety, but they are also not expected to be disingenuous with their own.

Fear, panic, threat, lockdown, information blackout and totally incommunicado with the whole world, that’s the Kafkaesque labyrinth in which the government dumped 7 million citizens of our democracy. To what gain? To what end goal?

The stakeholders were reduced to being a prisoner in their own backyard, watching the ominous shadow of the phantom of dark uncertainty. Former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah met the Governor Satyapal Malik to understand what is going on. Two weeks on, he is still in detention and his Twitter timeline has an unearthly silence about it.

Everyone with even a minor following seems to be incarcerated. Rumour-mongering has escalated and official versions of public mood appear preposterously misplaced. That several political analysts are relying more on foreign media than local journalists is a tragic narrative of our times.

If there is raging anger over the flagrant betrayal it is the state that is responsible. Yes, the government will gradually restore landlines, mobile telephony, Internet access and satellite television in small instalments depending upon prevailing circumstances.

A technological communication clampdown can be reversed. But trust, once broken, is hard to rebuild. Often it is irreversible. Kashmir’s tortuous journey may have just taken another twist.