India stamps its authority over crown jewel state

Modi to mark anniversary of Jammu and Kashmir power shift with groundbreaking for controversial Hindu temple.

Mr Modi spoke after inaugurating the construction of the temple (ANKIT SRINIVAS)

It’s never easy being a jewel in the crown, and the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has proved to be no exception.

Medieval Mughal Emperor Jahangir once described it as a paradise on earth. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was “the crown jewel of India”. Yet the state and its people have endured endless hardship and upheavals, with little relief in sight.

The removal of the state’s special status on August 5 last year sent the pristine area in a new direction with much of its autonomy removed. The move downgraded India’s only Muslim-majority state to being centrally administered for the first time, bringing fresh insecurities to its people.

The state was then put under curfew. A long winter in the mountainous state stretched the agony until the coronavirus brought more anxiety in March.

China and Pakistan, which have long staked claims over the region, protested at the United Nations Security Council over the change in status but got little global support. Some even saw China’s recent incursions into Ladakh stemming from the events of August 5.

Now, India’s government plans to celebrate August 5 with Modi leading a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a Ram temple, something that’s been long cherished by many Hindus.

The new temple comes after seven decades of litigation between Hindu and Muslim groups over a plot of land that Hindus claimed was the birthplace of Lord Ram in the ancient religious town of Ayodhya.

In 1526, Mughal emperor Babur built a mosque after demolishing the original Ram temple, Hindus claim. The issue has remained contentious. In 1992, a mob of Hindu volunteers climbed on the mosque and damaged its dome. Ensuing communal riots claimed hundreds of lives.

In November, a five-judge Supreme Court bench unanimously ruled in favor of the temple, giving Muslims a separate plot of land for a new mosque.

For the ruling party, both the change of status in Kashmir and building the temple fill election promises while bolstering support from the majority of Hindu voters.

The removal of Article 370 that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the construction of the temple have been among the main aims of the Bharatiya Janata Party since its foundation in 1980.

The ground-breaking ceremony will help the party package both issues for its core electorate, send a message to non-Hindus as well as its belligerent neighbor Pakistan and to others around the world.

Pakistan, which aspired to rule Jammu and Kashmir since it was carved out of India in 1947, invaded and occupied parts of the state in 1948 and fought three wars with India to increase its stake. Pakistan has not given up on Kashmir.

Pakistan says it will confer its highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Pakistan, on Syed Ali Shah Geelani, 90, chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which is a conglomerate of pro-separatist parties in Jammu and Kashmir.

It will also name an engineering college in Islamabad after Geelani. Reports say Prime Minister Imran Khan may address the assembly of what India calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

For decades Pakistan has supported separatist parties in Jammu and Kashmir and helped terrorists intrude into India with funds and weapons. Frequent bombings, grenade attacks and shootings were among the reasons the Indian government gave for taking over the state administration.

After independence in 1947, India gave the state a special status in 1949 under which its assembly had powers over most aspects of governance except defense, foreign affairs, currency and communication. The state assembly could veto any law passed by the national parliament. Only permanent local residents were allowed to buy property there.

Over the decades, the region’s alienation from the rest of India increased, and with it growing resentment. Frequent attacks on security forces made matters worse. The area’s special status started to be seen as a shield protecting activities including smuggling across the huge mountainous borders.

The Modi-led BJP government made its move last year, promising peace, development, new investments and jobs with the change in status.

But the new order left most state-level political leaders redundant.

“The middle ground of politics or Kashmiri sub-nationalism has been wiped out. There are now only pro-India and anti-India forces left in Jammu and Kashmir,’’ said Altaf Hussain, a Srinagar-based journalist.

The state’s top political leadership was detained soon after August 5.

Some individuals were released in March as a countrywide lockdown was announced to contain the pandemic. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah, who was freed on March 24, said he would not contest an election to a downgraded and powerless assembly. Another former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, is still detained.