Jammu and Kashmir has had governors of all hues through its disputed life. One of the best was BK Nehru, whom my father had acquainted me with in Delhi in the late 1960s. Then governor-to-be, he spoke on a now-forgotten subject but immediately impressed me. His stature rose when he opted to resign rather than be used by Indira Gandhi to play politics in Kashmir. One of the least palatable governors was Jagmohan, a servile bully. Servile to those he owed his position to, a bully to those whose interests he was meant to serve. The contribution of the previous governor, NN Vohra, is too close in time to assess fully. But from what is known, he was a cautious governor: ideologically neutral, administratively adroit and methodical in decision-making. BK Nehru was a constitutional head with a backbone. Jagmohan was a governor with spine who did not care for the Constitution or people. Vohra was a student of the Constitution, skilled at balancing multiple interests.
Satya Pal Malik, a new inductee into the 70-year governance deficit that is Jammu and Kashmir, is a puzzling out of the box incumbent. Disturbingly, he comes across as a politician who is unfamiliar with the Constitution of India even as it is being challenged by the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It is his own words and actions that prosecute him. The portents for his tenure, therefore, are not good.
Take, for example, his dissolution of the state Assembly on November 21. Governors do have the constitutional authority to dissolve assemblies. But, as Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary, has pointed out, “What is troubling is the justification he has provided for his action.” Malik defended the dissolution based on his political opinion that the proposed coalition government would not be stable because it did not “comprise of like-minded parties”. Surely, someone among his civil service advisers could have counseled the governor that his opinion about what constitutes “stability” and “likemindedness” did not matter when up against the Constitution?
In this context, the non-role of the governor’s advisers is puzzling. Of course, the advice may not have been heeded. But advisers can still go on record (which is to say on paper) and be clear in their conscience (which is to say with regard for truth) that they did recommend against such action. Have we no such advisers?
Speaking of advisers brings us to another example of self-indictment. The Indian Express reported earlier this month that one adviser counselled Malik that having consolidated power in his own hands, he should militarise and personalise the office of the governor for himself and his family. Ironically, the move is described as a “well thought-out decision” to skirt the Jammu and Kashmir Special Security Group Act of 2000, which does not provide for such personalised security. The proposal argues that the constitutional office of the governor needs autonomous military protection controlled by the office of the governor. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi may not be concerned but the scheme is regarded with confident satisfaction among Kashmiris. The extraordinary assertion of power by a supposed figurehead provides yet another optic to authenticate the contention that Kashmir is occupied territory.
His master’s voice?
Another broad strand of thought in Malik has been his publicly declared sweeping generalisation of Jammu and Kashmir’s bureaucracy as corrupt; officials whose homes are stuffed with cash and carpets. Former Union minister Saifuddin Soz has acknowledged, correctly, that the state is no stranger to corruption. Nor is Kashmir a newcomer to such caricaturing of its peoples. European travelogues from 19th and early 20th centuries – rankly ignorant of the Valley’s history, culture and politics – are replete with bigoted, even racist portrayals. Some Indian bureaucrats have picked up this thread since the colonial departure from South Asia. The latest in this line of thinking is the mimicking of such flotsam by a recent vice chancellor of Kashmir University. In a book published after his tenure ended, he uses a generalised denunciation to decry the work ethic of Kashmiri professors.
But similar declarations by the governor, a politician nominated to a sinecure position in a conflict-ridden state, is nothing short of confident arrogance. In this context, Soz’s characterisation of Malik’s accusation as merely “sad” falls far short of the sharp censure it deserves from all Kashmiris. Speaking of which, one wonders how Kashmiri bureaucrats serving in Raj Bhavan or in the administration generally can tolerate such language.
However, the generic objection to Malik’s actions is that he ignores the law, an observation made by AG Noorani, who is arguably the leading living legal authority on Jammu and Kashmir’s relationship with the Indian Union. Governor’s Rule, Noorani writes, is a “caretaker regime”, custodian of the state’s administration in the hiatus between elected governments. As such, it is “forbidden” by established rules of the Election Commission to undertake any executive action which is the right of an elected body. Yet, the governor has sought to take several such actions, as mentioned above and including an attempt to redefine the character of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank, the one institution that has largely survived and, indeed, been a mainstay in this drifting ship of a state. He beat a hasty retreat when challenged by the people and experts, but such strange shifts are perplexing in an already perplexed state.
Perhaps this is precisely why the BJP, of which he is a member, chose Malik as the governor: to ensure that President’s Rule is imposed in the state so that the Assembly election can be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha election in the next six months. This, presumably, is intended to give the BJP an advantage. As I had noted soon after Malik was appointed, he was a pliant governor in Bihar and would be so in Jammu and Kashmir. There is little doubt about that now.
But politics is an unpredictable game. The BJP’s rout at the hands of the Congress in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, its narrow loss to the grand old party in Madhya Pradesh (where the chief minster was a “moderate” rightist) and its defeat in Telangana and Mizoram to regional parties must alarm the party’s president, worry the home minister and sober the prime minister. What if this phase of the BJP’s turn to be in power, won through a strategy of polarisation and the tactics of hate, has exhausted itself?
This bleak situation could be an opportunity for Malik. Might it serve to convince his patrons in the BJP and its ideological master, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that President’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir must be extended beyond the Lok Sabha election for a full year, until when the Assembly election is due? The trajectory of the governor’s actions so far suggests that possibility.
If that is the path intended, it will provide ample time for more upheavals in Jammu and Kashmir, greater complications for the Indian state and more complexity in the international dispute over the former princely state.
Siddiq Wahid is a historian, author and activist.