Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard during a security lockdown in Srinagar, Indian administered Kashmir. Image Credit: PTI

When powerful elected governments in a vibrant democracy take tough decisions that disturb the decades-old status quo, it divides people who take positions on the basis of publicly available information, political beliefs, their conscience or their own belief of what is good for the country. This happens when the government’s decisions have far-reaching consequences impacting a large number of citizens.

Something similar has happened since the Government of India abrogated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, ending a sovereign guarantee given to the people of Kashmir to protect their ‘Kashmiriyat’ or identity. The article empowered the state to decide who was a Kashmiri, an ethnic race Kashmiris say is different from the rest of India.

Where did Kashmiris come from?

The purpose of this article is not to debate the origins of Kashmiri people but briefly try and understand their ethnicity, regardless of their faith. The whole of Jammu and Kashmir includes Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims who are mostly concentrated in the Valley, a few districts of Jammu and Kargil. Some say that the Kashmiri race is a mixture of Jewish and Greek ancestry, linking them to the lost tribe of Israel exiled in 722 BCE and to the conquest of Alexander the Great.

This theory was debunked in a research paper published by US National Library of Medicine in 2016. The paper quoted the findings of a DNA study of 15 Kashmiri individuals, all Muslims, who were living in the Valley for three generations and had no record of marriages with non-Kashmiris.

The study, the first such genome analysis, found no significant evidence of Greek or Hebrew ancestry. It found that the Kashmiri Muslims were genetically similar to Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) who were studied earlier. Both Muslims and Hindus were found to have genetic similarities from people of Indian, south Asian and western Eurasian origins.

What people say

It is important to analyse factors shaping public opinion since August 5 when Indian Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogating of Article 370 and the bifurcation of J&K into three regions. To say that public opinion in general stands for the abrogation of 370 would be an oversimplification of the issue.

Traditionally, Kashmir is always seen by Indians of all faiths and ethnicity as a sovereign Indian territory and any debate on the state becoming independent or going with Pakistan is outrightly dismissed. This sentiment was largely uniform, cutting across states, regions, religions and political beliefs. However, today, there is no uniform opinion on 370 abrogation, something the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi should worry about.

Modi supporters and hyper-nationalists

The response of Modi supporters and of those who subscribe to his party’s definition of aggressive Hindutva-themed nationalism has been on predicted lines. They strongly believe that the 370 abrogation was long overdue, that this article prevented Kashmiris from truly becoming Indians and that the people of state must not be allowed to have a constitution that is different from the rest of the country.

The opinion of this set of people is largely shaped by the government’s public articulation, by information provided by mainstream media which has so far followed the government line and their own historical biases. For them, Prime Minister Modi’s government can do no wrong and it is the sole custodian and protector of national interest. They don’t mind human rights violations while Indian forces maintain dominance in the Valley.

The liberal mind

Then there is a set of people who fall on the other side of the spectrum – the liberal and moderate Hindus who are often dubbed by Modi supporters as “leftists” or “urban Naxals”. For them, Modi can do nothing right and any action by his government is largely driven by the “Hindutva agenda”.

To be fair, while this group is against the abrogation of article 370, they also don’t favour an independent Kashmir or its accession to Pakistan. They do, however, sympathise with the Kashmiris, who are facing violence and hardships in the state and are critical of restrictions imposed by security agencies. More importantly, this section of people, small but vocal on social and mainstream media, feels that a large democratic nation like India should be compassionate and humane even towards a population that has been hostile towards the Indian State.

The Indian Muslim

I am deliberately using the term “Indian Muslim” to distinguish them from Muslims of Kashmir because Muslims in the rest of India have rarely identified with the struggle of Kashmiris. The Muslims outside Kashmir always believed that the political ambitions of Kashmiris were different from their own and the “Indian Muslims” were in sync with the sentiment of Hindus on the issue of India’s sovereign and moral right over the state.

They always believed that Muslims outside Kashmir and Kashmiri Muslims have different set of issues to be dealt with. This sentiment changed overnight and Muslims in the rest of India now sympathise with Kashmiris, are critical of the manner in which 370 was abrogated and the subsequent clampdown in the Valley. This change of opinion among Indian Muslims is largely shaped by their own perception about Modi, the government and his party – that Modi can do nothing right and that 370 abrogation was a political project done in a haste to undermine the autonomy of a Muslim-dominated region.

This belief, now held widely among Muslims outside Kashmir, should also worry the Modi government. It should ponder why the country’s largest minority is not willing to give its approval to a decision that is seen by a big section of Hindu majority as India’s sovereign right.

Right, wrong and judicial scrutiny

Let me emphasise here that most people do not have the ability to understand whether the 370 abrogation was constitutional correctness or transgression, whether the process adopted by the government was legally sound or not, or what will be the long-term consequences of this decision.

The 370 abrogation will be subjected to judicial scrutiny when a constitutional bench of India’s highest Supreme Court takes up the issue in October. It is anybody’s guess if the court accepts the government’s position or decides to delve deeper into the legal soundness of the government’s move to withdraw a sovereign commitment given decades ago. The public opinion, meanwhile, is likely to remain bitterly divided and a section of people who say that the government is hiding behind national security to crackdown on Kashmiris will only grow.

In the coming months, while the Supreme Court will do its job of a full judicial scrutiny, the government must take steps to reach out to the people of Kashmir. It cannot control a large population by simply having boots on the ground or by putting a gun to the head. It must also convince people that it is not using Kashmir for political or ideological goals.