NEW DELHI — On 5 August, 2019, the Narendra Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semi autonomous status guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, demoted India’s only Muslim majority state to a Union Territory, and placed it under a months-long lockdown without any internet. Thousands including activists, lawyers and minors, were arrested. In the year that has passed since then, the Modi government has made it possible for all Indians to acquire rights to vote and buy land in J&K, initiated an exercise to redraw parliamentary and assembly constituencies that could tilt the balance of power to the Hindu-majority Jammu Division, and withdrawn an order that made it mandatory for Indian security forces to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) before acquiring land in the region. Losses to the J&K economy since 5 August are estimated at Rs 40,000 crores.
In August, 2019, Kashmiri political activist Shehla Rashid took to Twitter to allege that the Indian Army had tortured Kashmiris amid the communication blackout. At the time, Rashid told HuffPost India that with the media paralysed, she believed she did not have any other choice but to raise the grave allegation on social media. A Supreme Court lawyer filed a complaint against her over her tweets. The Delhi Police registered an FIR under which she is currently being investigated.
Rashid, who has a large online following and is a vocal critic of the Modi government, shot into the limelight when she was Vice President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and led the protests against the arrests of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in 2016. In March, 2019, Rashid joined a political party launched by a fellow Kashmiri and former IAS officer Shah Faesal who was placed under house arrest on 14 August, 2019.
In this interview, Rashid looks back at the year since the abrogation, the allegations she made and the toll it took, and what politics in Kashmir now means to a young Kashmiri like her.
How do you feel one year after Article 370 was revoked?
I straddle two very complex identities of Indian Muslim and a Kashmiri woman. In this new India, the space for me as a woman, as a Muslim, as a Kashmiri, and as a research student, is shrinking. The space to be different is shrinking. There is an attempt to paint everything in one colour and homogenise a very diverse country. One used to be afraid of being a Kashmiri in Delhi, now one is afraid of being a Kashmiri in Kashmir. It could be just psychological but that is what the government is doing.
The biggest change is a feeling of insecurity. We have this feeling that Kashmir, our home, a distinct place where our culture could thrive, seems to be slipping away. That it is being snatched away from us. There is already a sense of nostalgia.
“We have this feeling that Kashmir, our home, a distinct place where our culture could thrive, seems to be slipping away.”
Why do you feel home is slipping away?
The feeling comes from a sense of impending cultural aggression. The point is not to be surrounded by Kashmiris in Kashmir but whether we have the space where our rights, our culture, the way we are, how we dress, the way we talk, what we eat, is respected or not.
We are a minority in this country. There was one state which was a Muslim majority state. We know how minorities are discriminated against in jobs, education, and housing, outside Kashmir. We felt there was one safe place where Kashmiri Muslims can stay without being discriminated against. I do not have to be afraid being a Muslim in Kashmir. That is not the case in the rest of India. I’m not a minority in Kashmir, my culture is not frowned upon, and I do not have to think twice about saying Inshallah or Alhamduillah. We are not second class citizens here.
I remember when I went for my first job (in Delhi), I had to specifically ask to be given Eid off in order to celebrate with my family. I was a trainee and I had to really fight for that holiday. That is what I mean. Your culture is ignored and pushed to the margins.
Why else do you feel your home is slipping away?
There is a sense of being fiddled around with, the sense of being used as a political football to stoke the ruling party’s agenda. There is a sense of helplessness.
We were told that this change was meant for the development of the region but it is meant for a blatant takeover of the region. This is not about our development or inclusion in the national mainstream. There is a pauperisation of the people. There is a deliberate destruction of Kashmir’s economy. Many people are going to default on their loans. They are going to go into debt and become bankrupt. Once they default, especially businesses and entrepreneurs, their lands can be auctioned to outsiders now that Article 370 has gone. The destruction of the economy is not an accidental byproduct of the political situation. The destruction of the economy is central to the political takeover of Kashmir.
How did Kashmiris talk about the revocation of Article 370 when it first happened and how did that change over one year.
When it happened, there was a sense of fighting back, of filing petitions against the decision. There was a lot of zeal and hope that this should be an easy one to win because we have logic on our side. Now, there is a sense of resignation. We still believe that our arguments are very sound, but the problem is that the hope of justice being served… we are still pinning our hopes in the Supreme Court, but the government won’t let us win fair and square. It’s not a fair fight. When people here ask what is happening about the Supreme Court case, and whether we are going to win, it is an awkward question.
Do you feel despair?
It is politically incorrect to talk about despair, but I have to acknowledge the enormity of what we are witnessing. My beliefs as a Kashmiri were shattered on 5 August, 2019. There are a lot of young people who really believe in a secular India, and their beliefs were shattered when the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed. Now, on 5 August, there is the inauguration of the Ram Mandir.
If we fail to acknowledge the enormity of the moment we are in, we are missing the big picture. There are a series of decisions that trample on the values that this country has stood for so far — some extent of secularism, some extent of federalism, some extent of fairness and justice.
“It is politically incorrect to talk about despair, but I have to acknowledge the enormity of what we are witnessing.”
You speak as if demographic change in Kashmir is inevitable. There have been many more people applying for domicile in the Jammu Division than Kashmir, so far.
