The Indian government has told the country’s top court it is ready to hold elections in Indian-administered Kashmir “any time now”.
“The central government is ready for elections any time now. Till date, the updating of voter list was going on which is substantially over,” India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court on Thursday, adding that a call has to be taken by election officials on when to hold the polls.
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Mehta is representing the federal government in the court as it hears a batch of petitions challenging New Delhi’s controversial 2019 move to revoke the special status of the region.
The last state assembly elections in Indian-administered Kashmir were held in 2014.
In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was a member of a coalition government led by a pro-India political party, withdrew its support, forcing the last elected Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to resign.
Later that year, as two rival parties tried to form an alliance in order to claim power, the region’s BJP-appointed governor dissolved the assembly. Since then, Indian-administered Kashmir has not seen any legislative assembly election.
On August 2 this year, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud started hearing petitions filed by Kashmiri and other groups and individuals who claim India’s move to scrap Article 370, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir its partial autonomy, was illegal.
The special law gave exclusive rights on property and jobs to the permanent residents of India’s only Muslim-majority region and allowed it to have its own constitution. It also barred outsiders from settling permanently or buying property in the region, which is also claimed by neighbouring Pakistan.
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir is divided between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, both of whom claim it in its entirety and have fought two of their three full-scale wars over it.
In the late 1980s, an armed rebellion against Indian rule began in the valley area of Indian-administered Kashmir. The Indian government responded by posting more than half a million soldiers, making it one of the most militarised conflict zones in the world.
Tens of thousands of people, including a large number of civilians, have died in the conflict.
The situation worsened in 2019 when Modi’s government removed the region’s special status and brought it under New Delhi’s direct control by turning it into a federal territory governed by a hand-picked administrator.
Since then, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has passed a series of laws and policies which residents in the valley say are aimed at changing the demography of the region and deny them their historical rights over their lands and livelihoods.
‘Restoration of democracy is vital’
Meanwhile, a group of Kashmiri political parties and other groups petitioned the Supreme Court, challenging India’s move and demanding the rights guaranteed to the region under the constitution.
Earlier this week, the top court asked the government if there was a definite timeline for the restoration of the region’s full statehood. “Restoration of democracy is vital,” the court observed.
Mehta, the government counsel, on Thursday told the court he did not have an exact time frame for the restoration of Indian-administered Kashmir’s full statehood but maintained that the federal territory status is only a temporary phenomenon.
Mehta also claimed that “normalcy” had returned in the region as incidents of armed rebellion and stone-pelting by the residents on security forces have decreased. He said the region is seeing investment by business groups to boost its economy.
However, Kapil Sibal, advocate and India’s former law minister who appeared for the petitioners, contested the government’s claims of normalcy.
The ruling BJP calls Article 370 “a dead chapter” and hopes the court will also conclude the same when it delivers its judgement in the case.
However, the petitioners argue the law had a permanent status and not a temporary provision. Sibal said the abrogation of Article 370 was “political and taken unilaterally by the [political] executive”.
“You can’t introduce a bill in parliament at 11 o’clock [in the night] and pass a resolution without anyone knowing about it … Why? Because you are subject to the constraints of the constitution,” he said, referring to Indian parliament’s session held on August 5, 2019, when the legislation scrapping the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir was passed.
Hasnain Masoodi of the region’s National Conference party, who is one of the petitioners before the Supreme Court, told Al Jazeera “the grounds in our petitions are that the abrogation of Article 370 was unconstitutional”.
“The other side has not been able to make any dent in that argument,” he said, calling the law “a self-containing provision”.
Masoodi said Article 3 of India’s constitution does not allow the government to divide or downgrade a state.
“The arguments advanced so far [in the court] make us very hopeful,” he said, adding that the other side is only presenting a “normalcy narrative”.