Post-Article 370: Democracy Yet to Take Ground in Jammu and Kashmir

The Supreme Court's verdict upholding the abrogation of Article 370 and the upcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by September 2024 present a complex and sensitive landscape.

The Supreme Court’s verdict upholding the abrogation of Article 370 and the upcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by September 2024 present a complex and sensitive landscape. Despite the passage of time, the ramifications of this verdict continue to reverberate through the nation’s constitutional framework and federal polity. It is crucial to delve into the legal intricacies and evolving dynamics surrounding this landmark judgement, shedding light on the nuanced realities that will influence the upcoming 2024 elections in J&K. This report analyses the key stakeholders, potential scenarios, and critical considerations for ensuring a stable and inclusive political process.

Key Dynamics:

  • Fractured Opposition: Major Kashmiri parties remain divided, raising concerns about legitimacy and participation in the polls.
  • Lingering Grievances: Unfulfilled aspirations and limited political space fuel discontent and separatist sentiments.
  • Security Challenges: Continued violence and restrictions on media and dissent risk escalating tensions.
  • Evolving Dynamics: Young leaders emerge, while established parties adapt, creating new political configurations.

Supreme Court Verdict on Article 370

The Supreme Court’s verdict on Article 370 in December 2023 and the upcoming polls in Jammu and Kashmir in September 2024 are both highly complex and sensitive topics, generating diverse and often polarised reactions. The culmination of the process that began in August 2019 was reached in December 2023, as the Supreme Court, India’s apex court, affirmed the Narendra Modi government’s August 5, 2019 decision of abrogation of Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. The move had resulted in the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories- Ladakh without a legislature and J&K with a legislature. It resulted in altering the political standing of the state with the Indian Union, stripping it of its autonomy and privileges accorded to it by the virtue of Article 370. Over the years, the decision sparked considerable controversy and legal challenges, with the constitution bench of the Supreme Court addressing nearly 23 petitions challenging the government’s action since August 2019.

The five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice, D.Y. Chandrachud upheld the authority of the President of India to unilaterally dilute the special status accorded to the former state of J&K under Article 370.  The December 11, 2023 verdict by the Supreme Court emphasised that the abrogation of the said article marked the culmination of the process of integrating Jammu and Kashmir with the Union, asserting that there was no malicious intent behind rendering the article inoperative. The court clarified that J&K had “surrendered” its sovereignty “fully and finally” when a proclamation was issued for the state on 25 November 1949, highlighting that Article 370 was a “temporary provision” intended as an interim measure due to wartime conditions in the state. CJI Chandrachud’s meticulous examination of the legal intricacies surrounding Jammu and Kashmir revealed a profound analysis of historical context and constitutional provisions. The court’s emphasis on Yuvraj Karan Singh’s 1949 proclamation, which superseded specific clauses of the Instrument of Accession (IoA), formed the basis for the verdict. The dismissal of notions of ‘distinct autonomy’ and the assertion of the temporary nature of Article 370 positioned it among the “Constitution’s transitional provisions”. While upholding the revocations’ legality, the court emphasised the fundamental principle of democratic participation and set the stage for a renewed political landscape. Crucially, the judgement asserted that the President’s power to repeal it remained intact despite the Assembly’s dissolution.

In a unanimous decision, the five-judge bench directed the Election Commission of India (ECI) to hold elections in J&K by 30 September 2024, marking a potential turning point in its almost five years of political turmoil post Article-370. The directive for local elections within a defined time frame signifies a move toward an elected government, potentially paving the way for a renewed sense of agency and self-determination among the Kashmiri people.

Implications on Political Landscape

The abrogation of Article 370 in J&K stands as a watershed moment, sending ripples through the region’s socio-political fabric. While presenting potential opportunities for integration and development, it also unleashes a complex interplay of forces with multifaceted implications. The future course of action has ignited a tinderbox of conflicting emotions and is intricately woven with both hope and potential pitfalls. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir has the potential to reshape the country’s political map. As the people of the ‘erstwhile’ state prepare to articulate their sentiments, the ruling becomes a touchstone for political theories that have framed India’s Constitutional trajectory. The legal and constitutional debates surrounding the verdict will influence voter sentiments and political strategies, shaping the electoral landscape in the region and, broadly, the security apparatus and geopolitics in the South Asian region.

