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Indian Democracy’s Chance of Surviving Is Brightening, but There Is No Room for Complacency

politics
The immediate threat lies in Kashmir.
Congress party workers and supporters hold national flags during a Freedom March to celebrate the 75 years of India's Independence in Bengaluru, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

The fact that ten more ‘like-minded’ parties have joined the meeting of the opposition at Bengaluru, that the Congress has graciously met the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s demand that it commits itself to voting against the Bill that seeks to deprive the Delhi government of control over its own civil servants,  in the Rajya Sabha, and that the opposition has now given itself a single name – INDIA – reflects the near-complete consensus within the opposition on the need to set differences aside in order to save democracy. This has greatly increased the likelihood of a defeat for the BJP in the 2024 Lok sabha election, by shifting the ‘multiplier effect’ of the simple majority voting system, which invariably magnifies the seat-to-vote ratio of the largest party or coalition at the expense of the smaller ones, in the opposition’s favour.

In the past two Lok Sabha elections, this effect worked strongly in favour of the BJP. In 2014, its 31% vote share made it the largest single party in the elections. That, and the fact that all but a fraction of this vote was concentrated in seven states of northern and western India enabled it to win 282 seats, comprising 52% of the total membership of the Lok Sabha. In 2019, its vote share increased to 37%, close to double that of the next largest party, the Congress. That enabled it to win 303 seats. Opposition unity next year will take the multiplier effect away from the BJP and confer it upon itself.

Joint opposition parties meeting in Bengaluru. Photo: Twitter/@AAP

How dramatic this shift can be was vividly demonstrated by the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha elections in May. Although the BJP’s share of the vote remained unchanged at 36%, a 5.4% shift of the vote from the JDS to the Congress – which increased its share to 43% – increased the number of seats it won from 80 to 135, and brought down the BJP’s tally from 104 to 66. Opposition unity, even if not complete,  will almost certainly do the same thing at the national level next year.

This possibility has already driven Modi into a frenetic election mode, in which he has left governance to his lieutenants, and has been tailoring his every statement and action to creating a God-like image of himself for the ordinary Indian, and pandering to the hyper-nationalism that is latent in most Hindus in the country. He is not doing this solely out of a desire to remain in power. He is also aware that should the BJP lose, the ghosts of those who were killed in the Gujarat riots, and the faked encounters and the unexplained deaths that followed, will rise to torment him, possibly till the end of his life.

This fusion of political with personal motives will make the 2024 elections the most fateful that India has ever faced. For, democracies can only survive if their leaders are willing to accept defeat and fight for power through the ballot, instead of the bullet. Modi has shown a reluctance to do this throughout the 22 years he has enjoyed power at Gandhinagar and Delhi. He is, therefore, certain to seize any opportunity that arises in the next nine months to pose again as the guardian of India’s security and honour, as he was able to do after the Pulwama suicide bombing in February 2019.

Modi may sense an opportunity in Kashmir

One such opportunity is certain to arise in Kashmir – if the Supreme Court rules against the government’s 2019 abolition of the state’s special status under Article 370, and rules that it must be re-instated. The court’s brusque dismissal earlier this month, of the government’s attempt to justify that action by claiming, ex-post, that it has brought peace and economic development to the state, has aroused this hope in Kashmir’s political parties, and public, throughout the Valley. Should it do so, they believe that Delhi will have no option but to restore the status quo ante and thereby restore their right to preserve their ethnic identity within the Indian union.

But they could be catastrophically wrong. In his 22 years of leadership, Modi has never, ever, admitted that he has made a mistake that needs correction. Nor has he ever reversed any decision he has taken. So, how is he likely to react to such a direct challenge to his authority by the Supreme Court?

Had the petitions against the dilution of Article 370 been filed in a lower court – such as the Jammu and Kashmir high court, Modi would have been able to buy time till after the Lok Sabha elections by appealing against an adverse order to the Supreme Court. But all of them were lodged in the Supreme Court, which is the court of final appeal, so the only alternative that will be available to Modi is to assert parliament’s supremacy over every other democratic institution in the country, as his government has done more than once in recent months, ignore the court’s ruling and continue to rule Jammu and Kashmir directly from Delhi. This will almost certainly make the simmering discontent in the Valley explode into violence, and in doing so, give Modi the excuse for stoking Hindu hyper-nationalism again, to win yet another general election.

