Let us assume for a moment that effects of the events that took place on Monday are desirable, even though they may be problematic. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which recognised Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, was hollowed out. The process to bifurcate the state began. A proposal to demote it from a state to a Union Territory, handing over power to New Delhi, was accepted.
Each of these is disturbing. But let us presume, for the sake of argument and because many believe this to be true, that these are positive outcomes.
Even so, what is evident is that the manner in which they were achieved was not befitting of a democracy.
The people whose fates were being altered were given no say in the process. A de facto curfew was put in place. Surrounded by tens of thousands of troops, they were kept indoors, with all communications – cellular, broadband, landline – turned off and all manner of public assembly declared illegal. Their political leaders were put under house arrest. Their opinions simply did not count, as they rarely have in the history of Independent India.
The rest of the country was not permitted to have a say either. The resolutions and bills to denude the state’s special status were introduced into Parliament even before the agenda had been changed. Members of Parliament were given only a few hours to read through a 57-page legislation that fundamentally alters the character of the Indian Union. The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha waived the mandate that new laws be circulated two days in advance. The question of wider public consultation did not even come up.
Most egregious of all was the legal fiction underpinning the process. Because President’s rule was in force, because the government had been unable or unwilling to hold assembly elections, the Parliament of India could pretend to speak as the Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir.
So even though the people of the state were forced indoors, their leaders put under house arrest, their communications turned off, their ability to protest banned, their right to have public representatives through assembly elections curtailed, India’s official legal history will record that Jammu and Kashmir asked for this to happen to itself. India moved its lips, and will now pretend that the voice that came out was that of Jammu and Kashmir.
This may not be legally incorrect, but is it right? Is it just? If legal technicalities were all that mattered, the British Raj, with its odious doctrine of lapse and horribly reminiscent fiction of speaking for the Indian people against their despotic rulers may still have been around. Indian laws may allow this to happen. But should India allow it to?
Two things are abundantly clear after Monday’s efforts.
One, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, after its massive political victory, has delivered on a decades-old promise, re-energised the base, brought on board Opposition support, and barely had to deal with any pushback. It did so at a time when it appeared to be under the gun, because of a failing economy and accusations of policy drift.
This victory may yet end up being illusory for India. By destroying any chance of a political mainstream existing in Kashmir, by wielding power like a sledgehammer, the government is sowing the seeds for much more angry retaliation that will not all be political. But, for now, it is a victory for the BJP.
Two, genuine, participative democracy is simply an obstacle for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. It is just another institution to manage, by hook or by crook, another bit of bureaucratese that gets in their way.
There is no doubt that these two men managed to win remarkable public mandates twice over. But they seem to have taken that as carte blanche to do as they wish.
The realities of operating in a Union of States, in a country where democracy ought to be constant, where power is distributed, where people do not have to be locked up to implement something that the state pretends is for their own good, seem beyond the comprehension of Modi and Shah.
In their minds, democracy ought to happen once every five years – how better to explain the obsession with simultaneous polls? – and then the pesky business of governance should be entirely left up to them, no questions asked.
We were fed the story in 2014 that a chief minister becoming a prime minister might be a good thing for Indian federalism. Instead, Modi and Shah have sought to turn the Union into a State – where they control everything, where uncomfortable questions are suppressed, where anyone who doesn’t agree with them is an enemy or an outsider.
Whether this works for the well-being of the Indian people remains an open question, for some. But even if we assume, as we started this article by doing, that the outcomes of unfettered wielding of power are good, it is worth asking: is this the democracy, is this the India that we want?
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