While some view the verdict as positive steps for national integration, economic progress and democratic participation, others fear further marginalisation, human rights violation, rigging in elections and deepening of undemocratic processes.  Nationalist parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and many hardliner leaders along with certain sections of Jammu see the abrogation and polls as opportunities for development and representation. Business interests hope for economic rejuvenation. On the other hand, mainstream Kashmiri political parties, human rights groups, and sections of civil society raise concerns about fairness, legitimacy, and the potential for further alienation and violence. The situation is further complicated by a volatile security situation, the potential influence of social media and misinformation, and the watchful eyes of the international community that monitors the situation closely. Concerns regarding the fairness and inclusivity of upcoming elections amidst ongoing security challenges and alleged demographic changes remain prevalent. Further, the question of restoring statehood, while mentioned as a vague future endeavour, lacks a concrete timeline, leaving some feeling uncertainty about the extent of self-governance.

The crackdown on political dissent and media freedom in J&K has created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. Key regional leaders remain under house arrest or face restrictions, dampening political participation and public discourse. This limited space stifles legitimate avenues for expressing dissent and can push individuals towards more radical alternatives.

While the abrogation of Article 370 has seemingly sidelined separatist movements, their complete disappearance remains debatable. The separatist movement in J&K is no longer monolithic. While some advocate for armed struggle, others favour political and diplomatic solutions. Separatist groups might adopt diverse strategies, ranging from boycotts and non-violent protests to renewed militancy, depending on the perceived legitimacy and fairness of the elections. The upcoming elections are fraught with uncertainties.The shadow of separatism looms large in the background. The iron-fisted approach, while containing armed militancy, has also stifled the local culture and civil liberties. This pressure cooker environment could see renewed expressions of discontent, especially if the elections are perceived as unfair or undemocratic.

The legal and constitutional debates surrounding the verdict will influence voter sentiments and political strategies, shaping the electoral landscape in the region. There are major questions being raised and discourses regarding the looming elections are commonplace among the intelligentsia, bureaucracy and the general public.  Will the major regional parties participate? How will the law, order and security situation evolve? What role will neighbours like Pakistan play? Different scenarios are possible:

  • High voter turnout and legitimate results: This scenario, though unlikely given the current climate, could offer a modicum of stability and pave the way for a more inclusive political process.
  • Low voter turnout and contested results: This scenario, more probable, could delegitimize the elected government and embolden separatists.
  • Renewed violence and instability: A complete boycott or widespread violence could derail the elections and plunge J&K into further chaos.

Emergence of New Political Forces

Understanding this complex landscape requires examining the evolving dynamics of power, aspirations, and potential flashpoints. Public discourse analysis and scholarship on the upcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir promise to be a pivotal moment, marked by the entry of young aspirants, shifting political narrative, and lingering uncertainties. The recent defection of several key leaders from the NC to the BJP raises concerns about the potential fracturing of the opposition and its impact on the upcoming elections. Seasoned leaders like Altaf Bukhari (Apni Party) and Ghulam Nabi Azad enjoy clandestine support of the BJP and this further exemplifies this dynamic shift. Thus, the upcoming polls are poised to witness significant changes and complexities, particularly with the announcement of former J&K Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s intention to contest all Lok Sabha seats in the Union Territory. Azad’s departure from the Congress to form the Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) adds a new dimension to the electoral landscape, potentially impacting the fortunes of both the BJP and the Congress. Azad’s move is perceived to have implications, especially in the Jammu region, where his influence is expected to be more pronounced. However, analysts suggest that his party’s impact may not extend significantly into Kashmir, where other local players like the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference (NC) traditionally hold sway. The DPAP’s potential to alter the electoral dynamics is particularly notable in constituencies such as Jammu, Udhampur, and the newly created Anantnag-Rajouri seat, which spans both Jammu and Kashmir regions.

