“We don’t even discuss it over the phone,” said the employee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We heard that a doctor got arrested because he wrote something on Article 370. No one is sure how many arrests were made at the time.”
The government employee is Hindu, not Muslim. He is not from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, but Rajouri, a Muslim-majority district nestled among the mountains of the Hindu-majority Pir Panchal region in the Jammu division of J&K.
The Narendra Modi government, aided by sections of the media, has been at pains to project that J&K had welcomed the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed special status to India’s only Muslim-majority state.
It soon became apparent from the shutdown, which continues in large parts of the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, even after the local administration had removed restrictions on movement, that Kashmir was far from “normal.”
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The killing of a local shopkeeper in Srinagar and the recent killings of a migrant labourer, a trader, and a truck driver in Shopian, have also made people afraid of opening their shops. The J&K police has blamed militants for these killings.
In Jammu division, which comprises 10 districts—four Hindu-majority and six Muslim majority, which are relatively free of militancy—there is no shutdown. The reality, however, is far from the rosy picture of joy and acceptance of the abrogation the Modi government has tried to paint.
In Rajouri, the people that HuffPost India spoke with—Hindus and Muslims— said they were shocked at the initial announcement, and remain both worried and confused to this day.
For Muslims, one big worry was the thought that “outsiders” would now be able to come and purchase land and settle in Jammu division. For some, there was also fear as they imagine a situation in which most of these outsiders are Hindus, which just might shatter the thin veneer of communal harmony that exists among Hindus and Muslims in places like Rajouri.
Hindus also share the same concerns about losing land and jobs to outsiders. They have no fear for their security, but those who have measured the pros and cons of the abrogation say they are “confused”.
The government employee said, “Hindus were expected to be happy about the abrogation of Article 370 just because we are Hindus. But that is not the case. The reality is far more complicated. We are very worried. We are confused.”
No matter where one stood on Article 370, for or against or somewhere in the middle, whether one is Hindu or Muslim, no one HuffPost India spoke to dared to criticise, question or express an opinion against the Modi government. Many said they were careful about what they say over the phone, for fear that the government is listening to them.
All of them requested anonymity, almost three months after Home Minister Amit Shah announced the law’s abrogation in Parliament.
The government employee said, “The government has done what it had to with Article 370. As an Indian citizen, I’m allowed to say whether I agree with the government’s decision or not, but I cannot. I am afraid of getting arrested.”
He said, “As an Indian citizen, I have never felt afraid of expressing my opinion, but now I’m afraid of saying anything against the government. I fear the government is tracking my phone and messages. I fear they will arrest me for expressing my opinion.”
Fear, fear, fear
For ten days following the abrogation of Article 370, locals say that just like in the Kashmir Valley, Indian troopers lined the streets of the town in Rajouri, and mobile phone services including the internet were severed. Broadband internet, however, was working.
Mobile phones were restored in Jammu division at least a month before Kashmir Valley, but there is so much fear of invoking the government’s wrath that people rarely talk about Article 370 on the phone.
The only people who do speak to reporters are BJP workers who praise the decision or workers of opposing parties that condemn it.
Whether true or not, people believe the government is tracking their phones and texts, and are waiting to pounce on anyone who criticises or expresses any kind of opinion other than joy at the abrogation Article 370.
The government employee said, “No one talks about it over the phone. People will just ‘hi, hello, how are you doing’, inquire about your well-being and that is all. If it comes up, the person you are speaking with will say ‘better not discuss this over the phone’. Our friends in the government who are in the know have also advised us it is better to only talk about routine matters over the phone.”
The local administration in Kashmir detained and arrested thousands of people, including politicians, activists and minors, in the run up to and in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370. Many of them are still held in prisons outside Kashmir.
The Jammu division did not see mass arrests, but locals in Rajouri say that people including a Muslim doctor were detained. In the neighbouring district of Poonch, locals say that 10 people were detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA).
Yougal Manhas, a senior police officer in J&K in Rajouri, told HuffPost India that there were no preventive detentions under the PSA in Rajouri district, but one veterinary doctor was held for seven days over an objectionable Facebook post before he was released without being charged.
In August, Manhas had also warned that anyone living abroad and posting objectionable FB posts was in danger of getting their passports revoked.
The government employee said, “People might be happy about Article 370 decision, people might be sad, but everyone is afraid of saying anything against the government.”
The recent escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan is “deeply frightening” to people in Rajouri, who live close to the border.
“If there is war, we will be hit,” said the government employee. “Now, India is going back on the ‘no first use policy’ on nuclear weapons. This is very scary for us.”
Jammu and Kashmir
Shortly after the Modi government announced the abrogation of Article 370, some television channels showed images of people distributing sweets in Jammu, the capital of Jammu division.
The sentiments expressed by people in Rajouri are far from celebratory, and much more nuanced.
On the one hand, the Hindus that HuffPost India spoke with said they are pleased about the weakening of the two regional parties, the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party, which they accuse of sidelining the Hindu-majority Jammu division for decades.
The Muslims that HuffPost India spoke with in the Kashmir Valley and in the Rajouri district of Jammu Division say they also are happy about the weakening of the regional parties, which they accuse of decades of incompetence, corruption and lining their own pockets.
In Rajouri district, which is home to 6.5 lakh people, there are no roads that don’t have massive potholes. Locals say “nothing has changed for the better” in the crowded town of Rajouri, marred by traffic jams and narrow roads, for as long as they can remember.
This district of Muslim and Hindu pahadis and Muslim Gujjars, which one enters through the Pir Panchal pass from Kashmir, was hit by the violent militancy that ripped through J&K in the nineties.
Rajouri, however, has been relatively peaceful for almost 15 years. Unlike Kashmir, where electoral politics is boycotted, elections here are bitterly contested.
Following the 2014 election, BJP came to power in J&K for the first time as the junior alliance partner of the PDP.
In the Rajouri Assembly constituency, where the Muslim-Hindu ratio is approximately 65% to 35%, the PDP candidate won in 2014, but only by a margin of around 2,500 votes, with the BJP candidate placing second.
In 2019, the BJP’s Jugal Kishor Sharma became the Member of Parliament (MP) from the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency which includes Rajouri district.
Political observers say the Modi government has abrogated Article 370, and demoted J&K to a Union Territory, in order to “demarcate” the Assembly segments so that the Jammu division has more or at least equal number of seats as Kashmir.
They add that the UT of J&K will have a governor, and a chief minister, and demarcation of the Assembly seats between the Hindu-majority Jammu division, and the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, will go a long way in ensuring the CM will be from the BJP.
The government employee said, “The regional parties have always given preference to Kashmir over Jammu. For instance, if there were 100 government jobs, some 80 would go to Kashmir, and some 15 would go to Jammu, and some five would go to Ladakh.”
The government employee said, “If this means more development for Jammu, more attention from the state government, we welcome that. I think the Muslims who live here would welcome that as well.”
Will Jammu division bear the brunt?
The Modi government has said multiple times that the abrogation of Article 370 would lead to development of the J&K Valley. But the people of Jammu are concerned they will bear the brunt of outsiders flocking to buy land in the soon-to-be UT.
Given that people see Kashmir as a violent place ridden with militants, locals in Rajouri say that more “outsiders” will flock to the Jammu division districts than Kashmir.
For the same reason, locals in Rajouri say that “outsiders” will look at the Jammu Division as a more favourable location than Kashmir to buy land, look for jobs and settle down.
A middle-aged Hindu shopkeeper who sells hardware products in Rajouri market, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “You look at the halaat here, and you look at the halaat in Kashmir. You look at the topography of both places. Now, if you are a businessman looking to set up factory, which place would you prefer?”
A government employee, a Muslim, imagines a situation where rich industrialists come in and buy land for double the price which it is presently worth.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said, “Not everyone can be sensible when faced with a lot of money. People will sell and nothing will be left for our children.”
Locals in Rajouri also spoke of an issue which is specific to their district.
For years now, they say, contractors from Uttar Pradesh and migrant labourers from Bihar have been taking care of a lot of construction needs of the residents of Rajouri. With the abrogation of Article 370, they fear that the contractors will buy instead of renting land to set up offices and settle their labour.
The Hindu government employee said, “In some ways, people in here (Jammu division) are even more worried than people in Kashmir.”
How a 20-year-old looks at 370
“Confused,” is how a 20-year-old Hindu barber in a men’s salon in Rajouri market described his feelings towards the abrogation of Article 370.
The 20-year-old, who belongs to a marginalised community, explained why he felt uncertain about the future.
“I’m an SC. I’m afraid of what will happen to happen to the reserved seats when other SCs come from outside,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They will know more. They will be better prepared. The SCs here will not be able to compete.”
The barber said that Hindus were initially “happy” at the abrogation of Article 370, but they are now contending with its practical fallout.
“Honestly, whether there are Hindu or Muslims, we don’t want outsiders to come here,” he said.
Division between Muslim and Hindus
“I consider myself Indian, but this has really hurt,” said a second Muslim government employee as he launched into a story about how he always had the Indian flag on the side of his car even when he drove to Srinagar.
The narrative that the Hindus supported the abrogation of Article 370, but there were only a small section of Muslims in J&K who were opposing it, he said, is a “false” one.
But recent events had made relations “heavy” between Hindus and Muslims in Rajouri, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“We are still friends and neighbours, but this has created a divide. If there is a gathering, if one Hindu speaks against it then the rest will say ‘no, no’ and the situation becomes heavy.”
In Rajouri market, the shopkeeper of the hardware store said that his family hailed from a village which is now in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Even though he is Hindu, almost all his customers are Muslim.
“We live in a Muslim majority area and we have managed to coexist. Right now, I have Rs 12 lakh with Muslim traders. If they are worried then I am worried with them,” he said. “We want to keep the peace.”