Will the Union government be able to control the reaction in Kashmir? Modi would like us to believe that it will, because the majority of the people of the Valley will oppose the return of violence, and the loss of business and livelihoods that it will entail. That was what his government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court had been intended to impress upon it. But even a cursory look at the reality behind the virtual blackout of political news from the Valley shows that the government’s affidavit is a tissue of falsehoods.

In it, the government has claimed that ‘the entire region of Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed an “unprecedented” era of peace, progress, and prosperity, with street violence orchestrated by terrorists and secessionist networks becoming a thing of the past’. Modi may even have persuaded himself that this is actually true but data collected painstakingly by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) show that it is the opposite of the truth.

According to the SATP, in the four years from 2019 to 2022, there were 729 incidents involving the killing of civilians, militants and security forces – an average of one incident every two days! In these, the security forces killed 781 militants and suffered 209 deaths. Kashmir had therefore seen 990 deaths in 1,460 days, i.e. one death caused by militancy-related violence, every 36 hours! Unless it is SATP that has been lying, these figures show that the Government of India has told a blatant lie in a sworn affidavit to the highest court of the land.

Having done so, it will have no option but to live out that lie. Since it can only do this by crushing the popular discontent in Kashmir as rapidly and completely as possible, this could lead to a level of repression that Kashmir has never experienced before. Furthermore, given the way in which Modi turned the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the Pulwama suicide bombing of 2019 to the BJP’s political advantage, it is a safe bet that he will try to do the same with the pogrom that will follow in Kashmir. And, given the BJP’s spectacular rise after both those tragic events,  there is every likelihood that he will succeed yet again.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute to the CRPF soldiers killed in the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI

Averting this design

So one of the first questions the opposition will need to discuss, when formulating a common programme of action to present to the people before the next election, is how to forestall an attempt by Modi to repeat his earlier successes by unleashing another reign of terror in Kashmir, and using the reaction that will evoke from the youth to inflame the dormant distrust of Muslims in Hindu hearts in the rest of India.

The starting point for frustrating this design is to understand, and accept, that Partition, and the slaughter of innocents that followed, severely damaged the syncretic Ganga-Yamuni culture built over the previous 600 years all over north India. In Pakistan, it led to a ‘purification’ of Sunni Islam, exemplified by the teachings of Maulana Maududi, that led to the official excommunication of various Shia factions, most notably the Ahmadiyyas, and fostered the rise of violent extremist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Taliban – who offered to further ‘purify’ Islam in Pakistan, in exchange for being allowed to ‘liberate’ Kashmir.

In India, Partition, and the subsequent conflict with Pakistan, hardened  Hindu distrust of Muslims and discredited the syncretic Islam that had emerged out of centuries of peaceful co-existence and been codified by Akbar in the Din-e-Elahi. That is the syncretism that Mahatma Gandhi gave his life in an attempt to preserve. How deeply embedded it remains in the Indian Muslim psyche, even 75 years and three Indo-Pak wars after Partition, can be judged from the fact that there has not been a single Sunni-Shia communal riot of significance in India after independence, when this was an annual event in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By contrast, in Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was given a relatively free reign to kill Shias in some parts of Pakistan such as Sindh and Baltistan.

Thanks to Mahatma Gandhi’s sacrifice, and the relentless efforts of Nehru, Maulana Azad and others, syncretism has remained strong in India. Out of more than 200 million Indian Muslims, only 18 joined al Qaeda, and less than 100 joined ISIS. Nearly all of these, moreover, were migrants working in the Gulf, who were lured into joining ISIS in part at least by the prospect of escaping from their miserable conditions of work in there. By contrast, more than 5,000 Europeans joined it, among whom only a minority were children of immigrants from the middle east.

What the post-partition conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir has erased from the Hindu mind is that this syncretism is not only strongest in Kashmir but has survived despite the outbreak of insurgency in 1989 only because Article 370 prevented a large number of people from other parts of India from settling in Kashmir. Since the outbreak, first army and then police repression has driven more and more of the youth into the arms of the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Ahl-e-Hadis. But syncretic Reshi (a corruption of Rishi) Islam has survived in spite of this and remains the dominant form of Islam in Kashmir even today.

