‘No reason’ to strip Kashmir autonomy: India’s top court told as it hears challenges to special status removal

‘No reason’ to strip Kashmir autonomy: India’s top court told as it hears challenges to special status removal

India’s Supreme Court was told that the integration of Jammu and Kashmir was and always has been “unquestionable” but “there was no reason” for the Narendra Modi government to revoke its special status.

On Wednesday, India’s apex court began hearing petitions challenging the constitutionality the government’s decision to scrap Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provided semi-autonomous status to the region and stripped its statehood, demoting it to a federal territory.

The five-judge constitutional bench that includes the Supreme Court’s chief justice is hearing the petitions.

The unprecedented move divided the region into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – both ruled directly by the federal government without a legislature of their own.

The move’s immediate implications were that the Muslim-majority region is now run by bureaucrats with no democratic credentials and lost its own flag, criminal code and constitution.

During the first day of hearing, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who is representing the petitioners, said “never in the history of this country has a state been converted into a Union Territory”.

The advocate argued that the abrogation of Article 370 is a political act that cannot be exercised by parliament, a legislative body.

“The reason why I say that the Constitution of India was applicable to J&K is that over time, there were several orders issued which were incorporated into the Constitution – the result was that most powers were in tandem with the constitution of India,” he said.

“Despite that, the whole structure was changed. There was no reason to take Article 370 away,” he said.

“This constitutional framework provided a mechanism to be part of the Indian union. The abrogation was a betrayal and an assault on our identity,” he said before reading out the history of how the law came into being.

Hasnain Masoodi, a Kashmir-based Indian lawmaker who was one of the first petitioners challenging the Modi government’s decision, said: “The case is before the country’s top-most constitutional bench. We are optimistic as we know our case is very strong.”

He said the 2019 decision “violated every norm and mechanism” under India’s constitution and its “gross violation in letter and spirit”.

Following the decision, Indian officials initiated the integration of Kashmir into the rest of India through administrative changes implemented without the locals’ inputs.

In 2020, a domicile law was introduced, enabling any Indian national who has lived in the region for at least 15 years or has studied for seven years to attain permanent residency in the area.

That same year, the government also eased rules for Indian soldiers to acquire land in Kashmir and build “strategic” settlements.

The Indian authorities have labeled the new changes in the region as a long-awaited measure to promote greater economic development, but critics argue that it could potentially alter the demographic composition of the population.

Kashmiris fear an influx of outsiders could influence the outcome of a potential plebiscite, despite the promise made under 1948 UN resolutions that granted Kashmir the option to choose between joining Pakistan or India.

The stunning mountain region has known little but conflict since 1947, when British rule of the Indian subcontinent divided the territory between the newly created India and Pakistan.

Kashmiri separatists launched a full-blown armed revolt in 1989, seeking unification with Pakistan or complete independence.

The region has a long history of insurgency in which hundreds of Indian soldiers and civilians have been killed.

New Delhi insists the Kashmir militancy is due to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, a charge Islamabad denies.

Many Muslim ethnic Kashmiris view the 2019 changes as an annexation, while members of minority Hindu and Buddhist communities initially welcomed the move, but later expressed fear of losing land and jobs in the pristine Himalayan region.

While deeply unpopular in Kashmir, the move resonated in much of India, where the Modi government was cheered by supporters for fulfilling a long-held Hindu nationalist pledge to scrap the restive region’s special privileges.

In New Delhi’s effort to shape what it calls “Naya Kashmir” or a “new Kashmir”, critics have said the territory’s people have been largely silenced, with their civil liberties curbed, as India’s government has shown no tolerance for any form of dissent.

Kashmir’s press has also faced major difficulties. Many journalists in the region have since been intimated, harassed, summoned to police stations and sometimes arrested. The administration also implemented a new media policy that seeks to control reporting.

Additional reporting by agencies