I-Day ’19: Democracy under threat

By Bhogtoram Mawroh

This particular year will be the 73rd year of India’s independence. Since that fateful night when Nehru gave his midnight speech “tryst with destiny” wherein he called upon the citizens of the new nation to come together to create a new country by ending “poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity”, things have not changed much. Poverty still exists and ignorance (by which I understand educational deprivation), diseases and inequality of opportunity (wealth gap) are pervasive. Whatever the challenges in removing these ills, the process claimed to have been followed has been one of democracy and based on rule of law, that is the Constitution. As people around the country gather to celebrate another year of independence from colonialism, these two ideals have got a massive shock.
On August 5, 2019, through brute majoritarianism, the Government of India abolished Articles 370 and 35A relating to Jammu and Kashmir. The state is also being divided and relegated to the status of union territory. In the past, new states in the country have been created by first making them union territories and then upgrading them to full statehood. Never has the reverse happened. And they did this while the state government is suspended and the whole of Kashmir valley was under lockdown. So essentially the people who are going to be affected by these decisions were not party to what is being decided for them.
Eventually the lockdown will be lifted (restrictions will of course remain) and those who do will be forced to agree to an arrangement they never chose. Those who support the move of the government will say that the arrangement had kept people of Jammu and Kashmir away from the Indian mainstream. So this decision will finally ensure unity in the country. Unity will never come in absence of trust. Worryingly, though what is being displayed is not lack of trust of the people of Kashmir for deciding for themselves but of the entire democratic structure and sanctity of the Constitution of India. The removal of these two legislations is a loss not only for Kashmir but also of the entire country.
Of the two, Article 370 is the most contentious. It was on the basis of Article 370 that Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Indian Union after the sub-continent gained independence from British rule. This particular article exempts Jammu and Kashmir from the Indian Constitution and gives the region a special status in relation to the application of Indian laws. Only on three matters the state government abdicated their responsibility: defence, foreign affairs and communications, to the Centre. The change in status could only happen through the Constituent Assembly which no longer exists making it a permanent feature of the Indian Constitution. This has been confirmed by various rulings of the Supreme Court of India and High Court of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, over the years many Acts of the Indian Parliament had been extended to the state and its autonomy considerably diminished. Among other things this was a cause of frustration among the local populace with the region remaining highly disturbed. Human rights violations from the insurgents and especially the Indian armed forces (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] report: Update of the Situation of Human Rights in Indian-Administered Kashmir and Pakistan-Administered Kashmir from May 2018 to April 2019) further exacerbated the lack of trust. The only solace in all this was the democratic process: local body and state assembly elections.
There are those who say that politics has been dominated only by a few elites making the entire process a hollow democracy. Such an argument conveniently forgets that nepotism in politics is rampant throughout the country. If concentration of power in Jammu and Kashmir is a sign of a hollow democracy then the same can be said of Indian democracy as well.
Democracy in Kashmir instead was as much alive as in any part of the country. The difficult conditions under which this was being practised in fact make Kashmir’s democratic process all the more remarkable. Such a momentous decision, therefore, should have been made by taking the people of Kashmir as represented by their legislature into confidence. Instead taking advantage of the assembly being dissolved because of President’s rule the central Government substituted first the Constituent Assembly with the State Legislative Assembly and then with the Parliament. What’s more the country’s opposition was also kept in dark.
Whether this move by the Government will stand legal scrutiny or not, what clearly comes out is the lack of trust in democratic process. It is true that if the state assembly was consulted they would have undoubtedly rejected the proposal to scrap Article 370. But this is exactly what democracy is all about. People for whom decisions are being taken are consulted. They may choose to accept it or reject it, upon which the other party comes up with an improved offer or wait for an opportune time when conditions become favourable. Deviating from this and taking unilateral decision by muzzling the voice of the people is nothing but murder of democracy.
Again there are those who will argue that conditions would have never become favourable and therefore an exception was required to be made. Be careful when such an argument is made because exceptions tend to always become an excuse to repeat the offence. I have lived through Meghalaya when there was a bandh on celebration of Independence and Republic days in the state based on the assertion of a separate Khasi nationhood.
Like Jammu and Kashmir the Khasi States also had similar agreements for becoming part of the Indian Union. It is only in the last few years that the bandh has been lifted. Does it mean that Khasi nationhood is dead: far from it. Khasi nationhood is very much alive and strong but it has struck a balance with the Indian nationhood where both are being practised simultaneously. Like all balancing act it depends on the kinds of winds that are blowing for tilting it towards one side or another. As long as people exist their sense of nationhood will always exist.
