Dangers of reductionist approach in Kashmir

If the changes to article 370 of the Constitution of India were meant “to bring J&K truly into India's fold”, as has been argued by the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, then this is the one objective that the move has not delivered, at least not just yet.

There can be no dispute that J&K today stands spectacularly separated from India, where the rules of the game are different, troubling stories are aplenty and only now filtering out (many of them through international media), and the people remain under lockdown-cut off from each other, from their leaders and from the rest of India.

The government will hope that the forced and de facto curfew-like conditions will serve as a cooling period and allow for normalcy to prevail over a period of time.

Ground reports suggest nothing of the kind is likely to happen in a hurry and that the danger of people’s anger boiling over is real. Retaliatory State repression can only feed into a cycle of violence that will separate J&K even more over time from India. Which scenario will take hold-cooling down or heating up-is at this stage anybody’s guess.

The conditions created in J&K within the framework of the current constitutional system, without requiring the government to meet any test higher than a simple majority in Parliament, tell us that the fundamental structures that protect our democracy are not robust, can be trifled with and even torn asunder.

How else can the ease with which the government has been able to shut down most channels of communications, including landlines, mobiles, the Internet and newspapers, without much opposition from our democratic institutions, be explained? This is the raw power of a State, and it can in theory be replicated and imposed on any section of the population and in any other context.

A reasonable argument is that this is unlikely to happen, but should a government be hell-bent on it, and enjoys a majority on the floor of the House, then there is nothing to stop it either. In the case of J&K, the courts will weigh-in in due course but the damage done may be irreparable.

This is the unfortunate and painful lesson of what has happened in Kashmir. It paints the picture of liberty on a leash that can be pulled anytime the one holding the leash decides to do so. This lens allows us to see how Indian democracy is diminished and even exposed by the happenings in J&K.

More significantly, the lack of protest and indeed indications of support for the government action outside J&K raises the moral question on how democratic India can accept such overtly undemocratic actions imposed on a State and all its people.

As a nation, we have had this streak. We gather together to donate and help in cases of natural disasters. We look away in cases of disasters created by our system. Here, the canvas stands extended to all 12.5 million people (70% literacy rate) of one of the more complex and sensitive States of the Union of India.

During the Emergency, sections of the press crawled when asked to bend. During the clampdown in J&K, we did worse. India largely went about its business, almost (though not completely) unconcerned about the plight of those impacted.

The expanded version of the media and social handles engaged feverishly with other questions, notably why the economy isn’t doing too well. This holds another mirror to the separation of J&K from India.

Ill-thought through statements on how large business groups are preparing to pour in investments, now that J&K is open to all manner of land deals, only lend themselves to the sense of an occupation force at work.

Whichever way the scenario emerges, the happenings in J&K should torment all democratic-minded Indians for a long time to come. It must open the path for a longer-term reflective exercise on where we have travelled as a nation from the days of the Emergency.

To blame it on the present political establishment is easy, and indeed the present leadership must carry the burden of its actions. But not speaking up is also an action whose burden must be borne by all those who watched in near silence, irrespective of political leanings.

And finally, to those who argue that this is a question of national security, a bit of a longer-term perspective might help explain how systems are complex and an uncritical acceptance of a preferred official line coupled with reductionist problem-solving often raises even more problems over time.

Consider that India had a very high bar on curbing freedom of speech. The courts (Justice Patanjali Sastri in Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras, 1950) even drew references to James Madison, who was the leading spirit behind the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, in upholding the rights of the press.

But one fallout was that hate speeches, the call to war with Pakistan and even demands for annulment of Partition in the early days of the Republic could not be controlled as a result.

The courts struck down any action by the State to contain voices speaking against the then government, including Syama Prasad Mukherjee and magazines like the RSS mouthpiece Organiser.

So came new restrictions on freedom of speech in the nature of the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, namely restrictions on grounds of “public order”, “friendly relations with foreign states”, and “incitement to an offence”.

The new restrictions, which had the blessings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, essentially to contain speech that could cause enmity between sections of people, are the very provisions that come in handy now to promote some of the demands the RSS made almost 70 years ago.

The reasonable restrictions to freedom of speech helped contain one problem, but led over time to a culture where free speech could be controlled and today, an entire State is placed under lockdown. All this while the BJP criticises Nehru, who supported if not pushed these amendments!

In short, you could say Nehru curbed free speech. Or you could say complex issues need to be handled with subtility, humility and understanding, and not by throwing the kitchen sink at them.

Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR, a B-School in Mumbai. Views are personal.

Syndicate: The Billion Press

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