These changes are being brought in way too fast and we are in shock. On 3 August, 2019, I had put out a video assuring people that all these rumours about revocation are false and appealed to people not to believe in these rumours. It was my firm belief, and a belief rooted in law and history and logic, that Article 370 cannot be fiddled around with. It was a shock to the system that everything changed so fast. My strongest belief was that Article 370 was untouchable and that is gone. Other things will only follow from it. Even though we are challenging it’s legality in the Supreme Court, we did not get a stay. This was a blow. There was a naive hope that we would get a stay. It is such a big decision. The court could have stayed it. There is no reason to believe that this won’t happen or that won’t happen. Things will happen.
“Even though we are challenging it’s legality in the Supreme Court, we did not get a stay. This was a blow.”
Why is Article 370 important to you?
Article 370 signifies mutual respect. I believe that development is human development. I think federalism is really important to ensure human development. The states are accountable to people. It’s not only Article 370 in Kashmir. You also see toppling of governments in other states. It shows that the present central government does not really have respect for federalism.
I’ve grown up in a state where land reforms have been implemented very well, educational reforms have been implemented very well, and I have attended school in a very egalitarian system. I have not seen people starve. I actually feel guilty for supporting the lockdown initially. I had put out this message that we should all support the Prime Minister’s call for a lockdown. I’ve seen lockdowns in Kashmir since my childhood and I’ve never seen anyone starving. What we saw a few months ago in Delhi was criminal. People from the national capital had to walk back to their village.
You were one of the first people to allege that the Indian Army was torturing people in Kashmir post the abrogation of Article 370. You did it over Twitter.
I have no regrets about it. I did not lie. Whatever I said was subsequently reported in some of the most reputed media houses. These facts were part of stories that also highlighted wrongdoings on part of the insurgents. I have no reason to lie. I did not lie. I spoke the truth and I stand by it. If I was put in the situation again then I would do it all over again. I feel it is my duty to speak up when no one else is speaking up. Right now, you have many voices. Kashmiris are writing on Twitter and Facebook, journalists are reporting, many of the political leaders are free. But at that time, I was one of the few voices who could still speak. I feel — there is a Faiz Ahmad Faiz couplet — bol ki lab azaad hain tere — as long as you are free to speak then you should speak for the oppressed.
“There is a Faiz Ahmad Faiz couplet — bol ki lab azaad hain tere...”
You were booked for sedition.
I’ve been cooperating with the special cell (of the Delhi Police). I don’t know why this bogus case has been assigned to the special cell. It is a waste of time. This was probably just one attention hungry lawyer (the person who filed the complaint). But I’m cooperating with them. What I said was subsequently vindicated. I don’t think the case should exist. But we know how the justice system works. Activists are in jail for no wrongdoing.
It is an annoyance.
It is more than an annoyance. It is a deterrence. Next time, when I know any atrocity is happening or that people are at risk, and I know I can shine a light on it and stop it, I’m going to think. There was a very real possibility of getting arrested at the time. Everyone around me had been arrested. There was a sedition FIR against me. I had prepared my family for it. I told them that I may be arrested and it is fine. My sister started getting depressed. She could not cope with the possibility of me getting arrested. The impact the FIR has on your family does make you think twice. What is happening is a tug of war. I’m trying to deter the state from committing atrocities by embarrassing them and they are trying to deter me by putting FIRs.
There is now talk of J&K’s statehood getting restored.
For us, the petitioners who are challenging the 5 August decision, the restoration of statehood would only be a partial victory. In our petition, we are challenging all the presidential orders that have been passed after 1953. They also need to reunify the state. I respect that there are people in Ladakh who are happy with that decision (separate state), but there are an equal number of people who are unhappy especially in Kargil. Ladakhis have been part of the workforce and our cultural space and our lives for quite a while. Those ties were severed very violently.
What does politics in Kashmir mean now?
Politics in Kashmir is a puppet show. Those with a more secessionists mindset would say that it has always been a puppet show. The cynics are having the last laugh. We tried to work within the system, engage the system and engage the cynics who would say that Indian democracy is a sham. We would say we have to engage with the system, fight for our rights, find and support real leadership, and be the authentic voice of the people. We have been proven horribly wrong.
Unless we win the Supreme Court case, I don’t see myself returning to politics. My theory of change has failed. I kept arguing that India cannot change Article 370. We are children of the social media age. What happened in 1953 cannot happen in 2019 because we have the Internet. By that I mean when Sheikh Abdullah was thrown into jail, the world was not so connected, a global village. I thought that if our leaders are thrown into jail then the world will be watching and we will make a noise about it and we will win back our freedom. But clearly I was wrong. All the government had to do was pull the kill switch and shut off our voices and that is what they did. My theory of change is shattered. I think it would be really foolish to go back to the public and repeat the same rhetoric all over again. People who call India an occupying force, the Government of India has proven them right.
“All the government had to do was pull the kill switch and shut off our voices and that is what they did.”
Do you feel Kashmiri politicians will be more willing to engage with India once statehood is restored.
I won’t be able to speak for everyone. Everyone has different sets of experiences. Everyone has lived through different phases. Our world views are shaped by what we have experienced. I’m probably the among the youngest lot in politics. To be honest with you, I don’t know how to process this. I had a lot of faith that Article 370 was untouchable. I feel like statehood is a bargaining chip the Centre is using. If we ask for the sun, we could get the moon. But if we begin by asking for the moon, then I don’t think we will get anywhere. I think we need to be firm about what we are demanding. I’m only speaking for myself. I’m not preaching to anyone. But I would not consider as a victory anything but a return to the pre 5 August position.
How have you spent the past year?
I’ve gone quiet because I’m trying to figure out what my theory of change is. I believed in engagement, development and collective bargaining. That has been shattered. I’m reading more and writing less.