FOR POLITICAL GAIN


MRIDU RAI

In abrogating the provisions of Article 370, the Centre has disinterred a corpse in order to bury it again. Only a widely uninformed Indian civil society can rejoice in such an exercise in futility and not see the cynical search for political gains that is its aim.

The vast majority of views offered in various forms of the media over the last few days, whether in favour or against, have evoked the dramatic nature of what was done on August 5, 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced its decision not only to revoke Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution but also to reshape the former State of Jammu and Kashmir by partitioning it and downgrading the two new components. Although the fact that the current BJP government actually went ahead with the measure that took most people in India and elsewhere by surprise, perhaps the writing had been on the wall.

If the general election in May 2014 had brought the BJP to power at the Centre with an unexpectedly commanding majority, the year ended with another record-making victory in State elections. The party had, for the first time, made an inroad into the elected power structure of Jammu and Kashmir and formed a coalition government with the Kashmir-based Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Since 2014, then, Kashmir has been at perihelion with the Hindu Rashtra or at least the ambition of bringing one into being. It has been feeling more directly than before the heat of the rhetoric and agendas the BJP and its affiliated organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) deploy. In this project Kashmiri Muslims are made to serve as contrapuntal symbols—of terrorist violence, illegitimate religious impulses, sedition—for contriving a mythical Hindu nation. This evocatory purpose that Kashmiris serve is so essential to Hindutva’s discursive politics that it was perhaps inevitable that it would not only continue to be exploited but would be ratcheted up. Reducing the “Kashmir problem” into easily digestible capsules, the BJP’s rhetoric has long focussed on the abrogation of Article 370, which is projected as a blasphemy against the cult of national integration.

But countless scholarly works have shown that Article 370 had already been neutered over the course of roughly two decades after its inclusion in the Indian Constitution on October 17, 1949. While Maharaja Hari Singh’s signing of the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947, had brought Jammu and Kashmir into India, its terms restricted New Delhi’s jurisdiction over the former princely state to matters of foreign affairs, defence, currency and communications. This “statutory autonomy” was later inserted into India’s Constitution as Article 370. But the autonomy covenanted in the latter was unremittingly abraded beginning in 1953. Until it was unceremoniously revoked on August 5, 2019, its main role was that of a red flag that provoked, on the one hand, the anger of Kashmiris who had seen betrayal in its nullity and, on the other, the ire of Hindu right-wing nationalists who saw in it the “appeasement” of Kashmiris, read as Muslims, separatists and traitors.

Client Kashmiri politicians, prepared to do New Delhi’s bidding, had played their part in whittling down Article 370. Unrepresentative politicians in the region were propped up and legitimated externally by the Centre so long as they did not speak back to it. In 1947, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who had sharpened his political skills in the anti-Dogra movement of the 1930s, was reputedly the most respected leader in the Valley (not so much in the other regions). In Kashmir, Abdullah—speaking for his countrymen—had found the Muslim League’s Pakistan idea insufficiently accommodating of Kashmiri distinctiveness within Muslim commonality. The Congress’, especially Jawaharlal Nehru’s, sympathy and indirect support for the popular movement against Maharaja Hari Singh led by Sheikh Abdullah was manifest. But it turned out that Abdullah was too much of an autonomist for either the League’s or the Congress’ tastes. He had stood with Delhi as the invading tribes from Pakistan were repelled in 1947; in Indian eyes this was a definitive Kashmiri rejection of the Pakistan option. However, at no point had Abdullah conceded the Maharaja’s accession to be anything but provisional, the final outcome to be decided by a plebiscite, which had been promised by Louis Mountbatten and confirmed by Nehru following the accession. The Delhi Agreement he signed with Nehru in July 1952 ratified Kashmir’s autonomy and restricted the Indian Union’s jurisdiction to the same limited terms as those in the Instrument of Accession.

