India’s Government Has Undermined the Very Essence of Federalism and Democracy

India’s Government Has Undermined the Very Essence of Federalism and Democracy

India’s Government Has Undermined the Very Essence of Federalism and Democracy

With a precedent like the decrees on Kashmir, what will prevent the government from imprisoning possible critics elsewhere, then ripping up another state?


About 15 minutes into our conversation in his pocket garden in a Srinagar suburb some years ago, my friend Altaf (name changed at his request) mentioned Sunil Gavaskar. Sunil Gavaskar and a comma, actually. We had been talking about Kashmir, and militancy, and the stern soldiers who are everywhere you look in this city, and Altaf’s colleague who was shot in the abdomen by some strangers who knocked at his front door, and elections and voting… and out of the blue, Altaf brought up Gavaskar, India’s cricket hero of the 1970s and ’80s.

And a comma.

Gavaskar wrote a book about the 1983–84 cricket season, Runs and Ruins. Understand that, with no disrespect meant to one of our greatest sportsmen, this is no literary masterpiece. It reads like the publisher told him, Keep a diary while you play, we’ll publish the thing when you’re done. In late 1983, the West Indies cricket team toured India. One match they played against India was in Srinagar. And Gavaskar’s account of that game in his book is titled “Rough House in Srinagar, India.”

“Why that comma?”Altaf asked, almost petulantly, almost accusingly. When he realized I was struggling to comprehend why a mere punctuation mark had so irritated him, he continued: “This is the kind of thing that hurts Kashmiris, you know. These subtle signs that we guys are not fully Indian and you don’t really care about us, you know.” (Altaf ended many of his sentences with “you know.”)

I felt the snappy rejoinders, many rejoinders, bubbling up; among them, “I thought many of you don’t think of yourselves as Indian anyway!”But something about Altaf’s earnestness and the look on his face made me stop and reflect. There’s plenty I had read about Kashmir, and plenty more I had seen and heard on this and a previous trip. Yet when it came to getting an idea of the climate here, the thinking here, maybe nothing hit the spot quite as tellingly as Altaf’s brooding over a comma.

Some of that’s been on my mind in the wake of the latest news about Kashmir: the Indian government’s abrogation of the state’s special status, as spelled out nearly 70 years ago in Article 370 of our Constitution. Because I remember Altaf’s despair, this decision is colored by a comma. For the message he drove home was about the people of Kashmir: all their fears and longings, and the question of how much the rest of us truly understand those things.

What’s in Article 370? Clauses that were negotiated as conditions for the entry of Kashmir—or, to give the state its full name, Jammu and Kashmir, which also included the vast territory of Ladakh—into the Indian Union. It allowed the state a separate Constitution. It gave to the government of India power over the state only in matters of communication, defense, and foreign affairs. For any other central powers to apply in the state, the government of J&K would have to agree, and then the state’s constituent assembly would have to approve that agreement. The now also abrogated Article 35A spelled out more specific measures, defining what it called “permanent residents”of the state and giving them privileges over other Indians. Thus “outsiders” could not buy property in the state, nor take up jobs in the state government.

Why these articles were crafted and adopted is a matter of the region’s unique history and even geography. For example, the Maharaja of Kashmir at the time of independence, Hari Singh, had laws against outsiders’ owning property in his kingdom. As Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told Parliament about Article 35A in 1952, this was because “the Maharaja was very much afraid of a large number of Englishmen coming and settling down there, because the climate is delectable.” With the British gone in 1947, the “Government of Kashmir is very anxious to preserve that right because they are afraid…that Kashmir would be overrun by people whose sole qualification might be the possession of too much money and nothing else, who might buy up, and get the delectable places.”

The course of history, as determined by what is “delectable.”

Still, the critique of these two articles has always been that essentially, at least according to the laws that govern our lives, they created two kinds of Indians: those who live in J&K, and the rest. For decades now, this has been a mote in the eye of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological partners and forebears in particular. That tone was set soon after independence, in days when “outsiders” needed a permit to enter the state.

In Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, its founder, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh—which later became the BJP—found an early champion to spearhead the drive against Article 370. He made a political career out of questioning J&K’s unique status in the union, devising the slogan Ek vidhan, ek nishan aur ek samvidhan (“One country, one symbol and one constitution”). Along with the future BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Mookherjee led a caravan to the state, making his point by crossing the border without a permit in May 1953. He was promptly arrested. When he died mysteriously in custody a month later, he became forever a martyr to the cause of abolishing Article 370. The decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to do just that this month, then, “honors” Mookherjee’s martyrdom. So we hear from party members and supporters.

After their years of rhetoric and campaign promises, this is exactly what India should have expected from a BJP-majority government. On the phone with me a few days after this month’s abolition, Altaf himself was almost admiring of the party’s resolve: “They’ve been clear all through that this is what they wanted to do.”Couched as it is in language that uses terms like “honor”and “martyrdom”and “one country,”and given that J&K is largely Muslim and that rankles, it’s no wonder that the party’s fans, especially, are in raptures about the news. (Though even for them, it’s worth remembering that there may be legal challenges to the abrogation.)

Yet there’s also plenty of criticism. Why?

For one thing, several other states also have explicit conditions for their presence in the Union. Some of this is spelled out in the very next article in our Constitution, 371.

For example, Article 371A applies to Nagaland, and in part, it says this: “No Act of Parliament in respect of…administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law [and] ownership and transfer of land and its resources shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides.”

