India’s Mission Kashmir: Part 2

Arms and the man: No democracy could countenance the “permanent or indefinite deployment of the armed forces” in civic duties   -  REUTERS/ DANISH ISMAIL

August 5 brought a rude awakening in Kashmir, when it was stripped of its special status as guaranteed by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. This reduction of rank is a grim indicator of things to come

Ursula K Le Guin’s storyThe Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas tells of a city of equable life, where citizens are bonded in unstated solidarity, with no police force, government or stock market to disrupt the harmony. It opens to a scene of unmixed joy and abandon, as the city celebrates its summer festival. But then the reader is challenged to state if she can really believe this reality.

Deep in the basement in one of the city’s beautiful buildings is a room with one locked door and no window. It holds a child of unknown sex and identity. The child is miserable, confined since early years, unable to go out into the light. All of Omelas knows of its existence and some indeed come to bear witness to its misery. The child remembers times when it was free and it occasionally does speak, promising to be good and asking to be let out.

Those who visit remain indifferent; they know that the freedom and perfect civic concord that prevails in Omelas depends on this child’s misery. They realise they are not really free, but to relieve the child from its terrible plight would mean losing even the appearance of liberty.

One day, an Omelas denizen walks away after seeing the child and wanders into an uncertain terrain and future, followed soon afterwards by others. Bit by bit, Omelas empties out, its citizens no longer willing to tolerate the terrible choice that sustains their illusory freedom.

Omelas remains among Le Guin’s most widely read stories. The author herself has done little to assuage anxieties about its ambiguous drift. In a philosophical sense, the story has been read as a parable about the indivisibility of human freedom. No human collective, it asserts, can be free as long as some individual within is in a state of manifest unfreedom.

In the real world of politics, an argument of convenience is often advanced: Unfreedom could be a transient state. Freedom as a right comes also with responsibility. Till an individual or a sub-group within the larger nation is willing to assume that mantle of responsibility, the political sovereign could exert its didactic power, often in coercive fashion, to ensure that civic learning is accomplished.

India’s seven-decade-long didactic mission in Kashmir, always backed by massive repressive muscle, acquired a harsher tone on August 5, when the seeming presumption that the tutored subject is capable of adult judgement was dispensed with. Kashmir has been reduced to reprobate status, to be dealt with in the severest manner till wisdom dawns. If wisdom is defined by the political sovereign, this represents an ominous move towards the state characterised by Bertolt Brecht, as a democracy where the sovereign dismisses the people and elects another.

Democracy involves a degree of clarity and consistency in the legal superstructure. Equal circumstances and actions should produce equal results. On July 8, 2016, on precisely the day that the elimination of the young militant Burhan Wani plunged Kashmir into a months-long cycle of unrest and violent repression, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces in counter-insurgency operations in the state of Manipur should end.

When dealing with serious unrest and violence, the SC ruled, the civic authorities would be entitled to call upon the armed forces. But if order is not restored for a “prolonged or indeterminate period”, that would be indicative of failure. Certainly no democracy could countenance the “permanent or indefinite deployment of the armed forces” in civic duties, without undermining its own foundations.

It is an indication of the dangerous militarisation of Indian democracy that even this writ issued by the SC under Article 32 — the very “heart and soul” of the Constitution, as BR Ambedkar put it — has produced little movement. In other matters though, governmental intent has produced such divergent responses for equal circumstances on the ground, that questions are inevitable about the sustainability of the state of manifest unfreedom in Kashmir.

At just the time when the government is doing away with constitutional provisions that ostensibly denied citizens of equal rights within Jammu & Kashmir, it is actively promoting a measure to strip millions in Assam of statehood rights. While revoking the special status of “state subjects” in J&K, it is preparing a register of “indigenous inhabitants” of Nagaland, a prelude presumably to a differential charter of rights. And as part of a “framework agreement” to resolve long years of unrest, it is prepared to grant a differentiated identity to that diverse spread of tribes that claim the Naga appellation.

More unseemly than the legislative vandalism by which the people of J&K were plunged into a constitutional limbo, has been the dancing in the streets that followed by partisans of the Modi-Shah duumvirate. Omelas, even in Le Guin’s dystopic imagination, may have had a greater sense of decency.

Double standards may be a dignified way of describing the situation, but India’s descent into a state of majoritarian ethno-democracy just got a lot steeper.

 

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

Published on August 15, 2019

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