An ever closer union; difficult days ahead

An explosive fuse has been lit with the Modi government’s decision to withdraw the special status conferred on Jammu and Kashmir by revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution. It is a seminal moment in India’s multifaceted constitutional and political tapestry.

While nationalists, separatists, lawyers and ordinary citizens seek to absorb the enormity of the announcement, no one will have any doubt that this lays down a seismic marker for socio-cultural battles ahead.

In an era where political promises are routinely broken, Narendra Modi can rightfully stake a claim to be willing to fulfil a tough-minded pledge. The abrogation of Article 370 has been a long-standing ambition of the BJP.

It was explicitly included in the party’s 2019 general election manifesto and has been a recurring feature in previous elections and party conferences. No one can therefore accuse the Home Minister Amit Shah and PM Modi on making policy on the hoof.

On the contrary, just as President Trump has shown intent by following through with his controversial but declared policy choices, his Indian counterparts seem to be doing the same. There may be an inherent bewilderment – nay, even shock – around this but the signs were there all along.

Fresh from Modi’s historic general election mandate, the announcement reveals the unencumbered confidence of a leader striving to push through a bold agenda.

His critics may detect hubristic tendencies but for his supporters, the image of decisive decision-making will carry deep emotional resonance. To adapt an analogy from the American psephologist Nate Silver, the BJP government has provided an overt ‘signal’ to voters that it means business and is keen on distinguishing itself from the allegedly hollow ‘noise’ made by its predecessors.

Coming as it does, shortly before the Indian independence day, expect the PM to lead on this theme and focus on an ‘India first’ agenda in his traditional speech.

The philosophical rationale for the removal of Article 370 lies in viewing it as a formal obstacle to the integration of Kashmiris into the fabric of mainstream India.

The special dispensation accorded to Jammu and Kashmir had the unintended consequence of fostering a segregated environment at odds with the rest of the country.

The irony is that a mechanism for safeguarding Kashmiris became a barrier to inclusion and development. Instead of broadening horizons, it arguably inculcated a perpetual sense of grievance and victimhood.

That said, the delicate political circumstances that led to the provision deserve some reminding. The initial enactment of the provision contained a recognition that some differentiation was accepted as a necessary political trade-off at the time.

The key point though is whether this was meant to be enshrined in perpetuity or not. On one view, Article 370 was intended to be a temporary measure to alleviate initial Kashmiri concern. It was not meant to be operative almost seventy years later.

Nonetheless, it is almost certain that the issue is likely to reach the Supreme Court. There may be a contention that the safeguards afforded by Article 370 ought to be regarded as part of the inviolable ‘basic structure’ of the constitution.

However, the provision caters for the President to declare its abrogation, subject to certain procedural steps. Moreover, a powerful counter argument suggests that with its removal, there will be a level playing field for all citizens in so far as civil rights are concerned.

Why then does one still feel a simmering disquiet? It is because the line between a well-meaning and disciplined drive to a level playing field for all and the slippery slope to an intolerant majoritarian culture is extremely blurred.

The yearning for strong man politics in several major democracies - for instance, with Erdogan in Turkey and Salvini in Italy – has led to a hyper-nationalism with little space for accommodating respectful differences. India is not immune to such pressures.

It is important to recognise that dissent is an integral feature of a successful democracy. It is what separates a liberal democracy from a narrow-minded autocracy. The drive for integration should not segue into an unthinking desire for homogeneity at all costs.

From this perspective, striving for tolerance is critical. The temptation of branding political opponents automatically as anti-national quislings should be firmly resisted.

The spectacle of putting former J&K chief ministers under house arrest reflected badly on the government. It lent itself to firebrand swagger that went down well with some. Yet it risks inflaming tensions and acting as a lightning rod for disaffected individuals instead of building bridges.

Clearly, the Modi government has taken a landmark step with the withdrawal of Article 370. It has set the stage for the government’s transformative agenda to bring about socio-economic change by taking difficult decisions.

However, the journey for Kashmiri inclusion and development should also be accompanied by a governmental approach that draws on persuasion. The road ahead is unlikely to be easy.

As the government pushes ahead in the days to come, it will find that mutual respect and compassion prove to be valuable allies – and keeping in line with the idea of an inclusive India that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Rishabh Bhandari is a London based lawyer and political commentator.

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