Sakina Itoo used to motivate Kashmiris to believe that India is better for their future. But the 48-year-old pro-India politician says New Delhi’s decision to strip the Muslim-majority region’s autonomy last August has made her lose face and vulnerable.

“We do not know how to go to people again. We have no answers ourselves, what will we tell them,” Itoo, a former minister in the regional government, told Al Jazeera.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government also suspended the regional assembly and downgraded India’s only Muslim-majority region to a federally-administered territory in a move that critics say has snatched away the democratic rights of the people.

The government justified the move, saying it will bring development to the region, which has witnessed an armed rebellion since late 1980s against Indian rule. Local politicians who contested elections and remained affiliated with parties loyal to New Delhi have faced numerous attacks and threats from rebels.

Itoo joined politics after her father, a pro-India politician, was killed by rebels in 1996. Since becoming a member of Kashmir assembly in 1996, Itoo has survived several attacks on her life.

Last April, a grenade was tossed into her home in Kulgam, a district in southern Kashmir region – a stronghold of rebels who have been fighting for either independence or merger with neighbouring Pakistan.

Itoo’s party, the National Conference was the most dominant political party in the region which had remained loyal to New Delhi, but its top leadership including members of its powerhouse Abdullah dynasty were detained last year.


National Conference party president Farooq Abdullah, right and his son and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah were in detention for months [Image: Mukhtar Khan]

The scars on the National Conference and other political parties are now deep-rooted as they struggle to fit themselves in the new territorial and political reality of Kashmir. “We would always talk and motivate people that India is best for us and it is our country,” Itoo said. “The youth is not ready to listen now,” she said.

Feeling abandoned and vulnerable, many of them have fallen silent and disappeared from public life as they face threats from rebels.

“I have painful memories,” the 48-year-old politician said, referring to the attempts on her rallies and workers. “Earlier militants would attack but we had support from the government but now we are stuck in between,” she said.

For the last three decades, as armed rebellion waxed and waned in Kashmir, pro-India politicians were accorded state security and perks in exchange for loyalty to New Delhi.

Waheed Para from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which gave the region’s last two chief ministers, believes that the militaristic steps New Delhi took on August 5, 2019 and in its aftermath are not a solution to Kashmir. PDP leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has been in detention for more than a year now.

Kashmir conflict goes back to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Pakistan – a homeland for Muslims. But things got complicated as the then Muslim-majority region’s Hindu king chose to accede the region with India but with certain conditions, which were enshrined in the Indian constitution’s Article 370.

“Kashmir was problem before August 5 and it continues to be so,” Para, 30, told Al Jazeera.

“Our disappointment and regret is that we promised things to people which taken away. We promised constitutional spaces to the youth of Kashmir, we promised solution within the (Indian) constitution and these were not only challenged by people or militants but by the government itself.”

Para said pro-India parties paid a “huge cost” as thousands of cadres were killed by rebels. “Suddenly, we are being told that this space doesn’t exist,” he said.

The young leader was among hundreds of other politicians thrown in jails following the government’s decision to scrap Article 370 that gave a measure of autonomy to the region.

“In our own homes we were told we can’t go out. While we were the people who advocated for democracy,” Para said.

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