Reshi Islam is full of practices incorporated into it from Hinduism. Among these is Auradh-e-Fidrat, a morning prayer to the rising sun that has no equivalent in any branch of Islam outside Kashmir, because it is an incorporation of Surya Namaskar. Another is the practice of invoking one’s ancestors at the beginning of every major prayer or religious function – again normal in Hinduism but haraam in Sunni Islam.

But perhaps most telling is the nature of Kashmiri cuisine. Till today, there is not only no beef in it but also no chicken and no eggs. There is also, in my experience, no garlic. In short, Kashmiri cuisine is, till today, indistinguishable from the cuisine of Shaivite Brahmins – which, of course, was what Kashmiris were till the arrival of Sufi Islam from Iran.

These are only some of the more superficial differences between Reshi and Sunni Islam. Other, more profound, differences are the worship of relics of saints, and of the shrines where they are buried, that one finds in Reshi, and some other variants of Shia Islam, but is forbidden in Sunni Islam. These differences were noted by no less eminent a person than Mohammed Ali Jinnah in 1946, and led him to reject a request by the Jammu-based J&K Muslim Conference to allow it to join the Muslim League.

These differences also explain why, despite almost a quarter of a million traumatised refugees from both sides of the Radcliffe line passing through Jammu in 1947, the entire princely state of Kashmir, and the Valley in particular, remained free from communal violence till almost the end of October 1947,  while the rest of India burned.

That is the communal harmony that both Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah cherished and were determined to protect. Even the rigging of elections, that began in a small way as early as 1952, was not designed to prevent Kashmiri Muslims from expressing a desire to join Pakistan but to prevent Hindu zealots, concentrated in Jammu, from being able to drag Kashmir into the mire of Indian communal politics. This threat had arisen in November 1947, when the J&K Praja Parishad was created in Jammu by  Balraj Madhok, a key member of the RSS, with the express purpose of opposing the special status granted to the state under Article 370 of the constitution. This brought the communal politics of the rest of India into the state and threatened to undo precisely what Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah and Maharaja Hari Singh had been trying their level best, in their own ways, to prevent.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. Photo: Oxford University Press

The rigging that began then was designed to insulate Kashmiriyat not from the pull of Pakistan’s Sunni Islam in Kashmir, but against the push of Hindu intolerance, later dignified as Hindutva, in Jammu. This made it necessary for the National Conference to ensure that it always won a sufficient number of seats to obtain a majority in the state legislature. Rigging up to half of the constituencies in Kashmir became the surest way to ensure that the National Conference stayed in power at least until India won its case in the UN Security Council and Pakistan withdrew from PoK. That, of course, never happened. So, particularly after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah,  what had begun as a temporary expedient became a routine feature of all elections in Kashmir.

The casualty in this power game was democracy. For the continuous rigging of the elections in Kashmir to checkmate the rise of Hindutva in Jammu frustrated every attempt to create a democratic opposition in the Valley. That is what finally triggered the insurgency that began after the rigged elections of 1987 and burst into flames in December 1989.

So the first challenge that a combined opposition will have to face is to find a way to prevent Modi from turning a defeat in the Supreme Court into a victory in the 2024 elections. The way to do this is not by condemning the military crackdown that Modi is sure to impose on the state the moment he receives an adverse verdict from the Supreme Court, but to demand an immediate election in the whole of the pre-2019 state to elect the members of a Constituent Assembly, that will be empowered to ratify the original or a modified Article 370. This will be necessary because it was a Kashmiri Constituent Assembly that ratified Article 370 in November 1956. Since this assembly then dissolved itself, a new one will have to be created through an election, to ratify its reinstatement.

A formal commitment by the opposition to leave the choice of Jammu and Kashmir’s future to the Kashmiris, made immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision if it rules against the withdrawal of special status, will prevent the resurgence of armed insurrection because the youth who favour this will receive no support from their elders. That was what had made the insurgency of the 90s peter out. The prospect of being able to decide their own future democratically will have the same effect once more.

Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist and author of Kashmir 1947: Rival Versions of History published by OUP in 1996. 

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