In 1952, not only did the plebiscite remain elusive, but the pro-Dogra Praja Parishad, a party mostly of ex-state officials and large landlords threatened by Abdullah’s socialist rhetoric, was agitating in Jammu, supported by the Maharaja acting in collusion with Hindu right-wing groups such as the RSS. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, founded by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951, joined the movement. These groups demanded, among other things, the abrogation of Article 370 and the full integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India. Provoked, the Sheikh rearticulated independence as one of the possible options open to the State’s people voting in a plebiscite. Nehru’s government arrested Abdullah in August 1953. He remained in jails and exile on and off until 1975.

Abdullah’s ouster was achieved with the complicity of his erstwhile associates in the National Conference. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, who replaced Abdullah, had been a trusted senior colleague but proved unable to resist the lure of power held out by New Delhi in return for his malleability. Bakshi fulfilled his part of the bargain and his government obtained the State Assembly’s “concurrence” to a Presidential Order issued in 1954 that extended the Indian government’s right to legislate on all matters on the Union List, not just the three subjects to which that prerogative had hitherto been restricted. In February 1954, he announced that Kashmir had “irrevocably acceded to India more than six years ago and today we are fulfilling the formalities of our unbreakable bonds with India”. This officially closed the referendum/plebiscite option.

A further series of presidential orders after 1954 extended most laws of the Indian republic to the State, and there is virtually no institution—such as the Central administrative agencies, economic enterprises and banks—that does not reach into Kashmir. Ominously, in 1964-65, Articles of the Indian Constitution authorising the Central government to dismiss elected State governments and appropriate the latter’s legislative powers were extended to Kashmir. And the Governor would be appointed by New Delhi rather than, as previously, by the State’s legislature. The BJP-run government, then, in abrogating Article 370 has disinterred a corpse in order to bury it again. Only a widely uninformed Indian civil society can rejoice in such an exercise in futility and not see the cynical search for political gains that is its aim.

Article 35A was a live wire

If Article 370 was a dead letter, Article 35A remained a live wire. In fact, the real prize in the coup conducted on August 5 may arguably have been the removal of this particular Article. Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, added through a Presidential Order in 1954, reserved certain entitlements within the State to “permanent residents”, namely the rights to acquire immovable property, to vote in elections, and eligibility for certain government positions and scholarships. It not only allowed the State’s legislature to define who permanent residents were but also guaranteed these special provisions for them. The Hindu Right—and indeed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on August 8—has described Article 35A, along with Article 370, as fodder for Kashmiri Muslim separatism.

Ironically, however, these were (except voting rights), beneficences the Dogra Maharaja Hari Singh had granted in 1927 following agitations spearheaded by his more privileged Hindu subjects, especially groups of Kashmiri Pandits organised by the Yuvak Sabha and the Sanatan Dharma Sabha and Dogras represented by the Dogra Sabha. Their concern had been to stem the steady accumulation of wealth (including land) by and recruitment to the administration’s higher rungs of growing numbers of “outsiders”. Kashmiri Pandit groups had rallied under the slogan of “Kashmir for Kashmiris”. Once the Maharaja had redefined the category of “State subject” to the satisfaction of the agitating Pandits, however, they were confronted with a new and, numerically speaking, even more potent rival. Kashmiri Muslims had begun to mobilise for their own rights and from a standpoint as legitimate as that of their Hindu co-regionalists. But Muslim demands for special concessions to overcome their educational “backwardness” and for representation in State services in proportion to their numbers were now decried by the same Pandit groups as “communal”. At any rate, the special privileges granted in 1927 travelled into the Constitution in the form of Article 35A.

But until recently, it was non-Pandit Hindu supremacists who had demanded the withdrawal of such reservation for permanent residents. National integration being the highest goal, the only way to achieve it, in their view, was by allowing patriotic (Hindu) Indians to make the State—especially the Valley—their home. On August 27, 2017, at its annual national convention held in Jammu, Panun Kashmir (Our own Kashmir), a reactionary organisation of migrant Pandits founded in 1991, also demanded, besides its long-standing plea to rescind Article 370, the revocation of Article 35A. This was an unexpected move since Pandits had campaigned so vigorously for the special provisions enshrined in it in the early part of the 20th century.

