J&K All-Party Meeting: How the Modi Govt Made a Virtue Out of Necessity

The contradiction between its boast of running the largest democracy and the reality on the ground, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, is uncomfortably blatant.

First things first, the prime minister’s decision to accost an erstwhile “gang” in the same room with him was not an act of noblesse, but of necessity. As indeed was the decision of the mainstream parties of Jammu and Kashmir to go and meet him.

The prime minister’s necessity has been born of many conjoint factors, internal and external-bearing-on-internal, The internal ones comprise the comprehensive failure of everything that the nationalist Union government had intended to happen in the erstwhile state.

Politically, the mainstream parties – Amit Shah’s “gang”, which the honourable prime minister was pleased to dub as an irrelevant vestige of a twin dynasticism – did not vanish into oblivion.

If anything, the ‘gang’ played a counter-dirty-trick on the Modi government by participating in the elections to the District Development Councils (long months of incarceration notwithstanding), and came up trumps when it was required to collapse at the feet of the new nationalist icons. Indeed, disconcertingly, it did quite well even in the Jammu region.

Curiously, the people who elected their nominees did not think of them either as a “gang” or as vestigial entities, but as legatees of a democratic-federal principle.

The mainstream’s success in the DDC elections was a repudiation of Modi’s narrative of their alleged loss of hegemony among common Kashmiris. With their success, their ‘defunct’ narratives came back to haunt his government.

Haseeb Drabu has, in an article in the Indian Express on June 26, posed the question as to why any way forward should be located in the past.

Those who elected the mainstream parties to the District Development Councils seemed to think they had a choice of two contending pasts – one, the ancient cultural paradigm which the right-wing seeks strenuously to impose on modern India, and another of a democratic-federal past before August 5, 2019.

Watch | An Opening in Kashmir? Understanding PM Modi’s Outreach to Leaders in the Valley

That the right-wing wishes to shape the composite life of the modern nation in a “civilisational” miasma, and then call it the road to “new India” seems to escape Drabu’s rebuke.

Concomitantly, a new manufactured politics did not rise to the right-wing’s ideological agenda or to the assent of the people at large. Often as they accuse other political parties of engaging in “parachute” politics, the right-wing’s parachutes failed to open, barring a spoke or two.

If the reading down of Article 370 was charged with bringing heaps of “development” to the state, no such thing has happened.  The chartered corporate planes that were expected to download investment galore, especially in the Valley, found the climate still too inclement to venture their capital.

The infrastructural and employment bounties that were promised have come a cropper. If anything, even captive media screens are obliged now and again to bring to view the unpaid, or shamefully pittance-paid, Asha workers, despite their yeoman service in pandemic days.  Or thousands of teachers-on-contract clamouring for the wages due to them for years on end.

Three varieties of deadly shutdowns-for “security reasons,” the more than a year-long internet shutdown, and then the pandemic shutdowns were to decimate trade and tourism, make miserable the lives of students eager to learn, and cause widespread psychological trauma among the restive and tongue-tied youth of Jammu and Kashmir.

A Kashmiri woman walks on a deserted road during restrictions, after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 25, 2019. Picture taken on August 25, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Most to the surprise of the Union government, voices have come to be raised in the “friendly” Jammu region and in the separate Union Territory of Ladakh, asking for the restoration of domicile rights to all natives as before, be it in the matter of job reservations, property ownership, or educational opportunities. In other words, even those who support the reading down of Article 370 demand the preservation of Article 35A. Even if the contradiction therein seems obscure to them.

Even Kashmiri Pandit voices could be heard to say that the stipends promised to them never materialised, nor their wished-for return home; and that, if anything, the BJP had made their exile permanent.

As to militancy, a new concerted phenomenon of indigenous militancy has come to burgeon, with “incidents” reported far too frequently from major towns in the Valley. Not to mention complaints about police high-handedness in collaring any and all who seemed on any sort of unexplained “prowl”.

