Vulnerability is strength.

Clean Slate: New “Elected” District Councils Will End Politics in Kashmir — by Muzamil Jaleel

Oct 25, 2020

In this opinion piece featured in our Acquaintance section, Muzamil Jaleel provides perspective on a new layer of 'elected' bodies as part of the Sangh Parivar's plan to create a new pro-India political structure in Kashmir that does not indulge in any politics, or even rhetoric.

On October 16, India’s Home Ministry rolled out a new plan to set up “elected’’ District Development Councils in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government, which now rules the region directly through an unelected lieutenant governor, claims the councils, empowered under the J&K Panchayati Raj Act of 1989, are designed to “guide and monitor” development programmes. There is, however, more to the plan than meets the eye.

To fully understand the aim and import of the plan, we must look at it through the prism of August 5, 2019—for it is part of the new indigénat to run Kashmir after it was stripped of its semi-autonomy and downgraded from a state into a federally ruled territory. The essential purpose of the district councils is to end all politics in Kashmir, permanently. Specifically, the design is to end the traditional pro-India politics that will now be limited to municipal issues, with those “elected” to run the system mandated to speak only about repairing roads or cleaning toilets. And as this new version of democracy will be sequestered in districts with no central set, the effective rulers will, with the thinnest of facades, be non-local bureaucrats led by the lieutenant governor appointed by Delhi.

The traditional pro-India political structure, in fact, was already being decimated. Pre-August 2019, sundry pro-India politicians were life-sized puppets, who, when the lights were arranged cleverly and the scripts done well, could pass for real actors with their own voices, their own acts. Sure, there were a few issues they weren’t ready to compromise on out of political expediency, but they could not build enough pressure to force Delhi’s hand on crucial issues. But even this arrangement was unacceptable to the RSS, the right-wing Hindu mothership of the ruling BJP. So, Delhi has set up a new stage for a new breed of miniature puppets.

But even if the life-sized puppets accepted the new reality and submitted unconditionally to the RSS plan, they wouldn’t be allowed to reprise their former roles. For in the scheme of the Sangh Parivar, which sees Kashmir solely through the Hindu-Muslim fissure, a Kashmiri Muslim figure is a hurdle, even if they are avowedly pro-India. This is quite clear from what has happened in J&K over the past year.

The dismantling of Kashmir’s semi-autonomy was accompanied by a wide crackdown on political activists, both pro-India and separatist, civil society leaders, lawyers, and students. In fact, anyone suspected of being associated with the separatist movement was taken away, as was every leader of note in the pro-India camp. At the same time, the entire population of Kashmir was put under a strict security lockdown and a communications blackout. The aim was to instil fear and prevent protests. The Hurriyat Conference had already been shut down and most of its leaders jailed. The possibility of their release and return to politics anytime soon is almost non-existent. It is also clear that Delhi will not tolerate any politics around the demand for self-determination, or for tripartite talks to resolve the dispute. Even mosques, religious schools, and social institutions have been put under scrutiny to shut down any voice that doesn’t submit to the post-August 5 order.

All leading pro-India actors were eventually released, but they no longer fit in the doll house erected during their absence to put on the new puppet show. The real action, in any case, had shifted completely into bureaucratic offices, police stations, military camps, and, of course, to Delhi.

Till August 2019, J&K was governed through a bicameral legislature, created in 1957. How the legislature was employed to politically disempower the Muslim majority or how free elections to it were is a subject for another debate. But it is indisputable that the state legislature’s powers were severely limited: it could never go against Delhi’s larger policy framework on the most crucial issues. In fact, the pro-India political structure always functioned as Delhi’s representative in Kashmir. And whenever Delhi desired to unilaterally hollow out J&K’s autonomy in the past 67 years, the pro-India parties vowed to fight it, only to eventually surrender.

Having removed Sheikh Abdullah as J&K’s prime minister in 1953 and put him in prison, India went about dismantling the state’s autonomy that was given under the terms of its accession. Sheikh Abdullah had played a pivotal role in J&K’s accession to India, but that did not prevent Congress-led New Delhi from dispensing with him the first chance they got. When he was allowed back in the pro-India political arena in 1975 and demanded the restoration of the pre-1953 position, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi categorically refused, telling him that “the clock cannot be put back”.

Instead of resisting, he accepted the new order and became the chief minister.

In 1984, Delhi, ruled by the Congress, toppled Farooq Abdullah by splitting his National Conference. How did he respond? He made an electoral alliance with the Congress.

In 2000, the National Conference passed a resolution seeking the restoration of J&K’s autonomy with an overwhelming majority in the assembly. It wasn’t the demand of a party but the decision of the state’s elected assembly. Yet, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP government threw it into the dustbin, without even a discussion. What did Farooq Abdullah and his party do? They were partners in the Vajpayee regime and continued to be.

