Theatre of the absurd in Kashmir

Poornima Joshi | Updated on October 31, 2019

Escorting a set of European hardliners and stage-managing a local election hardly count as efforts towards fostering trust

In its reinvented image of disciplined soldiers under the command of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the ruling BJP has undoubtedly infused a heightened sense of nationalist purpose to governance and politics in India. Add to this a touch of melodrama and powerful rhetoric and even the routine policy measures acquire majestic overtones, almost always aimed to convey that a historical wrong is being righted.

After the dramatic pronouncement of demonetisation that was meant to halt corruption, erase black money, demolish the parallel economy and stop terror funding, an extraordinary midnight session of Parliament was convened to roll out GST.

A corollary of these ostensibly historic decisions was the passage this August of two statutory resolutions in Parliament to do away with Article 370 and reorganise Jammu and Kashmir into two separate Union Territories. The triumph of the BJP’s ideological will overshadowed the stark reality that Article 370 had already been divested of its spirit through as many as 45 Presidential Orders, the most critical being the Order of 1954 extending fundamental rights, jurisdiction of the Supreme Court et al that Constitutional purists have often described as conquest by the Indian Union of the Kashmir Valley.

But the ruling party, with the stated purpose of correcting historical wrongs, augmented its decision to eliminate the process of Constitutional assimilation of a troubled State into the Union by divesting its people of what remained of their residual autonomy; they have been isolated further by reorganising J&K into two separate Union Territories.

Aided enthusiastically by pliant media houses, the government has since packaged extremely unfortunate decisions to impose a communication blockade in the Kashmir Valley, ordering the arrest and detention of all significant political leaders, including former chief ministers and the ageing MP from Srinagar Farooq Abdullah, and preventing any political leader from the Opposition from even visiting Kashmir as necessary precautionary measures towards restoring “normalcy” in the Valley.

BDC elections

The successful conclusion of Block Development Council (BDC) elections last week was similarly hailed as a major instance showcasing that democracy has returned to J&K.

A few facts about the BDC elections need to be placed in this context. Of the total 307 blocks in the State, 81 were won by the BJP, one by the Congress, eight by J&K Panthers Party, and 217 by independents. These BDC chairpersons were elected by 26,629 Sarpanches and Panches who had, in turn, been declared winners after a direct election for the Panchayats held last year.

To get to a clearer picture about the facts of the indirect BDC elections, an examination of the BJP’s victory in eight blocks in Shopian district is illuminating. The eight BDC heads were elected by Panches and Sarpanches in Shopian who had, in turn, been “elected unopposed” last year. There are a total of nine blocks, 98 Panchayat Halqas, 791 Panch constituencies and 1,45,442 voters in Shopian.

But none of them voted and the Panches and Sarpanches were simply “elected unopposed”. A perusal of the records from the Directorate of Rural Development, Kashmir, reveals most of these “elected unopposed” were from a few select families. Further, one member of a family was seen to be occupying multiple posts of Panches and Sarpanches in each Panchayat.

For instance, in Mastapura Panchayat Halqa of Keller block in Shopian, a man named Javid Ahmad Qadri is occupying three posts of Panch from Mashwar 7, Mashwar 3 and Mastapura 1 constituencies. Similarly, in the Imamsahib block, the Sarpanch of the Handew Panchayat Halqa is a woman named Usha Bhat who is the wife of Brij Nath Bhat. Brij Nath Bhat, on his part, occupies two posts of Panch from Handew 1 and Handew 3 Panch constituencies.

In Chootigam Panchayat of Hermain block, the Sarpanch is Vijaya Koul who is the son of Ashok Kumar Koul. Ashok Kumar Koul is himself a Panch from Khanwara 6 constituency in the same Panchayat Halqa whereas a man named Chand Ji Koul has been declared elected Panch from as many as three constituencies in the same Halqa — Abalwani 10, Chootigam 3 and Abalwani 9.

Showcasing ‘normalcy’

The sense of the absurd and the surreal gets further enhanced when the Centre showcases this stage-managed “normalcy” by escorting a group of far right-wing EU parliamentarians invited by a hitherto unknown think-tank to the Valley. This total departure from India’s stated policy of Kashmir being an “internal matter”, an argument that was used to disallow even UN bodies to send their representatives to the Valley, has been made at the behest of an obscure organisation, the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank or WESTT, led by a woman named Madi Sharma.

Would the Centre have attempted such a farce anywhere else in India without inviting public scorn and protest? The intermittent instances of violence, stone pelting and silent protests in Kashmir signify a complete breakdown of trust, a widely accepted psychological causation for severing of any significant relationship.

Nowhere has the link between trust deficit and end of association been so well understood and internalised as in the negotiation of complicated relationships within modern nation-states. Most mature democracies have institutionalised mechanisms to foster faith, especially in relation to troubled regions and fraught relationships. The conferring of special status to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland within Great Britain, to Greenland and Faroe Islands vis-à-vis mainland Denmark and even the treatment of Hong Kong and Macao by the Chinese are all instances of nations using relative autonomy as a strategy for diffusing and resolving conflict.

India is no stranger to the process of Constitutional assimilation of troubled people and regions into the Union. The gradual and steady advance of the Indian Union into Kashmir through Article 370 was one such strategy as are Articles 371(A), 371(G), 371(B), and 371(C) that validate indigenous political forces in States like Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Manipur et al within the Union.

Having broken down the Constitutional framework through which such assimilation was being negotiated, the Centre has failed to demonstrate a genuine alternative to dispel the prevailing sense of unease and distrust. Escorting a set of European hardliners and stage-managing a local election hardly count as sincere efforts towards fostering kinship and genuine local political engagement. It is, indeed, an offence towards people who have been living under a communication blockade, constant security and surveillance for the last almost three months.

Published on October 31, 2019

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