All that led to a renewed sentiment voiced with increasing frequency – that only elected representatives of the people resulting from free and fair elections to a full-fledged assembly could truly represent ordinary Kashmiris and respond to their needs and plaints, even if only at quotidian levels of demand, not a bureaucracy unaccountable to the people and rather bloated with a sense of secure patronage.

Also read: A Patch-Up Attempt on Kashmir Will Not Restore What Is Lost

Nothing that the Union was to do to showcase its “roadmap” in the state – the famous guided tour of selected right-wing representatives of foreign countries comes to mind – has yielded the desired fruit.

External factors

The paradox of authoritarian regimes that come up within formal, democratic set-ups is that, however annoying those democratic obligations, the legitimation that flows from them to validate state power is never sought to be fully jettisoned.

The Modi government could see that the clampdowns of various sorts – following the international disapproval of the manner in which it had effected the revocation of a constitutional commitment pertaining to the state – were beginning to produce a  deleterious international yield. The contradiction between its boast of running the largest democracy and the content of that boast on the ground, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, was beginning to be uncomfortably blatant.

As we know, the G7 “open societies statement” just signed by the Modi government avers, not only that the “freedom of expression” both “online and offline”, is the sine qua non of democracy, but that “politically motivated” curbs on the internet constitute “threats to democracy”. And what else can we call those curbs in the Valley?

Among others, the new Biden administration, through its accredited officers like Dean Thompson, the Acting Assistant Secretary  for South Asia, has come to make the views  of the US government known on what they have seen as the deficits of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian security personnel stop Kashmiri residents as they stand guard on a deserted road in Srinagar, on the 19th day of restrictions on August 23, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

As Vivek Katju, the former diplomat, argues in an article, both altered American interests and the new imperative of the Modi government bear relation to geopolitical events that are set to change the shape of things in the extended South Asian region in a potentially consequential way as the Americans withdraw forces from Afghanistan.

That this new development has obliged even Pakistan to seek a modus vivendi of sorts with India pertaining to peace on the LoC is one part of this new situation – an outreach that helps India vis-à-vis militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, and enables Pakistan to concentrate its attention on its western front.

Nor has this mutual outreach been confined to Pakistan and India. Reliable reports speak of an outreach to the Afghan Taliban as well, whether as a mutual initiative or only an Indian concern time will tell. (In passing, when a Mehbooba Mufti makes mention of such events, she is reviled as some sort of anti-national extremist.)

Also read: Does Modi’s Meeting With Jammu and Kashmir Parties Signal a Thaw or a Trap?

That the “initiative” of the Modi-Shah duo in relation to the meeting with Kashmiri leaders who were persona non-grata till the other day is, thus, not some change-of–heart epiphany.

The mainstream leadership

For two years since the gutting of Article 370, this leadership has been suffering the anguish first of a monumental subterfuge unworthy of any democratic government through which the revocation was orchestrated (word was spread that a gun had been found en route to Amarnath, tourists were asked to leave the Valley for security reasons, all as cunning foreplay to the revocation), followed by the dissolution of the assembly and the humiliating reduction of the state to two separate Union territories, and the incarceration of hundreds of Kashmiri leaders. They have patently not been in any position to mount a public response to the traumatic transformations in the face both of unprecedented state power and a media orchestration to boot.

As time has gone by, their inability or unwillingness to mount any such protest has, nonetheless, led to some inevitable public scepticism about their capacity to challenge the epistemic “comeuppance” delivered to the erstwhile “vagabond” state. The political task of mobilising a harrowed population into any sort of democratic resistance, however peaceful, was far from simple or doable.

Indeed, it was not until after the elections to the District Development Councils that this leadership was  in any position to express their principled dissent with what had been done, or to reiterate their conjoint resolve of August 4, 2019, to “protect and defend” the “special status” of the state.

Kashmir DDC polls

Pattan: A polling official sprays sanitizer on the hands of voters standing in a queue as they wait to cast their votes for the 7th phase of District Development Council (DDC) elections, at Archander Hama area of Pattan in Baramulla District of North Kashmir, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

Equally, as Omar Abdullah has realistically said, it would be futile to expect the right-wing regime at the Centre which had finally brought to fruition an old and pet RSS agenda to respond with any sympathy to any sort of public protest. The example of the protesting farmers must seem instructive here.