Another demand made at the same meeting was an old one—mooted since 1991—for a Centrally administered Union Territory to be carved out in the Valley as their separate homeland. One would have thought that such a homeland would have been best guaranteed precisely by Article 35A. An explanation for this turnaround may lie in the altered outlook of many Pandit refugees. Large numbers of them have come to view their community’s return to Kashmir an unrealistic prospect so long as the insurgency continues. Therefore, the protections Article 35A provided have become irrelevant to them. Allowing large numbers of Hindus to acquire land, employment and other incentives to settle in the State may be the next best thing. Being seen as willingly sacrificing their privileges as permanent residents in the interests of full national integration would be a worthwhile bargain in return for the saffron brotherhood’s help in realising their dream of a homeland in the Valley with the wider Hindu Rashtra protecting it.

‘New era of peace’

In his speech on August 8, Modi assured Indians and Kashmiris that the new measures bringing Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh under the direct governance of New Delhi would usher in a new era of peace, prosperity, progress and good governance. The record of the BJP in the former State of Jammu and Kashmir, when it was in power there as part of the coalition government with the PDP, prompts scepticism. When announcing the BJP’s decision, on June 19, 2018, to pull out of the coalition in the State, bringing down its elected government, the party’s general secretary, Ram Madhav, claimed that remaining in the alliance had become “untenable”. The BJP, he maintained, had joined the coalition solely with the aim of “restoring peace” and “encouraging fast development” in the province. Despite the Centre providing every assistance in the implementation of these goals, the State government had not only failed to “achieve the intended objectives” but “terrorism and radicalisation [wa]s on the rise in the State”.

While ostensibly inculpating the State government collectively, by withdrawing the BJP from the alliance Madhav was manifestly blaming its Kashmiri half constituted by the PDP for misgovernment and escalating violence in the State. If this were true, its own inaction as a coalition partner in the face of such dire developments must be held up for scrutiny. And it is only by a deliberate mangling of facts that the BJP can deny that it had freely used the Indian Army, then led by General Bipin Rawat, to mete out summary violence in Kashmir, which in turn fostered Kashmiri alienation and restiveness.

On February 15, 2017, Gen. Rawat declared that “those who obstruct our operations during encounters and are not supportive” would “be treated as overground workers of terrorists”. He went on to place the onus on “the local population” to ensure their “local boys” desisted from “acts of terrorism”. Failing this, he said, the Army would “treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them”. Whereas the Indian Army has taken pride in being a disciplined force, the threat of going “helter-skelter” suggested instead the mindset of a rogue militia. Coming from the chief of one of the world’s largest armies, they became not just words of war but also portents of a reign of terror in which no distinction would be made between civilian protesters and armed combatants.

The degree of permissiveness in its rules of engagement that the Army had seized soon became clear. There followed, among other developments, the ignominy of Major Leetul Gogoi’s action of using Farooq Ahmad Dar as a human shield, for which he was praised and rewarded. Not only did the Prime Minister not check Rawat’s aggressiveness at any time, but in May 2017, the then Defence Minister, Arun Jaitley, on a visit to the State seemed to provide absolution for such “innovation”. The civilian head of the war ministry stated that in a “war-like zone” the Army should not “have to consult Members of Parliament”.

At the moment, Kashmir is under clampdown, but that will have to be lifted some day. When it is, it is inconceivable that Kashmiris will not be on the streets protesting what was done to them. It is worrying to think how the large numbers of troops airlifted to the Valley over the past few weeks, adding to the already large presence of armed forces there, will treat such dissent. Invoking the words of Agha Shahid Ali, one cannot but ask whether they will “make a desolation and call it peace”?

Mridu Rai is Professor of History at Presidency University, Kolkata. She is the author of Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir.

courtesy= Frontline