Kashmir a year after: Sullenness inside, support outside

There is little doubt, however, that the removal of the “temporary” provision of a special status for Jammu & Kashmir does have a strong measure of support outside the ruling party because it was perceived as an artificial barrier that fostered separatism, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor

Amulya Ganguli Aug 05, 2020
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When Satyapal Malik was the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, he said that the longer a politician is kept in detention, the greater are his or her chances of emerging as a leader, if only because the period in custody will enable the person to brag about his or her plight, thereby attracting sympathy and support.

Recounting his own experience, Malik said that he was imprisoned during the Emergency (1975-77). “if someone is detained … he will take (sic) political benefit”. The governor may have also derived his interpretation of the  “benefit” of spending time behind the bars from the history of Indian independence which exhibited the beneficial effect of incarceration in the lives of the freedom fighters.

In more recent times, George Fernandes won an election against then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1977 when he was still in jail. The inspiring story of Nelson Mandela is also relevant in this context as his 27-year custody under South Africa’s apartheid regime played a seminal part in paving the way for his becoming the “rainbow” nation’s president after the abolition of the racist laws.

It is not known whether those in detention In Kashmir are deriving any succour from their current privations in the hope of a bright political future. But it is possible that their jailors cannot be oblivious of this likelihood when the prison gates are unlocked. Moreover, as Malik pointed out, the duration of the confinement is directly proportional to the future popularity of the detainees.

Mehbooba Mufti's continued detention

From this standpoint, the person who is expected to gain the most from her captivity is the former J and K chief minister and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti. An erstwhile partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), she is not in the same league as Kashmiri stalwarts like Farooq Abdullah since she is in a category one step lower in terms of influence. It is also unclear whether her association with the BJP when in office in the former state (now a Union territory) helped or hindered her political career.

However, going by the formulation of how internment is politically helpful, few will doubt that her year-long imprisonment cannot but refurbish her image as a doughty opponent of the BJP. The reputation will be burnished all the more if it is true that she is not being let out because of her refusal to give an undertaking that she will not make any political statements when released.

Since the most significant of such statements can only be about the abrogation of Article 370, It appears that the former chief minister’s disinclination to keep silent on this score is responsible for her being locked up for such a prolonged period.

Yet, it is obvious that her jailors are in a bind, for their tactics are unwarranted in a democracy even if they are common in autocracies. It is simply not possible to keep dissenters in prison beyond a reasonable period of time unless they are charged with heinous crimes or are seen as a clear and present danger to the constitutional order.

None of these charges can be levelled against a former chief minister and the leader of a mainstream political party. All that can be said against the PDP leader is that her release and  subsequent speeches can led to public protests. But these are an unavoidable part of the democratic system. It brings no credit to a nation if the “fear” of public demonstrations is seen to be the primary reason for the detentions.

What is more, even the supporters of such prison sentences will concede that such an unnatural state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Sooner or later, it has to come to an end, for elections will have to be held at some point of time when restrictions cannot be placed on what can or cannot be said.

Any deviation from this customary democratic norm will earn the perpetrators of such restrictive diktats national and international opprobrium. Only the diehard supporters of the curbing of free speech on the grounds of preventing public disquiet can endorse the imposition of draconian restraints.

Kashmir's abnormality 

For those unwilling to offer such blanket support, what is clear is that a political agenda calling for the scrapping of Kashmir’s special status - as happened on August 5 last year - in order to facilitate its closer integration  with the rest of the country has placed the ruling party in a dilemma.

While the signs of the Union territory coming closer to the nation are few and far between, what is more palpable is the apparent sullenness of the locals and their manifold grievances as a result of poor Internet connectivity and the absence of normality in daily life mainly because of the overwhelming presence of security personnel.

Nothing underlines this abnormality more starkly than the imposition of curfew in the valley on the first anniversary of the gutting of Article 370. Had the people welcomed the “new dawn”, they would not have been forced to stay indoors.

There is little doubt, however, that the removal of the “temporary” provision of a special status for Jammu & Kashmir does have a strong measure of support outside the ruling party because it was perceived as an artificial barrier that fostered separatism. But its summary elimination called for securing local support and not an operation carried out with the posting of half a million troops and the jailing of several hundred politicians and activists. This is where the plot went awry and conferred the mantle of heroism on Mehbooba Mufti and other detainees.

(The writer is an analyst on contemporary affairs. The views expressed are personal)