When the Modi government de-operationalised Articles 370 and 35A, and demoted and divided Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, I was in London to attend my nephew Vikram’s wedding. I felt stunned, but also soon realised I had an opportunity to see how the outside world views this development. There’s no country with a longer association with India than Britain. Its media can often devote enormous effort to covering the subcontinent. That was definitely so on this occasion. Let me, therefore, tell you how this step has been interpreted.
Many find it hard to accept that the world’s largest democracy could act in this manner. They have three broad concerns. First, this is seen as an attempt to deny the Valley its cherished identity. For a country that describes itself as a “union of states” this is not just paradoxical but, possibly, self-defeating. It’s also, as the more informed Brits pointed out, hypocritical. At a time when the Indian government is negotiating greater autonomy with the Nagas – reportedly, perhaps, including a separate flag and a separate constitution – it’s inexplicable that these features have been stripped away from Kashmir.
A second concern is the way this was done. The provisions of Article 370 have been used to add a clause to Article 367, interpreting constituent assembly to mean legislative assembly, and using that to de-activate the Article. It’s hard to believe this was intended by India’s constitutional framers. It smacks of legerdemain. Indeed, many Brits believe the Indian Supreme Court will overturn this sophistry, which they view as brazen trickery.
A third concern arises out of the environment the Narendra Modi government created in the Valley before and after it acted. Tourists and pilgrims were asked to immediately leave, landlines, mobile phones and the Internet shut down, while Section 144, amounting to curfew, effectively imposed over the entire state. This, the Brits argue, is not only proof the Modi government has acted by stealth but that it’s also aware what it’s done is both unpopular and illegitimate.
Now, if this was the initial view, in the days that followed, it was significantly added to by the Modi government’s reaction to international press coverage. And, to be honest, this was more widely discussed. On, August 9, reports stated that thousands had protested, and the government responded with tear gas and firing. The Indian government angrily denied this, insisting such reports were untrue. Thus challenged, a news channel released video footage which seemed to conclusively prove its report was correct. Many people were left dumbfounded. It seemed to suggest the Modi government was lying.
Much the same happened when reports first emerged of pellet gun injuries. The government in Srinagar insisted these were only few and infrequent. However, the British media, quoting Indian newspapers and websites, was able to establish there were many more. Once again, the sincerity, if not credibility, of the Indian State came into doubt.
Finally, all of this collectively raised the question: Why has this happened? The British know this is a manifesto commitment of the Modi government, but they’re also aware that was equally true in 2014. So why now? This time, the answer is spoken hesitantly but the concern is no less obvious. Is this the Hinduisation of secular India? Even if that’s somewhat exaggerated, has Kashmir been picked upon because it’s a Muslim majority province? After all, special provisions exist for Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the whole of the North East as well as territories designated as scheduled areas. So why was Article 370 so upsetting if the others are not?
These are, of course, only questions. Hardly anyone I met was confident of the answers. But the fact they are being asked is troubling. They now provide the frame within which the picture of today’s India is seen. It seems to diminish the country I love.