Which means that the people of Nagaland can live according to their own “customary law,” and in effect, no “outsiders” can buy land in that state—much the same as in J&K. Other clauses in 371 apply to Manipur, Assam, Goa, and more. That is, Article 371 gives to each of those states, to some degree or another, a particular special status. In fact, Indians still need an “Inner Line Permit” to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram.

None of this has ever been of concern to the BJP’s various leaders. On the contrary, the Modi government’s recently appointed governor of Nagaland, R.N. Ravi, issued a statement after 370 was torn up. Addressing the worries of his “dear brothers, sisters and children of Nagaland,” Ravi said: “I would like to categorically assure you all that you don’t have to worry at all. Art 371A is a solemn commitment to the People of Nagaland. It is a sacred commitment.”

For a second thing, this idea of a special status, of this solemn commitment, is hardly unusual. In fact, it is the essence of federalism and democracy. Attesting to this are such varied phenomena as the status of Quebec; the concessions to the east when Germany reunified in 1990; the USA’s own Reconstruction after its Civil War, affirmative action, and more. How else should we characterize California’s new law specifying that if presidential candidates want to appear on a primary ballot there, they must release their tax records?

There is no democratic contradiction in recognizing the concerns and aspirations of particular communities or states. There is exactly such contradiction, though, in denying or suppressing them.

Which brings us to a third thing. Leading up to its announcement of the abrogation of Article 370, the Modi government asked tourists to leave the state, cut off communication links, and arrested several politicians, including former chief ministers like Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah. The inability to reach people by phone or e-mail has fed fears that there have been many more arrests. Altaf, who happened to travel from Srinagar to Delhi on the day of the abrogation, said he thinks there were at least 500. He also had a favor to ask: “Through your journalist contacts, could you get word to my parents to tell them I reached Delhi OK?”

The parallel from just a generation ago is precise and striking. When Indira Gandhi declared her State of Emergency in 1975, she imprisoned a slew of possible critics and opposition leaders. Among them, the previously mentioned Vajpayee and the BJP’s aging patriarch today, L.K. Advani. Advani has told the story of his Emergency experience innumerable times. You’d think he, of all people, would recognize the parallel and speak up. You’d think wrong. He has instead congratulated his party colleagues: “I am happy with the government’s decision to revoke Article 370 and I believe that it is a bold step towards strengthening national integration.” Indira, too, used to say the Emergency would strengthen India.

To plenty of us, the mere abrogation of two articles in the Constitution is not a problem by itself. Times change and so can laws. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that we had Section 377 in our Indian Penal Code, which made homosexual acts illegal—but our Supreme Court struck 377 from the code last year. Yes indeed, times change.

So to plenty of us, the real problem is the way this abrogation happened and the implications for Indian democracy. The chorus of approval prompted one writer to remark: “The Kashmir deception is the most impressive feat yet achieved in the slow, gradual process of dimming the lights of India’s democracy.” It got others wondering: Do we care about the people in Kashmir? Or just the land?

With a precedent like this, what might prevent the government from imprisoning possible critics elsewhere, then ripping up another state? What’s there to prevent it from scuppering R.N. Ravi’s “sacred commitment” to Nagaland?

What, really, are our democratic safeguards worth?

Reflecting the wide geographical canvas on which that 1983 West Indies team played its matches, other chapters in Sunil Gavaskar’s book have titles like “Shastri shines at Baroda” and “One Day Hat-trick at Indore.” Jalandhar, Bombay, and Nagpur also figure. Yet not one of these names appears with that comma and “India” suffixed.

So really, why Srinagar?

Altaf starts describing to me what Gavaskar says went on at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium that day in 1983. Then he gives me his copy of Runs and Ruins to read the chapter for myself. Here’s some of what’s in there:

“As the Indian players came into the playing arena to loosen up and do their physical exercises, they were booed by some sections of the crowd. This was unbelievable. Here we were in India and being hooted.…

“There were many in the crowd shouting pro-Pakistan slogans which confounded us.…

“[When Gavaskar himself was out] the crowd was on its feet and clapping wildly.…

“[And after the West Indies won] the crowd was ecstatic, though to be fair, it was not the entire crowd, but sections of it. But these sections were the most vociferous and thus it seemed most of the crowd was against us.”

So there you are, I tell Altaf. Gavaskar was stunned by the reception his Indian team got in Srinagar, the anti-India sentiment that he found in this city. There was nothing like it in Baroda or Indore, comma India or otherwise. So his title was making a serious point.

“Yeah,”says Altaf. As near verbatim as my notes later allow, he goes on: “I understand that. Wasn’t easy for him. Many of us grew up here feeling what he’s talking about, you know. But please, you try to understand that feeling and how India has crushed our aspirations for so long, the hopelessness we feel. Things like the comma, they only underline that, you know. For us, it’s like it confirms what India and Indians think about us. And we feel more hopeless.”

For any Indian, Kashmir is a smorgasbord of thought and emotion. The beauty, the obvious military presence, the calls for azaadi (freedom), the anguish in Altaf, the anguish in my Kashmiri Hindu friends who fled persecution in the late 1980s: This is truly a place where an Indian’s assumptions about her country must come into sharp focus.

I mean, I can see Sunil Gavaskar’s dilemma, but I can also understand Altaf’s hurt. There are dangers, he has often told me, in what he calls “simplistic narratives” in Kashmir.

Will abrogating two articles in our Constitution change any of that? I don’t know. But since that day with Altaf, I look carefully at commas.

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