Nor, let it be said, could it be sure of the extent of public support it would draw despite the simmering hurt and anger felt by the people at large, given the everyday misery in which Kashmiris found themselves with respect to survival and livelihood.

Thus, all that has been possible for them to do is to articulate their principled position with respect to their continuing allegiance to the “special status” that was granted to Jammu and Kashmir as a constitutional act of faith deriving from the Instrument of Accession.

The doctrine of necessity has thus been as heavy on their political considerations as on the Modi regime. It would be a gross misread of their participation in the meeting of June 24 to think that they have come to trust in some epochal change-of-heart in the right-wing. Rather, refusing the offer of the meet would not but have further circumscribed their political grounds of operation.

Also read: ‘Unconstitutional’ Revocation of Special Status, Loss of Statehood Raised in Meeting With Modi

The meeting gave them the opportunity to make known their principled position to a world audience from the very room in which those that had reviled them as a “gang” and as dynasts whose expiry date was long past kept them company – an act of rehabilitation wisely embraced.

Yet, necessity continues to clip the wings of their possibility, leaving them to place their faith in the Supreme Court which may some day come around to hearing the petitions challenging the revocation act.

Till then, as Omar Abdullah has astutely said, nothing stops them from propagating their cause, just as the right-wing never ceased to propagate its cause vis-à-vis the Ram Temple even as that issue was sub-judice.

But here is the caveat they have not yet addressed: what if the top court, if and when the matter comes up,  in their wisdom declares in favour of the revocation; what then?

Delimitation, election, statehood

Good-faith media and other voices that now laud the prime ministerial initiative and admonish the mainstream in Kashmir to fall happily into that so-called good-faith basket either do not see or do not wish to see the bad faith inherent in what the Union seems to have in mind.

As has once again been underscored by Omar Abdullah, if the revocation was intended to bring the state on par with all other states, why the hurry to effect delimitation only in Jammu and Kashmir?

Secondly, if one is not mistaken, the Delimitation Commission is an autonomous statutory body headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, with two members of the Election Commission of India and of the state as members with the executive having no locus standi in its decision-making. How does that square with the executive insistence on nudging the commission in a suspiciously interested way?

Further, why should elections precede the restoration of statehood?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with J&K leaders and other senior leaders at an all-party meeting, in New Delhi, on June 24, 2021. Photo: Twitter@PMOIndia

Might it be the canny case that the nature and content of statehood to come is sought to be made dependent on what results the proposed elections might throw up in the state?

Could this be the reason that the Union government is not willing to commit to what sort of statehood it has in mind – the kind that obtains in Delhi, or the kind that obtains in all full-fledged states of the republic?  If the Union’s new-found good faith vis a vis Jammu and Kashmir is so transparent and generous, why not make a commitment to a full-fledged statehood wherein a state-specific cadre is restored as before? Or is it intended that control over the state apparatus and the bureaucracy will continue to remain with the Union as it is now?

Also read: Modi and Shah’s Humiliating Walk Back on Kashmir is Proof of Their Failed Policy

What the mainstream leadership has to consider is whether for fear of opprobrium from “national” opinion it should obediently assent to the order of the agenda significantly suggested by Modi and Shah in the meeting itself, or whether it must now stand firm on resisting a final degradation of the state’s status in deference to what is sought to be propagated as a great act of noblesse.

And if it stands firm, then how best may it orchestrate its concerns to draw support, first from Kashmiris at large, and simultaneously from democratic forces both within the country and the democratic opinion at large.

Meanwhile, in the coming months, should the Supreme Court find time to pronounce on the issues surrounding the revocation,  whole new constraints or possibilities might emerge.

It might thus be wise for all sides to not hype the great event of June 24, but to contribute to creating a democratic ethos without which no proper resolution of the problem can take place.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.