New Delhi, India – Hundreds of people have rallied in the Indian capital to protest against the scrapping of a constitutional provision that granted special status to Indian-administered Kashmir.
In the lead-up to its controversial move on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s government sent thousands of additional troops to the disputed region, imposing a curfew on parts of it, arrested political leaders and shut down telecommunication lines.
Calling it the “death of Indian democracy”, the protesters in New Delhi on Wednesday demanded the recently re-elected government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reconsider its decision.
“The way they [BJP] brought the legislation and the way they got the abrogation of Article 370, it’s an assault on the Indian democracy; it’s an assault on our constitution; it’s an assault on the federal principles of our democratic polity,” said Doraisamy Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India.
Raja said similar protests were being held in other parts of the country and organisers planned to continue mobilising people.
On Monday morning, Amit Shah, India’s minister of home affairs and a close ally of Modi, announced in the BJP-led parliament the decision to abolish Article 370 of the constitution, stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.
The constitutional provision was the basis of the Muslim-majority state’s accession to the Indian union in 1947 when erstwhile princely states had the choice to join either newly-independent India or Pakistan.
The article, which came into effect in 1949, allowed the state to have “limited autonomy” in certain areas and had prevented non-residents from buying any property in the disputed region.
Article 35A was introduced in 1954 to continue the old provisions of the territory regulations under Article 370. It empowered the state’s legislature to define “permanent residents” and provide special rights and privileges to them.
“The Kashmiri people in 1947 joined India because they thought their Kashmiri identity was important and they felt that their Kashmiri autonomy as Kashmiris will be safer with secular India rather than Pakistan and Article 370 was that promise to them,” said Kavita Krishnan, a member of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
In announcing the move on Monday, Shah argued that it was meant to help in the territory’s integration into India and its governance structures.
“Because of Article 370, democracy never took root in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir], corruption flourished, widespread poverty took root and no socio-economic infrastructure could come up.”
But the move, which risks escalating already-heightened tensions with neighbouring Pakistan, is expected to face legal challenges.
“The decision was taken in absence of an elected legislative assembly in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, so we will fight this decision both legally and politically,” said Shehla Rashid, a former student activist and member of the newly floated Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement political party, condemned the move:
Krishnan called it an attack on India’s federal constitution.
“If they have got rid of that page [Article 370] of India’s constitution, every other page is in danger as well,” she said.
‘Loss of our identity’
Holding placards, the protesters raised anti-Modi and anti-Shah placards as they marched from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar.
A demonstrator from New Delhi, who wished not to be named, said: “I have joined the protest because I feel ashamed that how can our government not consult the people of a state about whom it’s made such a big decision. It’s a clear violation of democratic process and is an insult to Indian democracy.”
She added: “Government says it will open investment but it will lead to more protest as the Kashmiris were completely left out from the decision making.”
Several Kashmiri students said they had not been able to speak to their families for a third straight day due to the communication blackout.
“India claims to be the world’s biggest democracy but the world has today seen what kind of democracy it is,” said Mehvish, a Kashmiri student protesting in New Delhi.
“We have not been able to speak to our families for days now and this government doesn’t care about our pain, the trauma we go through. What they care about is the Kashmiri land and nothing else,” she said.
“Revoking Article 370 means loss of our identity as Kashmiris.”