After three months of large-scale street protests, Hong Kong won a significant victory against the Chinese government. On Wednesday, the chief executive of Hong Kong announced that a controversial plan to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China would be dropped.
The U-turn is a validation of the political grit of the demonstrators in Hong Kong, which had been promised a high degree of autonomy when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The Chinese government’s decision had prompted millions of Hong Kong residents to take to streets to demand their rights. They occupied government offices and even shut down the Hong Kong airport briefly.
China is ahead of India on nearly every developmental parameter. But it lacks one key feature: democracy. China is a one-party state while India is a multi-party, federal democracy. Yet, ironically, India could learn a lesson from what happened in Hong Kong when it comes to allowing democracy in the Kashmir valley.
Exactly a month ago, on August 5, the Indian government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, a position it had held since it joined the Indian Union in 1947. Moreover, the state was partitioned as well as demoted to a Union Territory. While the legal validity of these moves is arguable, what seems far less defensible are the steps the Modi government took next: it imposed a crushing communications blockade on the seven million residents of the Kashmir valley. Internet, mobile phones and even many landlines have been cut off in Kashmir for a month now.
The Indian government ostensibly imposed these restrictions to prevent any form of protest against its August 5 actions. In reality, it has implemented a form of collective punishment, asphyxiating Kashmir of any form of modern communication. This is a remarkable move for any country, much less the world’s largest democracy.
Of late, however, Indians have been alarmingly lethargic about defending their democratic rights on the streets. Even serious cases of injustice or civil liberties being stifled have failed to stir mass protests. Neither the spate of lynchings of Muslim men nor the 19 lakh people being excluded from the National Register of Citizens in Assam have elicited large demonstrations. Indians are unwilling or unable to protest.
This is unusual, given that mass protests have been a core part of modern Indian history. During the Independence struggle, Mohandas Gandhi’s key weapon was mass civil disobedience, crippling the British Raj with hartals or mass shutdowns. This culture of protest continued after 1947 too. Mass street protests were how Telugus claimed a linguistic state in 1952, Bengalis demanded food security in 1959, Tamils opposed the imposition of Hindi in 1965 and Biharis, under Jayprakash Narayan, railed against corruption in 1974.
Some of this legacy survives today as well. In 2018, when the Supreme Court diluted provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, angry Dalits organised protests across North India. The result: parliament soon passed a law reversing the Supreme Court’s judgment.
Political scientist Neera Chandhoke has argued that the politics of “voice” is as vital for democracy as the politics of the “vote”. In fact, so strong is the politics of mass protest that in some cases, even a one-party state like China must listen. From Hong Hong, New Delhi should learn that gagging Kashmir by brute force will not work. Not only will it harm Kashmir, it will greatly damage Indian democracy itself.