India top court to hear pleas on Article 370 removal in Kashmir

Supreme Court says it will begin hearing petitions challenging Modi government’s decision to revoke region’s limited autonomy next month.

A Kashmiri woman shows her hands with messages at a protest after Friday prayers during restrictions after the Indian government scrapped the special constitutional status for Kashmir, in Srinagar Aug
A Kashmiri woman shows her hands with messages at a protest against India's move, in Srinagar [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

India’s top court has begun considering a challenge to the 2019 imposition of direct rule in Indian-administered Kashmir, a snap decision accompanied by mass arrests and a months-long internet blackout.

The Supreme Court’s constitutional bench, led by Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, on Tuesday announced it will conduct day-to-day hearings of the petitions challenging the government’s decision to revoke the region’s special status from August 2.

The court has directed all parties to submit their written submissions by July 27.

During the hearing, the court was also informed that two petitioners – Shah Faesal, a bureaucrat, and Shehla Rashid, a former student leader – have withdrawn their pleas.

The August 5, 2019 move

On August 5, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir the ability to have its own constitution, flag, and a two-house legislature with the authority to enact its own laws.

The suspension of the region’s limited autonomy was accompanied by other legislation passed on the same day that scrapped Article 35A, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir the authority to define its residents and implemented restrictions on outsiders from acquiring properties or obtaining government jobs in the region.

As a result of these changes, the country’s only Muslim-majority region was reorganised from a state into two centrally governed union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

The Supreme Court in New Delhi will weigh whether the move to scrap Article 370 from the constitution was legal, despite lacking the endorsement from parliament usually required for constitutional change.

Modi’s government defended the decision in an affidavit sent to the court on Monday, saying the change had brought “peace, progress and prosperity” to the restive territory, home to a long-running rebellion against Indian rule.

But Kashmiri politician Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference party helped bring the case, said the government rationale for its decision was irrelevant.

The court would have to weigh “the illegality & unconstitutionality of what was done,” he said on Twitter. “Not whether the [government] has a strong enough political case.”

A bench agreed the case could continue and adjourned the case for oral arguments in August.

Mehbooba Mufti, the region’s former chief minister, told Al Jazeera the Supreme Court’s decision to not rely on the government’s affidavit “vindicates that it does not have a logical explanation to justify illegal abrogation of Article 370″.

“Having said that, there are legitimate apprehensions about why the Supreme Court has taken up the Article 370 [issue] with such alacrity after remaining silent for four years. The decision to hear the case on a daily basis does evoke misgivings,” she said.

“We hope the court is able to at least hold on to their earlier decision that [Article] 370 cannot be scrapped unless the [parliament] recommends it to the president of India.”

BJP’s key plank

Consolidating New Delhi’s rule over its portion of the territory has long been a key plank of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The imposition of direct rule in 2019 was accompanied by the preventive detention of thousands of people across Indian-administered Kashmir, including almost all local political leaders.

A months-long internet shutdown suppressed communication in the territory as India bolstered its armed forces in the region in an effort to contain protests against the move.

Critics say that authorities have since curbed media freedoms and public protests in a drastic curtailment of civil liberties.

The suspension of Kashmir’s semi-autonomy also allowed Indians from elsewhere to buy land and claim government jobs in the territory, a policy denounced by critics as “settler colonialism”.

Hundreds of new laws, replacing local ordinances, have since been promulgated by the region’s New Delhi-appointed governor.

India has for decades stationed more than half a million soldiers on its side of divided Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan. An armed rebellion against Indian rule has killed thousands in the Muslim-majority territory since 1989.

The frequency of armed clashes between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri rebels has dropped significantly in recent years as India works to fortify its rule over the territory.

Last year, at least 223 fighters and 30 civilians died in the region, according to official records.

India’s 2019 decision had also received strong reactions from Pakistan, which claims the entire Kashmir region, and China, which claims parts of Ladakh.

Several individuals, groups, and political parties filed nearly 20 petitions in the top court, calling the government’s decision illegal and unconstitutional.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court formed a bench to hear the petitions and address challenges to the government’s decision.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies