The invisible people of Jammu and Ladakh

There is a Jammu and Kashmir beyond the Kashmir valley, which has been ignored in the Article 370 debate for years. The end of the state’s so-called ‘autonomy’ has been a promise fulfilled for the people of Jammu and Ladakh – the 46% of the state which the international media and the armchair ‘Azaadi’ brigade has no interest in. Once again, the ever-dominant separatist narrative from a sliver of the Kashmir valley is the focus of the globe – while the Dogras, Ladakhis, Pandits and moderate Kashmiris remain voiceless bystanders even though the Modi government has fulfilled their longstanding demand for national integration and progress at par with the rest of India.
My family comes from a long line of proud Dogras, the dominant community of the Jammu region. We moved out of the state to the national capital in the 1980s because our pride could never deliver us the prosperity we aspired for inside the state. As the nation progressed and opportunities bloomed, our state, our region remained stuck in time no matter how much charm or beauty it possessed. After building our lives in the capital, working hard to learn, prosper and succeed, I often return to the land of my ancestors to reconnect with my roots. Despite years of autonomy and power to self-govern, the big cities of Jammu and Srinagar look no better than the tier-3 towns of the hinterland. The state remains frozen in time, appealing to tourists but frustrating for the aspirational and well-educated youth.
On one such visit to the state, I hired a young man named Uday to take me around Jammu city. A bright and lively youth, he told me he had recently topped his University. I asked him why he became a driver and he said it was the best he could do, given the options were being a cleaner, a waiter, or work in a shop. He wanted to study more and make a good living, but all he had available were low skill jobs. The top recruiters in the state were either the Government or the army. Growing up in Delhi, those two were not even remotely my options for employment after college. He told me over one lakh applicants would line up whenever a Government job opens and the one with the connections usually pulls through, while a life in the forces would take him away from his ageing parents.
Uday’s story is of the countless youth in Jammu and Ladakh – well educated with minimal job opportunities, a lot of frustration in an ageing, crumbling and forgotten infrastructure. A literacy rate of 68%, yet 70% urban unemployment (double the national average) and one of the lowest all-India governance index. The youth of the state yearn for an environment similar to their generation in Delhi and Bombay, but autonomy has only fueled economic stagnation and misgovernance.
More than anything, the voices of the Jammu and Ladakhi youth have never gone beyond their private conversations to mainstream politics or wider media narratives. On the identity side, while Ladakh has carved out an image for itself with many even being surprised that its part of J&K, the identity of the Jammu region has been eroded over generations. If you are from J&K, you must be a Kashmiri, is pretty much the viewpoint of the world outside the state. For years I have been asked whether my family fled J&K during the Kashmiri Pandit exodus or if I have lived under the ‘tyranny’ of the armed forces. Little do they understand that 43% of the population is from the Dogra community of Jammu. The king who made Jammu and Kashmir a part of India in 1947 by signing the Instrument of Accession – Maharaja Hari Singh – was a Dogra. They have little idea that when 6000 Pakistani raiders tried to invade Kashmir in 1947, their ‘liberation’ being the loot, rape and plunder of the Valley, it was 100 Dogra soldiers who died defending Kashmir, delaying their advance long enough for the King to join the Union and the Indian army to get into the fight. The Dogra general Brigadier Rajinder Singh Jamwal became the first recipient of the Mahavir Chakra of Independent India. Almost every Dogra family has a member serving in the armed forces, the majority of whom serve in the Kashmir valley. However, the contribution of the Dogra community is sidelined domestically and internationally by the separatist narrative, giving the impression that ‘Azaadi’ is the calling card of the entire state.
For decades, Dogra and Ladakhi leaders have campaigned for the abrogation of Article 370, to be united under the same laws and reformation drive as the rest of the nation. The BJP’s promise to end 370 has been one of the main reasons they enjoy political power in Jammu and Ladakh.
The Kashmir region has more assembly seats than Jammu and Ladakh which is why Kashmiri parties have always been the prime political powers – linking the chokehold of Article 370 to the identity and empowerment of Kashmiri Muslims. They have led the charge against the Tricolour and national integration, slowing down progress to carve a fiefdom in the Valley, but the rest of the state has unwillingly paid the price, the voters of the Kashmiri parties have been willing to.
If you only see visuals of a clampdown in the state you are blind to the jubilation of Jammu and Ladakh residents. They will not have to continue the futile exercise of looking to Srinagar for justice, the onus now lies on the Central Government and in a Parliament where all voices can be heard loud and clear on a national level. For the first time, a Home Minister put forward Jammu’s stand in Parliament. The MP from Udhampur and union minister, Dr Jitendra Singh emphatically articulated the long-standing demand of the Jammu people in his speech defending the Government’s historic move. Through Ladakh MP Jamyang Namgyal’s fiery speech which went viral, the nation finally heard what the people of Ladakh thought of Article 370.
The identity politics around 370 has a grip on the minds of many Kashmiris, but that autonomy has delivered nothing to the Valley. The state has barely progressed in relation to the rest of India, but the Kashmiri parties have not paid the political price, as their voters have never posed the tough questions to them. Identity politics seems to have trumped anger against the incompetence of the Kashmiri parties. It has buried its claws in the minds of the people over the years, and will take the Government even longer to allow any development push to sow the seeds of national integration. It’s a tough road ahead and the onus for delivery lies solely with the Central Government.
The voices against the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir are a minority as the state is so much bigger than the Kashmir Valley. Why should a few voices there decide the destiny of the rest of the state which just wants total unification with the Indian Union? There is a clampdown and restrictions in all parts of the state which are gradually easing. If you only get to see the anger in the Valley on your social media feeds and international news outlets, do not ignore or forget the thousands in Jammu and Ladakh who even under restrictions are glad they are now truly part of one nation, one Constitution and one flag they have served and honoured for decades. Like in the past, they remain invisible in the wider narrative, but the power of their vote has persevered over the decades, pushed through Parliament and finally delivered. The abrogation of Article 370 is truly democracy in action.