It was a year back on 5 August 2019 that Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in Parliament, which led to the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories — Ladakh without a legislature, and Jammu and Kashmir with a legislature. It was a bold move, one which resulted in national and global reverberations as it came into effect on 31 October 2019. While Pakistan and its ‘all-weather’ friend China were predictably disturbed by New Delhi’s gambit, the abrogation of Article 370 has also been difficult to accept for many in India. We have grown so used to the status quo that a change of this magnitude challenges our intellectual faculties. But it is also a reality that much as many of us would like to ignore it, the status quo on Kashmir had become unsustainable long back. It was only the political and policy inertia that was keeping Indian policymakers from challenging it.
A year on, despite the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, things are beginning to settle down in both Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. At the global level, India’s decision was largely viewed as an internal matter and Pakistan failed to get any substantive support. Even the Arab Gulf states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been traditional partners of Pakistan, ignored Islamabad’s entreaties. This frustration has led to Pakistan now releasing a new map showing entire Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Gujarat as its territories. Ministry of External Affairs has rightly termed this move as an exercise in “political absurdity” as it is solely aimed at putting the issue of Kashmir back on the global agenda. Much like in the past, it is bound to fail.
At the domestic level, there has been a big change in the way governance has been ramped up and has started benefitting those who were not really part of the national and intellectual discourse — the underprivileged and marginalised communities like Valmikies, Gorkhas and Dalits. A small political elite had taken it upon itself to become the arbiters of the region’s past and future, thereby sidelining the vast majority. With the new administrative arrangements ushered in last year, it is that silent majority that is regaining its voice and role in the regional and national matrix as central laws are starting to be implemented. Several laws such as the Right to Education, Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act-2001, National Commission for Minority Act and Acts for benefit of Women, Children, Disabled, Right to fair compensation for land acquired as well as the 73rd and 74th amendments which the people of Jammu and Kashmir had been deprived of have now been implemented. New employment opportunities have been opened up for weaker sections as the government takes its governance agenda forward. This will go a long way in empowering those who have been ignored even in the seventh decade of the nation’s independence and will also be crucial in integrating Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh with the national mainstream.
This is also being reflected in the manner in which development projects which have been languishing have been energised. As of 2018, projects worth over Rs 7,000 crore were stuck at various stages. Even Prime Minister’s relief package for socio-economic infrastructure announced in 2015 had not got the traction it deserved but in the last year various investment projects in the infrastructure and other sectors has gathered momentum. Important projects like Rambagh flyover in Srinagar and Srinagar Leh Transmission Line have been completed. From health and hydro power to railways and bridges, major projects are being pursued with fixed timetables and with real time monitoring. Border areas are being given special attention in infrastructure development as well as in the coverage of welfare schemes.
The government is working to ensure water for all and road connectivity to even the remotest villages after achieving 100% household electrification. Health and education sectors are being given particular attention to enhance the skill set of the local youth at a time when the job market is changing rapidly and there is an urgent need to transform job seekers to job creators. A major drive has been initiated to attract private investment so critical for the economic future of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Ladakh.
It is remarkable that while the critics continue to harp on a seeming lack of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, grassroots democracy has actually been thriving with Panchayati Raj elections of 2018 witnessing a voter turnout of 74.1 per cent followed by elections to the Block Development Councils held for the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir in October 2019 with a record 98.3% voter turnout. This has brought in new voices and new actors into the political arena, away from the stranglehold of a few families who have tended to dominate local politics. This bottom-up approach is a much more sustainable basis for strengthening democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.
Given the strategic importance of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, it is imperative for New Delhi to take its reforms to their logical conclusion. It is surprising that the status quo of the past took so much time to be challenged. However, now that it has been challenged, there should be no going back. Irrespective of some negative global headlines, there is a silent majority out there rooting for the success of the measures initiated. No wonder that few are calling for the restoration of Article 370 today. Even those who had built their careers around the old institutional framework seems to have adjusted to the ‘new normal’ where the real stakeholders from Jammu and Kashmir are in the commanding position, shaping their future in accordance with their aspirations.
The success of government’s reform agenda is critically important for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and for India’s own future. And its full operationalisation will take time. While critics in India continue to crib about these measures, their seriousness of intent is being well appreciated by India’s adversaries. After all, one of the reasons China is upping the ante in Ladakh is in recognition of the fact that these measures can fundamentally alter India’s strategic periphery to China’s long-term detriment. India is finally making its intent clear about consolidating its frayed periphery and that is bound to unnerve those who were comfortable with the status quo. Doing away with the shibboleths of the past is not only important but a veritable necessity.
Professor Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.