In the picturesque village of Kreeri in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, block development council chairman Sofi Ghulam Mohiuddin is at home listening attentively to the grievances of a group of people. The 55-year-old, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 after spending three decades as a National Conference (NC) activist, says that political workers like him have been “empowered” by the BJP’s sidelining of old political faces and “dynasts” over the past year. People who see the BJP as a communal entity do question him for joining the party, he says, but calls it “fake propaganda.”
“Villagers come to me with hope and I try to get their work done. For workers like me, the [effective] abrogation of special status was the biggest achievement, which opened the doors for us and development of panchayats,” Sofi says, taking notes from his visitors as four armed police guards keep watch on the road leading to his house.
A year after Parliament pushed through constitutional changes that divested Jammu & Kashmir of its special status and bifurcated the state into two Union territories, J&K and Ladakh, people associated with the BJP have a new sense of empowerment. Other mainstream politicians have been sidelined, and many are still under house arrest.
Even Syed Altaf Bukhari, the chief of the fledgling Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, which was conceived as an alternative to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the NC, is complaining.
“We were promised that abrogation of Article 370 would bring massive development, employment opportunities, industrialization, and an influx of tourists. One year down the line, nothing has happened,” said Bukhari, a former minister. “The economy has gone from bad to worse, the tourism sector is in shambles and there is nobody on the ground to hear the voices of people. Bureaucracy is unresponsive, indifferent, and insensitive.”
Hasnain Masoodi, the NC MP from south Kashmir, who was the first to challenge the revocation of Article 370 that conferred special status on J&K, said the admission of the petition by the Supreme Court had sent a message that opponents of the move had a strong case.
“One year has passed and from one lockdown to another lockdown which the people have faced… the Centre should read the writing on the wall and undo what has been done to J&K. The people are silent but they have not reconciled [with the decision],” Masoodi said.
Most PDP leaders, including party president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, are under detention. Mufti, detained under the Public Safety Act, had her detention extended by three more months on July 31.
“Last time when I spoke, I was detained for a year and continue to remain under house arrest. The situation is as fragile as it was always. People are sad. There is complete silence in Kashmir particularly in South Kashmir,” said PDP youth wing president, Waheed Ur Rehman Parra. Parra called the silence “negative peace which is enforced by fear.”
“There is the absence of politics and dissent is criminalised…Cases against media, mainstream people, and sidelining of locals in the system have further gripped us with insecurity,” he said. “BJP deleted our 70 years of investment in peace, democracy, and changed definitions of democracy across India.”
Sofi Yusuf of the BJP said the party had only fulfilled its years-old promise by revoking Article 370. “Due to restrictions and now Covid-19, development could not take place but now things have started moving up and many developmental projects are being completed,” Sofi said. “Leaders of other parties should come forward to accelerate the process.”
Sense of alienation
Muzaffar Shah, vice president of the Awami National Conference, said not only the Kashmir Valley, but even the Jammu region and Ladakh want the return of Article 370 and Article 35A, which allowed the erstwhile state assembly to define permanent residents of J&K. “Earlier, it was India, Pakistan, and the people of Kashmir that were party to the dispute, now there is China also. This is what BJP has done to J&K,” he said and vowed to fight the case in the Supreme Court. China has opposed the Indian moves in J&K.
The business community also feels aggrieved. Chairman of the Kashmir Chamber of Industries, Sheikh Ashiq, said: ‘’Forget about development, our survival is at stake. We have lost ~40,000 crores. The employers here have turned unemployed,’’ he said.
Even ordinary people nurse a sense of disenchantment.
“People here are seething in anger and can erupt any time as they feel they have been pushed to the wall and robbed of everything ,” said lawyer Mudasir Naqashband.
Opinion in the Ladakh region appears divided with many in Muslim-majority Kargil seeking to be a part of a J&K state. The sentiment appears to finds no traction in the predominantly Buddhist Leh. Both regions have common concerns about their rights to land and jobs.
“We never demanded a UT [Union Territory]. We were and will remain against the abrogation of the special status and bifurcation of the state. Today people in Ladakh have no land and job security,” said Sajjad Kargili, a social activist in Kargil.