This week, the Delhi chief minister walked off “in a huff” from a farmers’ meeting which his party had called, when he was asked by Gurjant Singh Mansa, district vice-president of the Punjab Kisan Union, what he thought of the reading down of Article 370. An agitated Arvind Kejriwal asked, “How come this is a farmers’ issue?” He left, thinking he was being targeted inappropriately for his support to Narendra Modi for the scuttling of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status.
Farmers, however, are used to the long haul, watching the weather closely and planning carefully. They understand that the reading down of Article 370, and the way Jammu and Kashmir was handled, has had serious consequences, transcending the boundaries of J&K.
First, there’s the sheer impunity with which, without formal pre-legislative consultation, listing, warning or involving a Standing Committee on such a crucial matter, or debating the matter in Parliament over a few days, this constitutional amendment was rammed through. That provided a blueprint for the Modi government on how to appear ‘decisive’ and subvert provisions for legislative scrutiny. Last year, the three farm bills were pushed through in record time on a voice vote, with no committees or consultation, and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha did not even wait for the House to be in order. All in a day’s work.
Secondly, Parliament decided matters for the state Assembly! That signalled how the Modi government was to treat the voice of states. Agriculture laws are primarily for states to deliberate on. But the quick disposal of Article 370 provided a template for how to treat this subject too, trampling on the rights of states and bypassing state laws.
Thirdly, Article 371, which follows Article 370 in the Constitution, assures special provisions for states due to backwardness. This embodies the essence of the Constitution, which recognises diversities and developmental variance across regions. Articles 371(A) to 371(J) grant special provisions to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Karnataka. When Article 370 was done away with to fulfil a long-held shibboleth of the Sangh parivar, it rang alarm bells in the Northeast. Amit Shah had to state that Article 371 was not endangered, and that the NDA under Modi was committed to protecting traditions and cultures. But prospects for the Naga accord remain bleak, despite the NDA’s premature celebrations.
The fourth impact stems from the bombast that followed the 370 move, when Home Minister Amit Shah spoke of taking back “Aksai Chin and PoK”. The message those comments sent to neighbours, especially China, about India’s intentions regarding its boundaries and borders, rings on. A major skirmish in the Galwan valley in June 2020 resulted in 20 Indian casualties, the highest in peacetime along its borders in this millennium. The Chinese had reacted sharply after Ladakh was made a Union Territory. “We urge India to be cautious in its words and deeds on the border issue, strictly abide by the relevant agreements reached between the two sides, and avoid taking actions that further complicate the border issue,” the Chinese foreign ministry had said in August. The same month, at the UN Security Council, the Chinese Permanent Representative at the UN lodged a protest, saying India’s actions had “challenged the Chinese sovereign interests and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area…” In 2019, this had been conveyed by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi to Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar in Beijing. Shah has stopped saying “jaan de denge” and confined himself to mourning the Galwan dead.
The unprecedented downgrading of a state into a Union Territory after dismembering it, the manner in which it was done and the justifications of the Modi government and its ministers signalled a blistering attack on India’s federal structure and the states, which are the building blocks of the Union of India. This is rightly seen as having eroded the trust of vast sections of India that make up the republic and rely on the Indian state’s promise of accommodation within the larger framework of compromise. The dialogue may be characterised as “soft” or “slow”, but it signifies the strength and resilience of the Indian state. Farmers were right to ask a chief minister what he thinks of what was done to J&K, because it is not about J&K alone.