In theory, though, J&K “elected” assembly had a lot of power. It was, in fact, more empowered than many state legislatures in India. There were areas of governance, even politics, where it could legislate and exert power. And because there were “elections” every six years and the pro-India parties needed votes, if only to defeat other pro-India parties, the assembly reflected, to a degree, the public mood. For example, no party desiring votes in Kashmir or the Muslim majority regions of the Jammu province could publicly support full integration with India. So, they raised the slogans of autonomy or self-rule. It was political compulsion, the only way for them to stay relevant, and not a commitment to a political agenda. The rulers in Delhi allowed such rhetoric knowing it had no bearing on their plans. When the time came to use brutal violence against Kashmiris who demanded the right to self-determination or protested human rights abuses, they could count on the local administration run by these pro-India parties to not hold back. In effect, the pro-India political structure, sustained by a strong network of power and patronage, was Delhi’s first line of defence on the ground.

In addition, when needed, Delhi would prop up the pro-India politicians internationally as the “rightfully elected representatives” of the Kashmir people.

This symbiotic arrangement had established a status quo that was disturbed only by periodic uprisings, especially since 2008. The status quo didn’t mean peace, of course, but only a superficial calm.

For the Congress and Vajpayee’s BJP, this arrangement worked well, giving the stage to pro-Indian politicians and keeping away the separatists. Resentment against the status quo was abundant on the ground, but the pro-India groups never allowed it to reach a point where it could seriously weaken India’s grip on Kashmir. The sole emphasis of separatist politics on long shutdowns also didn’t help. Then there was lack of understanding of the larger political shifts around to devise a cogent response and squandering the chance to build on the peaceful people’s marches in 2008. These peaceful marches were eventually dubbed as “agitational terrorism, gun-less terrorism etc” by the state and quelled by use of excessive force. The issues within the separatist politics is a bigger subject that can only be looked into in a separate piece.

Immediately after the 2008 uprising had been put down, for example, Delhi activated the pro-India political apparatus and created a narrative localising the conflict. So, when the assembly election due later that year was held, it saw substantial participation from a people who had been convinced the whole exercise was about repairing roads and fixing taps, and had no bearing on larger Kashmir issue. Over the next decade, this script enabled the two major pro-India parties to take power in turns and manage the people’s uprisings. At the same time, Delhi used the electoral exercise to claim legitimacy, projecting substantial voter turnout as proof of its acceptability on the ground.

The Narendra Modi regime overturned this arrangement overnight. Driven by the Sangh’s ideological position that J&K’s Muslim majority and the laws that protected it were the primary hindrances to ending the dispute for good, the BJP set about removing them as soon as they took power in 2014.

To begin with, the BJP allied with the PDP in 2015 and used the coalition government to study J&K’s administrative, political, economic and social structures, and build connections within the pro-India camp. On August 5, they made the move. It was only the beginning. The Sangh never meant to stop at the abrogation of Article 370, or the division of the state. Their project always was and is to completely disempower the Muslim majority. To this end, they have pushed through about 20 big and small administrative and political changes in the last one year. The plan for “elected” district councils is a part of the same process.

On the surface, it might appear to be a genuine reform to allow wider public participation in governance. After all, there is going to be a 14-member elected body to oversee developmental work in each district. But that’s a superficial reading of the plan.

Why would Delhi, you should ask, want to establish a new layer of elected bodies after not only downgrading an already powerless assembly but also work on putting it in abeyance? Why didn’t they hold elections for the assembly? Why are “security concerns” limited to that election alone? The answer is that this new layer of administration with an exclusive set of rules is aimed at setting up a downgraded alternative to the old system centred around the assembly.

The Modi regime isn’t averse to elections, they just don’t entertain politics of any kind other than their own. They consider the rhetoric of even pro-India parties as being detrimental to the Sangh’s agenda. Moreover, they don’t seek legitimacy through this traditional pro-India structure in Kashmir, but through their hold on the land and resources. This is why they have redefined the meaning of pro-India politics in Kashmir.

For the Sangh, an elected assembly, a state government, parties with varying shades of pro-India views is unnecessary chaos. They see Kashmir as mainly a Hindu-Muslim conflict. And if a pro-India party doesn’t conform to their view completely, it is against India. The Sangh doesn’t want a big figure from among Kashmiri Muslims to be in the pro-India camp, seeing their very presence as averse to their primary goal. They don’t want an Omar Abdullah, a Mehbooba Mufti or a Sajjad Lone in the new order, although each has been their ally in the past. For them, Omar and Mehbooba represent a flawed political arrangement, which, while subservient to Delhi, allowed them to voice opinions above their pay grade.

