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The case made by liberals for abolishing the state of Jammu and Kashmir

  • Published at 09:58 pm August 16th, 2019
Liberals need not apply
Liberals need not apply / REUTERS

And why that argument is flawed

The government of India’s gutting of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories was endorsed by a number of writers not affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Retired diplomats, engaged entrepreneurs, journalists, South Asian scholars, and strategic studies experts lined up behind the National Democratic Alliance government’s radical move. The assumptions and absences that mark their arguments are interesting because they help us understand the extent to which independent thinkers channelling the nation state become proxies for the government of the day.

The arguments in justification

One, the existence of Article 370 had cut Kashmir off from the rest of India and acted as a man-made obstacle to its integration. Its abolition would allow that process to resume.

Two, Kashmir’s special status and its theoretical autonomy based on the terms of its accession had allowed Pakistan to internationalize Kashmir by arguing that those terms had been violated. 

Scrapping 370 and re-making Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories would excise that running sore and clarify Kashmir’s status as an “internal matter.” If the world community were to acquiesce in this, Kashmir’s new status would become a fait accompli.

Three, the people of the Kashmir valley might not appreciate this in the heat of the moment but the scrapping of 370 was good for them. Kashmir was likely to become an economically more dynamic state because the freedom to acquire land in the region would encourage trade and industry, reduce corruption, create jobs, and raise living standards. The development that had been stifled by the restrictions on acquiring property imposed by Article 35A would now resume apace.

Four, Kashmir would become a fairer, more equitable place. The political re-organization of the province would end the hegemony of Kashmiri Muslims and allow the state to address the priorities of the Hindus and Buddhists of the region. Caste reservations would be implemented and women would be allowed to inherit and transmit property in a way that had been barred earlier by patriarchal laws.

Five, the reduction of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh to the status of Union Territories would allow the Centre to tackle cross-border terrorism and local militancy more efficiently. The Jammu and Kashmir police would report directly to the home minister. Centralization would also eliminate interference from corrupt dynastic elites that had for decades siphoned off the Centre’s largesse and leaked operational information to Pakistan and its terrorist clients.

Means and ends

The obvious problem with these arguments is that they were not concerned with the means by which these ends were to be achieved. The telecommunications blackout, the continuous curfew, the lack of consultation, the pre-emptive arrests of political leaders, the shotgun pellet injuries reported were ignored, regretted in passing or justified as the necessary cost of moving quickly to maintain the advantage of surprise.

Such concern as these commentators did express was raised perfunctorily and in passing: The hope that this state of collective, muted house arrest would not last longer than was necessary. 

The airlifting of troops and the incarceration of an entire population in peace-time, glossed over by raison d’etat realists in the name of the nation, ironically made the operation seem more like an imperial annexation than an assertion of national sovereignty.

The second elision was the willingness of these commentators to accept the legitimacy of the government’s legal manoeuvre without considering its political and constitutional implications. 

Any precedent that allows a central government to abolish a state under president’s rule and reincarnate it as a Union Territory via presidential proclamation and simple majorities in the upper and lower house of parliament needs more scrutiny than a thumbs-up for ingenuity. The likelihood that this move will be tested in the Supreme Court should not be an alibi for kicking the issue down the road.

If the state of Jammu and Kashmir, hedged about as it was with special constitutional protections, can be reduced to a Union Territory through a constitutional sleight of hand, what prevents a central government from imposing president’s rule in West Bengal and then, with a pliant governor’s assent, bifurcating the state into the Union Territories of Gorkhaland and Dakkhin Bengal? Or Kerala into the Union Territories of Malabar and Travancore?

Even if -- in fact especially if -- the Supreme Court were to sign off on the constitutionality of the government’s legal manouevre, a raison d’etat realist concerned about the national interest would assess the trade-off between re-making Kashmir and de-stabilizing the Centre-state balance that underwrites this union of states.

For a liberal supporter, the most embarrassing thing about the reasons for reading down 370 was that they were pro-consular arguments. They accepted that the people of Jammu and Kashmir had to be coercively excluded from a decision that transformed their lives. 

The average Sangh supporter might embrace this position since it is consistent with his view of restive frontier populations as subjects to be disciplined, not citizens to be consulted, but it isn’t a comfortable stance for a commentator whose public persona is neither authoritarian nor majoritarian.

For these liberals a useful way of deflecting the charge that they were advocating a colonial re-making of Kashmir was to argue that it was a mistake to conflate the districts of the Kashmir valley with the districts that made up the state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Building on this point, these commentators cited the populations of Jammu and Ladakh as equal stake-holders in J&K’s future and argued that they were enthusiastic supporters of the abolition of 370 and the re-ordering of the state’s political geography.

Implicitly (and often explicitly), Jammu and Ladakh were used as placeholders for “Hindu” and “Buddhist.” The bifurcation of the state is celebrated as the liberation of a Buddhist region from the overbearing Muslim politics of Kashmir’s valley. 

