August 5, 2019 started as an unassuming day in the Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK), with life carrying on as usual. Little did the people suspect that their identities as Kashmiri citizens would face an unprecedented test within mere hours. Under the aegis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a monumental decision, revoked the special status of IOK, enshrined in Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. The decision nullified all the provisions within these articles which granted autonomy and special status to the State.
Despite sending shockwaves throughout the globe, the move was not entirely unforeseen. Since 1947, Hindutva organisations, including the BJP, have been insistent that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. They have vehemently opposed Article 370, which had conferred powers to IOK to have a separate constitution and autonomy over internal matters.
The 2019 BJP election manifesto cited integration of Jammu and Kashmir as a vital campaign promise, which PM Modi promptly fulfilled once in power. It resulted in the re-organisation of India’s only Muslim-majority state into two centrally governed territories: Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. This move set off a series of unfortunate events that continue to shape the dynamics of IOK four years later. While proponents of the move continue to argue for integration and development for Kashmir through this decision, the subsequent human rights atrocities and regional destabilisation have raised significant concerns to the contrary.
The cutting off of communication lines including internet and phone services soon after the decision as well as deployment of thousands of additional security forces and the arrest of several prominent Kashmiri leaders, were all disguised as moves to pre-empt violence. In reality, however, these measures were specifically designed to curtail any outcry from within the valley from reaching outside ears.
Furthermore, the economic and social repercussions of the internet and electricity outages imposed on the region have been substantial. As per a 2019 report by the BBC, the prolonged internet shutdown has had severe consequences on education, business, and healthcare services in the valley. This has led to widespread discontent among the local population and fueled tensions in the region. The BBC report data also underscores the importance of access to information and communication as fundamental rights in the digital age and highlights the dire impact of these measures on the lives of ordinary Kashmiris.
Four years later, the impact of this move has not remained confined to the valley. The regional geopolitical ramifications have affected relations between not only India and Pakistan, but also India and China. This regional instability has raised concerns among other nations in South Asia and beyond, emphasizing the need for a re-look at the legality of this Indian action.
Similar concerns have been parroted in at least some of the more rational quarters of the Indian governmental echelons. Following the revocation of the article, a great number of Indian advocates initiated legal petitions, questioning the legitimacy of this decision under the provisions of the Indian Constitution. The sheer number of petitions forced the Indian Supreme Court’s hand, whereby they constituted a bench, tasked with hearing and adjudicating these petitions. What followed was typical legal lethargy and the case had been pending. It was brought back to attention in April 2022 and, after repeated mentions on the Supreme Court floor, the hearings for the petitions finally started on August 2, 2023.
Long overdue, the hearings are important because they grapple with the question of whether the people of IOK will continue to be deprived of their right to a representative form of government. Revocation of Article 370 had stripped the state of its Constitution as well as autonomous government, thus leading to a leadership vacuum. This situation was effectively used by the Indian leadership to commit even greater human rights violations in IOK without any fear of pushback.
At the core of this hearing lies the interpretation of Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, which aims to restore democracy where it has been undermined. Yet, paradoxically, the application of this article in this context raises more concerns about its potential role in undermining democracy within the region.
Thus, the Indian Supreme Court bench faces a momentous constitutional dilemma, trying to balance between upholding the so-called Indian democratic values and addressing the perceived decline in the region’s law and order situation after the revocation of Article 370.
The hearings are being closely monitored not only in South Asia but also beyond. The decision rendered by the Indian Supreme Court during these hearings has the potential to shape the very future of governance and the protection of fundamental human rights in IOK.
While the court’s decision will be significant, it is crucial to remember that true stability and progress can only be achieved by addressing the human rights violations, restoring communication, fostering meaningful dialogue, and rebuilding trust with the local population. The current Indian government, steeped as it is in election fervor, appears to have little interest in resolving the woes of the Kashmiri people at present.
Thus, the efficacy of these hearings in promoting the welfare of people in IOK remains a lingering question, with much yet to be determined.