So, the BJP has carefully crafted a discourse against the “dynastic politics” of Kashmir’s top pro-India political families, accusing them of corruption, describing their political posturing as anti-India, labelling them as “Jihadi” because they are Muslim, and projecting them as villains. They do not want recognisable faces. They want a clean slate.

They were upset with Sajjad Lone because, contrary to their expectations, he didn’t silently submit to August 5 and wait for their next plan for him. Instead he opposed it, and was detained. That he didn’t show resistance wasn’t enough to fetch him a place on the new stage. The Sangh’s logic is clear. They don’t need a face from the old pro-India structure to seek legitimacy for them. They are past that. They don’t want to go to places in Kashmir via these leaders. They want to go themselves. Now that they have found men who keep a fast each time Amit Shah is indisposed, why would they want a known face from the traditional pro India camp to act as an intermediary for them? They sense they can create a new team, their own team.

This is why an assembly of “elected legislators” whose pro-India colours might not conform to the ideological moorings of the Sangh is a liability. Speeches and even resolutions passed in that assembly over the years might not have meant much, but for this regime rhetoric too must follow a strict discipline: anything that isn’t overtly saffron is compulsorily green.

August 5 removed the state subject hurdle and now anybody can vote and contest in elections in J&K. This has provided a lot of room for manoeuvre; when local candidates from within the pro-India political structure weren’t available for the last Panchayat polls, non-resident natives were brought in. Now that non-resident pool has grown much wider. August 5 also meant that a future assembly will be completely impotent. It won’t have power to legislate even on subjects ostensibly in its domain. The Reorganisation of the State Act has put the security apparatus, especially the police, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the top bureaucracy, under the lieutenant governor’s direct control. In fact, any legislation passed by the new assembly can’t become law without the lieutenant governor’s assent, meaning that any political agenda of the “elected legislators” will be out of bounds. And if the “elected” chief minister can’t even transfer a bureaucrat, how can they pursue any administrative agenda?

If the new assembly is going to be impotent, why has it not been constituted even 14 months after August 5? They fear that if it is elected, the old political rhetoric of the traditional pro-India camp will return to its floor. They want to completely raze the old system and create a new pro-India political structure on its debris. They want much more malleable actors on ground. They want the new legislature, whenever it is constituted, to be occupied only by people for whom history began on August 5, 2019.

The Sangh also wants direct control over the future assembly. This is exactly why August 5 was accompanied by a delimitation process, which is aimed at tweaking the constituency map in a manner that would allot additional seats to Jammu’s Hindu majority belt and reserve constituencies in the Muslim majority regions, including the valley. This will enable the BJP to bring in enough of its people, from the party or the new pro-India structure they are setting up on the ground, to control even the powerless assembly.

Soon after the erstwhile state of J&K was put under governor’s rule in 2018, New Delhi organised Panchayat polls, claiming they would be a panacea for all problems. The irony is that this election exercise happened exactly around the time when they were saying no to the assembly elections. This “grassroots democratic experiment”, as it was labelled, failed miserably. Of the 2,135 Halqas in Kashmir, there was no contest in 1,407. There was no candidate in 708 Halqas and only one in 699. There was no polling in 70 percent of the Panchayat Halqas. Of the 17,059 Panch wards in Kashmir, a mere 1,656 witnessed a contest. At least 64 percent of the Panch wards had no candidate, while 4,537 wards had a single candidate who won unopposed. Those among them who were “elected” had to be herded into government shelters in Srinagar, away from their homes and places that they are deemed to “represent” and protected round the clock by security men.

This is where the “elected” district councils come in. Their implementation keeps the hope and ambition for power alive within the pro India parties. The plan has, in fact, multiple aims. First, there is a vacancy for 14 people within the pro-India camp who submit to the post-August 5 setup without question in each district. The post of the district council chief especially is expected to attract leaders even from the traditional pro-India parties, particularly former legislators.

Second, these “elected” councils fit perfectly in the post-August 5 scheme as they will have nothing to do with politics. The security apparatus, particularly the police, will be out of their purview. In fact, apart from a limited say in the routine developmental works at the district level, they will have no authority. And since there’s no similar elected body at a level higher than a district, they will continue to operate under multiple layers of higher bureaucracy. The 280 “elected representatives”, including the 20 elected chiefs, won’t have any forum to come together. So, their role will be limited to apolitical issues in their respective districts. For a bureaucrat privy to the plan explained, it only means that contractors will have to grease a few more hands in the system now.

In a nutshell, these district councils are part of the larger plan to create a new pro-India political structure in Kashmir that does not indulge in any politics, or even rhetoric. The king is dead, long live the king.

The views reflected in this piece are the author's own. For additional information, see Editorial Disclaimer at the bottom of this page.

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About the Contributor

Muzamil Jaleel is a Kashmiri journalist who has been reporting and writing for more than 25 years. He is currently Deputy Editor at The Indian Express.