Emulating the past


Ramachandra Guha

There are three incontrovertible facts about the modern history of Kashmir. First, Pakistan has consistently promoted violence and terror in the Valley, and in other parts of India as well (using Kashmir as an excuse). Second, those who presume to lead the Kashmiris have shown no sign of remorse or atonement for the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits of the Valley. Third, successive Indian governments (with one exception I shall come to) have fixed elections, furthered corruption, used State power, and, in other ways, promoted undemocratic practices in the Valley.

All these three things are true, independently and simultaneously. Yet those who seek to determine the fate of Kashmiris and Kashmir focus selectively on some, never all, of these truths. Pakistan, for example, focuses on the third truth while suppressing the first and second. Indian hyper-nationalists do the reverse. Thus, those who have so quickly and uncritically applauded the recent abrogation of Article 370 have used the terror promoted by Pakistan, and the persecution of the Pandits as justifications. In fact, the way in which Article 370 was abrogated only confirms and consolidates the third truth about Kashmir. For, what happened last week was merely the most recent of many examples of arbitrary and authoritarian conduct by the Indian State in the Valley.

The first major political crime committed in the Valley occurred exactly 66 years ago. In August 1953, the elected chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, was deposed from his position, and sent to prison. For five years he languished in jail, without any charges being brought against him. In 1958, the Sheikh was briefly released, but then jailed again, for a further five years. This time, charges were brought against him, of his being a Pakistani agent. These were both laughable and contemptible, for while the Sheikh wavered between being pro-India and being pro-Azadi, he never remotely had any attachment to the State of Pakistan, because he believed that Hindus and Sikhs had exactly the same rights as Muslims.

It was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who sanctioned the shameful and illegal arrest of Kashmir’s elected CM. In April 1964, Nehru had a belated change of heart, and released the Sheikh. Tragically, after Nehru’s death, the Sheikh was jailed again, and kept there for another seven years, as ordered first by Lal Bahadur Shastri, and then by Indira Gandhi. He was finally freed in 1972, a broken man, prepared to deal with New Delhi on any terms that New Delhi demanded.

In the years that their popularly elected leader was in jail, a deep sense of alienation permeated Jammu and Kashmir. The distrust of New Delhi’s motives grew further in the 1960s and 1970s, as Congress governments at the Centre rigged elections and promoted corruption. A brief window of hope was provided by prime minister Morarji Desai of the Janata Party, who in 1978 oversaw the first fair election in the Valley. But then, in 1980, the Congress returned to power, and the mischief began afresh. In 1983, Indira Gandhi used underhand means to unseat an elected state government. Four years later, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, oversaw a blatantly rigged election. The leaders who fought and should have won some seats (had fairness prevailed) in that election went in disgust across the border, from where they began their jihad in 1989.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister in 1998, he had to deal with this long history of alienation and distrust in Kashmir. He sought to overcome it by supervising a free election in the state, by suggesting a bus link between the two divided parts of Kashmir, and by extending a hand of friendship to the people of the Valley. Vajpayee offered humanity, democracy and pluralism as the three pillars of his government’s policy. His approach was in striking contrast to that of previous Congress governments, which had used corruption and factionalism to divide the people, and State power to suppress them.

In their own brute use of State power, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have followed the playbook of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in Kashmir. The abrogation of Article 370, they tell us, is in the best interests of the people of Kashmir, yet those very people are given absolutely no say in how that decision is made. The government converts the Valley into the largest prison in Indian history, where eight million people are shut up, their landlines and mobiles silenced, their access to food and medicines restricted. Even former chief ministers are placed under arrest (in a chilling echo of August 1953). Thousands of troops are flown in to make an already militarised zone look ever more like an occupied territory. With our fellow Kashmiri citizens denied any sort of voice altogether, Parliament hastily passes a bill that changes their lives forever.

What happened in Kashmir last week bodes ill for Indian democracy. Laws outlive themselves, and might have to be modified or changed. However, the people who are to be affected by the change must be trusted, respected, and heard. I wish the President himself had thought a little before signing so blindly on the dotted line. He knew that millions of citizens whom this law would impact had been silenced beforehand. Could he not have returned the order, and asked for a wider consultation in Kashmir, and with Kashmiris, before it was introduced in Parliament?

Those Indians exulting at what just happened in Kashmir might reflect a little on the awful precedent it has set. This abuse of State power to shut up and immobilise citizens could happen next to your district, your province, your leaders, your children. I concur entirely with Pratap Bhanu Mehta when he writes, about the government now in office: “This is a state that will make a mockery of democracy and deliberation. This is a state whose psychological principle is fear. This is a state that will make ordinary citizens cannon fodder for its warped nationalist pretensions”.

We have been warned.

(HT Media)