The delimitation exercise and the revocation of J&K’s special status have reshaped the electoral map, making the Anantnag-Rajouri seat a focal point of interest. This seat, combining parts of Jammu and Kashmir, presents a unique challenge and opportunity for various parties. The BJP sees it as a chance to make inroads into the Kashmir Valley, especially with initiatives like the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023, aimed at extending reservation benefits to certain communities, including the Paharis. With the simmering tensions and an anti-BJP mood pervading the Valley and Jammu region, this is regarded as a very strategic step by the BJP to establish their stronghold over the Assembly elections. The Paharis, comprising both Hindus and Muslims, hold significant sway in the Anantnag-Rajouri seat, and their support could prove pivotal. The BJP’s emphasis on development and peace in the region further underscores its strategic approach. However, the absence of the reservation bill’s passage could alter the electoral dynamics, potentially favouring parties like the NC and the Congress, particularly in segments where they have traditionally been competitive.

The evolving alliances and seat-sharing agreements among parties add another layer of complexity to the electoral stage. While the Congress, NC, and PDP are part of the newly formed INDIA alliance, internal tensions and disagreements over seat allocation could impact the electoral calculus. This uncertainty underscores the fluid nature of politics in Jammu and Kashmir, where historical affiliations, local dynamics, and emerging contenders shape the electoral narrative and polarisation is at its peak. Overall, the 2024 elections in Jammu and Kashmir are poised to be closely contested, with the emergence of new players like the DPAP adding a layer of unpredictability. The outcome in key constituencies like Anantnag-Rajouri will not only determine electoral outcomes but also have broader implications for the political scene and the narrative surrounding the region’s future trajectory.

One thing is certain: the Kashmiri political climate is undergoing a metamorphosis. What was once dominated by calls for self-rule has taken a sharp turn towards development as well, a strategic move by local leaders navigating a restrictive environment. However, this narrative shift has inadvertently opened doors for a new breed of politicians – young, ambitious, and eager to redefine the Kashmiri political scene. These young guns, like Mir Junaid and Ifra Jan, represent a stark contrast to the established parties. Adept at navigating the digital age, they wield technology and grassroots mobilisation as their weapons. Interestingly, some even forge alliances with the BJP, capitalising on their “New Kashmir” vision and leveraging crucial campaign resources.  Established parties like the National Conference (NC) and the PDP recognize the changing tide. Faced with the challenge of young, tech-savvy competitors, they are strategically incorporating younger members into their ranks. These fresh faces bring new perspectives and relatable experiences, hoping to counter the appeal of the young guns aligned with the BJP. The recent Kargil Hill Development Council elections, where young NC-Congress candidates made a strong showing, serve as a testament to this trend. Furthermore, the political vacuum created by the dissolved Assembly and detained leaders has only accelerated the rise of these new players. With established figures sidelined, the stage is set for fresh voices to dominate the discourse. Parties are trying to engage fresh voices as engaging the large youth population through participation can counter narratives of disenfranchisement and apathy and this can strengthen India’s claims of normalcy and legitimacy in J&K. However, this dynamic is not without its challenges.

Evolving Public Sentiment and Dynamics of Local Security

It is pertinent to note that despite the government’s claims of peace and normalcy, many Kashmiris feel their core identity and political and cultural aspirations have been undermined. The abrogation of Article 370, seen as a betrayal by many, continues to cast a long shadow. Promises of development and improved security have not fully materialised, and concerns about demographic changes and land ownership rights persist. These unaddressed grievances provide fertile ground for separatist narratives. Unfulfilled promises have strengthened disillusionment  among the populace. Despite the peaceful facade presented by tourism and the media reports as well as the absence of curfews, Kashmiris harbour deep frustrations and yearn for an assembly election. They feel unheard and powerless without elected representatives, and even those who previously boycotted elections now seek them as a means to end the stifling “authoritative central apparatus.” The lack of accessible leadership is a major concern, with citizens describing officials as arrogant and the Lieutenant Governor as out of touch. Despite fears of rigging and puppet regimes, high voter turnout is predicted due to the desperate desire for local representation and the familiarity of old parties that pronounce their ethnicity and identity.