It’s worth pointing out here -- if only because this fact has been glossed over so often in political commentary in recent days -- that Buddhists are not the largest religious community in Ladakh. That would be Muslims who account for 46% of Ladakh’s population. Buddhists make up 40% of Ladakh’s population.

Ladakh is made up of two districts, Kargil and Leh, which are predominantly Muslim and Buddhist respectively. The majority alluded to in recent commentary is, in fact, not a Buddhist majority but a Buddhist-Hindu majority, a civilizational coalition harnessed in recent times to do in South Asia the ideological work that Judeo-Christian has done for decades elsewhere.

An ingenious thesis

In a democracy, political opinions shouldn’t be read off a region’s religious demography; they should be expressed in a legislative assembly. Since Jammu and Kashmir’s assembly stands dissolved and replaced by President’s rule, these commentators must necessarily endorse the government’s ingenious thesis that the governor of the state can be a proxy for its legislative assembly and, by extension, its people.

Commentary of this sort can be plausibly produced and consumed only by green-screening the political context in which 370 was gutted. The political context for this abolition is the BJP’s concerted attempt to discipline and diminish Indian Muslims. 

The National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill in tandem are designed to create an exclusively Muslim class of illegal aliens. This will serve the double purpose of interning Muslim illegals and putting all Muslims on notice.

Should the Citizenship Amendment Bill be passed by Parliament (as it likely will), and should the National Register become an all India Inquisition with a cell in every state (as Amit Shah has promised), all citizens will be required to document their claim to citizenship, but only Muslims will be proceeded against should they fail to satisfy the National Register of Citizens because non-Muslims will have been amnestied by the provisions of the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

The nonchalance that marked the lynching of Muslim men in the name of cow protection was matched by the lewd enthusiasm with which a BJP chief minister and BJP legislators read the abolition of 370 as a sign that Kashmiri women were now available to North Indian men. 

Given this context it shouldn’t be hard for a dispassionate observer to see that the dissolution of India’s single Muslim-majority state is a majoritarian government’s way of bringing a recalcitrant Muslim population to heel. That so many of these commentators manage to unsee the elephant in the room should worry their readers.

Commentators supportive of the government’s evisceration of 370 but keen to establish their secular credentials danced a three-step minuet: They started by calling out the BJP’s motives in dissolving the one Muslim majority state in the Union as communal; they then laid out the benefits that the dissolution would, nevertheless, bring, and concluded by urging the BJP to manage the transition wisely by setting aside its communal agenda.

This is disingenuous. If you endorse a majoritarian government’s stealthy sleight of hand in gutting Section 370, you endorse the means that it will use because everything in its history and the history of Kashmir tells you that collective brutality will follow. You can’t let a wolf into a pen and then urge it to act like a collie.

Having it both ways

Nirupama Menon Rao, formerly foreign secretary and now a passionate advocate of Amit Shah’s initiative, wrote a column justifying it that ended with these lines: “Kashmir must be drawn away from the precipice, with humane and judicious calibration, bringing the prodigal back into the family fold. We must borrow from both Kautilya and post-Kalinga Ashoka.” 

This mess of mangled metaphors, cliché and pedantry, written up in High Babu, is the strain of having it both ways starting to show.

Christine Fair, a South Asian strategic studies specialist, was an early supporter of the government’s move on social media and more recently wrote an essay setting out her understanding of the issue. Her conclusion is similar to Rao’s, only more exhortatory:

“If India genuinely wants to mainstream Kashmiris, this effort cannot begin and end with this legal sleight of hand. India must follow through with the various commitments to develop the state and to extend all of the rights of privileges of Indian citizenship to the residents. Should it fail to do so, Pakistan will be loitering like a hyena waiting to pounce upon the injured carcass of Kashmir.”  

Fair’s itemization of the government of India’s responsibilities towards Kashmiris is unreal. 

A government that is about to amend a law to smuggle in a religious test for citizenship that targets Muslims across India isn’t likely to commit itself to vesting Kashmiri Muslims with the “…rights of privileges [sic] of Indian citizenship…” Besides, Kashmir-as-carcass makes Pakistan’s intentions moot: A carcass, injured or otherwise, is dead.

Scholars, intellectuals, and public figures intervening in policy controversies deserve our attention. Kuldeep Nayar is remembered for his opposition to the Emergency. 

Nikhil Wagle’s consistent critique of the criminalization of Maharashtra’s politics has a place of honour in the history of Indian journalism. Gauri Lankesh is a larger than life figure today because she was murdered for her commitment to free speech and a secular politics. 

The dark side has its own heroes. There’s no shortage of Indians queueing up for a star in Hindutva’s Hall of Fame. The ranks of Modi’s willing enablers are massively oversubscribed. As the old classified ads might have put it, “Liberals need not apply.”

Mukul Kesavan is an Indian historian, novelist, and political and social essayist. This article previously appeared on Scroll.in.