Like Kashmir, North East India, including Meghalaya, experienced upheavals. Issues still remain but in many ways, the North East is going mainstream albeit with hesitation. With Kashmir it may have taken longer because of the presence of a very aggressive neighbour. Still as long as a gun is kept pointed at people’s head to remind them of their loss of dignity all the time, peace will never be feasible. Some will again say that it was never going to happen anyway. If with time and patience reconciliation was not possible, with humiliation it will never be. This wound to the people of Kashmir is not going to heal very soon. Democratic processes are either going to be delayed or forced down the throat of an unwilling local populace. For those who argue that Kashmir never had a proper democracy, how would they describe this scenario? And if Kashmir suffers from deficiency of democracy even after extraordinary attention what does it say about democracy in India in general.
As for the argument for exception it is not just Article 370 but also Article 35A which was removed. Article 35A was introduced in 1954 to continue the provisions under Article 370 and forbid outsiders from permanently settling, buying land, holding local government jobs or winning education scholarships in the region. The argument for removing it was that it was discriminatory to other citizens of India and it hindered economic development.
Curiously it is on the insistence of the Kashmiri pundits (on whose behalf the Government proclaims itself to act) the protectionist provisions were first introduced by the former ruler of Kashmir, Raja Hari Singh. A look at especially Article 35A, however, reveals that it is not something which Jammu and Kashmir alone enjoys.
Many states in the country and the North East (including Meghalaya) have similar protectionist provisions. Other states are on the way of implementing similar rules. Some time ago, the Andhra Pradesh government had made it mandatory for existing and upcoming industries in the state to reserve 75 per cent jobs for locals. Recently, the Shiv Sena held a rally in Kolkata demanding for 85 per cent job reservation for domicile West Bengal residents in public as well as in the private sector. What is curious is that both the states don’t enjoy the privileges of Article 35A.
The BIMARU states were (and still are) not held back economically because of 35A because there is no such legislations in these states. If without Article 35A the benefits of economic development did not filter to the local population how is removing it going to rectify this lacuna. Instead, protectionism, in light of economic disempowerment, as is happening globally, will become a more common feature of Indian politics.
Since what Kashmir had in terms of Article 35A is not unique and has no relationship with economic development there is every possibility that the same authoritarian approach would be used to push similar agendas that are inimical to local population in other parts of the country. The Indian government says that it has no intention of tinkering with Article 371 and Sixth Schedule in relation to the North East.
But at the same time, in spite of popular protest, it pushes on with Citizenship Amendment Bill which will do what removal of these legislations will do: disenfranchisement of the local population through demographic engineering. This is done by citing exceptions, humanitarianism for a select group of population at the expense of another. Like mentioned above, once exceptions are cited for doing something against the Constitution it will be repeated again and again. And if the Constitution is not adhered to consistently but twisted based on majoritarianism what kind of democracy exists in the country?
For someone sitting in Delhi or in the mainland the destruction of democratic procedures in Kashmir and North East may not be a matter of concern. After all, these are fringe regions which don’t have a say in the national discourse. The problem is rot has a tendency to spread. The most recent example (among many) is the amendments brought to UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), RTI. It shows that erosion of democratic process is taking place throughout the country. What happened to Kashmir and is being planned for North East will be replicated in the rest of the country in different forms. Democracy is not just about the right to participate and be heard in the political process. It has social and economic dimensions as well. The economic policies adopted by the government have resulted in the economy shrinking from 5th to 7th largest in the world.
Many sectors of the economy especially manufacturing is experiencing recession with tens of thousands losing jobs. India lost 11 million jobs in 2018 and experienced one of the highest unemployment rates for the last 45 years. After claiming the results were faulty the Government finally accepted that the figures were accurate. Coupled with social upheavals due to tolerance towards increased communalism all this leads to the shrinking of democratic space in the social and economic sphere for the common citizens of the country.
Destroying democracy in fringe areas, like the Kashmir or the North East is not going to improve the lot of the common people in India. It will only embolden the perpetrators of the murder of democracy because those who oppose democracy don’t tolerate it in any form – social, economic or political, or anywhere.
So what happened in Kashmir is not an isolated event that away from the gaze of the mainstream. It is very much a struggle which lies at the heart of this nation.
The removal of Article 370 and 35A is not just about bringing a recalcitrant party to its knees. It is but a part of the process of the destruction of democracy and sanctity of the Constitution in the country. Democracy is slow and is messy but it is the only way this nation can hope to survive the onslaughts of time. In hubris and arrogance, the Government has decided to do way with democracy and the Constitution for short term political gains.
Time will outlast all these gains but what will endure is a broken system which may never heal. All those years ago, colonialism ended in the sub-continent creating the hope that democracy will lead the region to a just future. As the Government touts about its accomplishment about what happened in Kashmir during this Independence Day it is important to reflect if that hope is still alive or dying a slow demise.

(The author is former lecturer in the Department of Geography, NEHU)

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