Kashmiris navigate a complex political arena under Prime Minister Modi’s rule. While some appreciate government initiatives like healthcare schemes, others harbour deep criticism, particularly regarding the abrogation of Article 370. Fear of repercussions often silences open political discussions, shifting focus to practical concerns like infrastructure and healthcare. There is deep polarisation observed in Jammu region as well, while trust deficit and disillusionment is a part and parcel of the Kashmiri society. Despite development efforts, Kashmiris grapple with feelings of marginalisation and apprehension, questioning their place within India. As the people of the ‘erstwhile’ J&K state prepare to articulate their sentiments, the ruling becomes a touchstone for political theories that have framed India’s Constitutional route.

Analysts point to a growing sense of insecurity within Kashmir due to national events impacting Muslims. Regional leaders have criticised the BJP’s avoidance of elections and emphasise the need for dialogue. These voices illuminate the complexities beyond government schemes. While some Kashmiris acknowledge benefits from government initiatives, these often fail to address deeper political grievances as development is no antidote for lack of democracy. Whether the BJP can garner their support remains unclear, with elections seen as a crucial test. Assessing the mood of the locals shows deep-seated concerns about political disenfranchisement and an uncertain future, with most people having adopted an indifferent approach and acceptance of fate. This intricate scenario demands constant monitoring and analysis to understand the evolving dynamics and anticipate the potential implications for the region’s future.

The abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir has had a significant impact on the local population and security dynamics in the region. The region has long been a hotbed of militancy, and the changes have led to an increase in violence. In the months following the revocation, there were a number of attacks on security forces and civilians, and the Indian government responded by deploying additional troops to the newly formed Union Territory. The changes have also had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary Kashmiris. Many people have expressed concerns about the potential for discrimination and marginalisation, and there have been reports of human rights abuses by security forces. While some view the abrogation as a move towards integration, most fear subjugation and cultural erosion. This discontentment, coupled with concerns over bureaucratic hurdles and economic marginalisation, has heightened separatist sentiments and provided fertile ground for militant groups. Pakistan’s vested interests further complicate the situation, potentially exacerbating regional instability. The spectre of volatility looms large, demanding a delicate balancing act from all stakeholders.

Way Forward

As Jammu and Kashmir navigates this uncertain terrain, inclusive and peaceful solutions are paramount. The upcoming elections carry significant weight, offering an opportunity to address grievances and chart a path towards stability and development. While the Supreme Court verdict upholds the legality of this move, concerns remain about its impact on regional stability, human rights, and democratic participation. Major regional parties stand divided while new political forces emerge, both dynamics influencing election scenarios ranging from legitimacy to instability. Public sentiment reveals lingering grievances and aspirations for self-governance, yet high voter turnout is expected. Though subdued, the separatist threat persists amid simmering discontent. Ensuring genuine political participation by releasing detainees, restoring internet access, and fostering open dialogue is crucial for inclusive elections. Furthermore, establishing a clear roadmap for restoring statehood is essential for long-term peace. Streamlining governance, promoting transparency, and delivering efficient public services can help alleviate frustrations and build trust among the populace. However, addressing separatism requires deeper engagement, including participating in genuine dialogue, acknowledging historical grievances, and finding political solutions that address the core aspirations of the Kashmiri people are essential for long-term peace. Regional cooperation along with deradicalization efforts involving the youth and women, that is the vulnerable sections of the society,  is also vital to prevent external exploitation of the situation and mitigate tensions. Ignoring these realities and relying solely on security and coercive measures is likely to backfire, pushing J&K towards an uncertain and potentially volatile future.

While the Supreme Court verdict on Article 370 marks a legal milestone, the journey towards lasting peace in Jammu and Kashmir is ongoing. The upcoming elections, thus, serve as a pivotal moment, offering an opportunity to instil hope and shape the region’s future trajectory. By proactively addressing grievances and fostering genuine democratic participation, these polls can pave the way for a new era of peace, conflict management, development and resilience in Jammu and Kashmir. With cautious optimism and sincere effort, these elections may usher in a new chapter in Jammu and Kashmir’s complex evolution.

Vedika Rekhi
Vedika Rekhi
Vedika Rekhi is a scholar with a background in History, Politics, and International Relations. With a focus on conflict management and development, she holds dual Master's degrees and serves as a Senior Media Analyst, blending research with real-world impact. She is passionate about national security, geo-strategic analysis, and diplomatic studies.