Peace Elusive as Kashmir Loses Special Status

Indian Kashmir officially became a federally ruled territory Thursday, nearly three months after New Delhi stripped its decades-old special status, but peace remains elusive in the Himalayan region that has been wracked by a violent separatist insurgency and is the flashpoint of its dispute with Pakistan.

The erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state is now split into two territories administered by New Delhi. One consists of the Muslim dominated Kashmir valley and Hindu dominated Jammu. The second is Ladakh, an icy desert bordering China.

However, months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government made the dramatic move, saying it will help stamp out terrorism and spur development in the country’s most restive region, there is widespread disenchantment and little semblance of normalcy in the Himalayan valley that is home to 8 million people.

“New highways, new railway lines, new schools, new hospitals will take the development of the people of Jammu and Kashmir to new heights,” Modi told a public rally in the western state of Gujarat.

The optimism was not reflected in the Kashmir valley, where shops were shuttered and streets largely deserted as a New Delhi appointee, Girish Chandra Murmu, was sworn in as the top official of Jammu and Kashmir.

“We are very apprehensive that things should not worsen. They are already bad,” according to Noor Ahmad Baba, a political analyst in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar. He describes the mood in the valley as sullen and angry, particularly among young people, and fears that downgrading Kashmir’s status could fuel the anti-India rebellion that New Delhi has struggled to control.

“They can’t go for any active resistance because of very heavy security presence around and there is no leadership,” Baba said.

While a huge security lockdown has kept a lid on popular protests, there has been a spate of militant attacks in the past two weeks. The internet continues to be shut down, although the communication blackout Kashmir faced ahead of the move has been somewhat eased. Businesses are counting losses of $1.4 billion, and apple farmers and traders have struggled to harvest and transport the bountiful crop due to fears of reprisals by militants. Regional political leaders who were placed under arrest to prevent them from fanning unrest remain in detention.

The most conspicuous change is that people from the rest of India can now buy land in Kashmir, previously banned under a constitutional provision known as Article 370 that gave Kashmiris special rights in property, education and jobs to protect the region’s identity.

The government has defended its move, saying it will link Kashmir with mainstream India, lessen its sense of alienation, guarantee its people rights available to other Indians, such as the right to education, and bring investment and jobs.

Home Minister Amit Shah told a public rally in Gujarat that scrapping Article 370 had shut down the “gateway to terrorism” in India, and will integrate Kashmir with the rest of the country.

That may not be easy, observers say. Recent militant attacks targeting migrant workers from outside the state are being interpreted as a signal Kashmir will not be secure for people from other parts of India. In the latest attack, on Tuesday, five construction workers were lined up and shot dead, according to officials. Earlier this month, six truckers who came to transport apples from the lush orchards were killed in separate incidents.

Businesses that have been crippled since the August 5 announcement because of the communication blackout are not optimistic that direct federal rule will make any difference on the ground.

“For every Kashmiri it is one and the same. Nothing is going to change. People are talking of investment now, but what about the present businesses? This is the big challenge,” according to the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad.

“The nascent IT sector is crippled. When there are no orders, where will our weavers and artisans go? In tourism sector alone 70,000 people are jobless.”

Outside of Kashmir, in the rest of India, Modi has won wide praise for making a bold move to stamp out the separatist insurgency fomented by Islamic militant groups that India says are supported by Pakistan an allegation denied by Islamabad.

“I don’t have doubts about the need for such a step and I am optimistic that things will improve,” Jayadeva Ranade, a security and intelligence expert in New Delhi, said.

Others underline that to “win the peace” in Kashmir, the government urgently needs to address the political vacuum in the state where virtually all regional leaders and party workers remain under detention.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who is under detention tweeted, “GOI (government of India) has left Kashmiris in the lurch & shown disregard for their rights. But if you consider them as your own, reach out & engage with them before it’s too late.” Her Twitter post is being handled by her daughter.

Pointing out that the government has yet to allow people to speak out, The Indian Express newspaper said in an editorial that it should free political leaders and workers and lift curbs on people.

Bringing Kashmir under New Delhi’s rule has worsened India’s fraught relationship with Pakistan, which has strongly opposed the move. Islamabad has downgraded diplomatic ties, and stopped trade, postal and train services with India.

Pakistan on Thursday rejected the “bifurcation” of Indian Kashmir.