Jammu and Kashmir has been going through a continuous political churn ever since 5 August 2019, when the BJP government in New Delhi abrogated Article 370. Along with revoking its Constitutionally-guaranteed special position, the Centre has abrogated Art 35A and divided it into two Union Territories. Now the government has released new domicile rules for the erstwhile state. The new rules have generated fresh scepticism, fear and suspicion, particularly in the Kashmir valley and the Muslim-dominated regions of Jammu.
The manner in which these decisions are being taken and implemented—during a lockdown, in the midst of a worldwide battle against the Covid-19 pandemic—reaffirms that Kashmir remains in what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called a “state of exception”.
Kashmir as state of exception:
If you ask New Delhi why it has taken any harsh step with regards to Kashmir, you will get the answer that it is because Kashmir is not like any other “normal” place. This is true of all governments, irrespective of their leanings to the right or left. Everything from imposing governments to rigging elections, from tightening state surveillance and harsh security laws to growing military presence, is justified in Kashmir in the name of “national security” and its being an “abnormal” place.
For instance, the people of Kashmir are denied basic rights such as access to the internet, which people in the rest of the country can simply take for granted. The same arguments were put forth in defence of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A and for downgrading the state to two Union Territories.
A careful reading of history will reveal that at almost every point, the most important decisions regarding the state, which have serious impact on the future of its people, have been taken “for” them from above and not “with” them. Even the pro-Indian mainstream leaders, be it Sheikh Abdullah and his children or another former chief minister Mufti Sayeed and his progeny, were sidelined, even declared anti-national at will by governments at the Centre. This has completely eroded the trust of institutions among people—but is this not exactly how a “state of exception” is governed?
In his book, State of Exception, Agamben argues that in areas that are designated exceptional, inhabitants are stripped of their rights, reduced to “bare life” and submitted to the sovereign power of the state. The literary critic Leland de la Durantaye has expanded Agamben’s “state of exception” to mean “that political point at which jurisdiction stops, and a sovereign unaccountability begins; it is where the dam of individual liberties breaks and a society is flooded with the sovereign power of the state.”
Not just individuals, even the authority of elected institutions are taken over by nominated ones as the Centre appropriates the powers of local representative bodies. In other words, encounters with the state as well as basic notions and experiences of state, nation and citizen significantly vary between “peaceful” and “disturbed” areas. The peaceful areas represent the “core” whereas the “disturbed” or “exceptional” areas remain on the margins of the state.
The “state of exception” also constitutes what anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom calls the “shadows”. In her book, Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-first Century, Nordstrom defines as the “shadow” those areas which exist as “part of the formal state, but at the same time remain excluded from it in terms of violent realities of everyday life”. To cite such a parallel in Kashmir, while mass protest could be a standard tool of normal politics elsewhere in India, in Kashmir it is unacceptable. This is because from the state’s point of view protest in Kashmir is a non-violent expression of separatism, which, if left unfettered, would engulf all Muslim-dominated areas of the state.
Recently, the Supreme Court refused to pass an order to restore 4G internet services in Kashmir and instead asked the Centre to constitute a committee to look into the matter. This is ironic in this context, given that it is the government which had banned internet access and has constantly been resisting its restoration at full speed, even in Supreme Court.
Institutional trust deficit:
Kashmir is also exceptional in the sense that it was never considered worthy of democracy and civil liberties. Elections were mostly a farce and free and fair polls were seen as an “anti-nation” activity that would hand over Kashmir to “anti-national” forces. Over time, “client” governments imposed on the region by New Delhi had been eroding Kashmir’s special position.
There were exceptions, such as the 1977 election, which was by and large won fair and square by the National Conference. Yet the pressure on the Sheikh Abdullah-headed state government from the authoritarian and interventionist Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was so intense that his Principal Secretary Ghulam Ahmad recorded in his book, My Years with Sheikh Abdullah, that the “erstwhile lion became mortally afraid of Mrs. Gandhi.”
Not much changed as the decades passed. The Abdullahs and the Muftis were choked and made to fall in line from time to time. The policy of imposing governments and the denial of democracy turned the state, as the political scientist Sumantra Bose has said in his book, Contested Lands, into a “…police state in which civil rights and political liberties were virtually non-existent.”
Not much changed even when militancy began to wane and elections generated huge mass participation. To an extent, the emergence of militancy and the global governance ethic did force the rulers in New Delhi and Srinagar to revisit their strategy of managing the state. Thus, where electoral democracy was regarded as a serious threat to peace for about half a century, in that very place the deepening of the electoral process started being regarded as an effective instrument to restore “order”. In his paper, “Kashmir in 2003: Counterinsurgency and the Paradox of ‘Normalcy’”, the political scientist Paul Staniland notes that such a paradox arises when “...liberal democracy clashes with the state’s preference for a political status quo.”
That is, the state encourages electoral competition but local politics is “carefully controlled and manipulated; the rule of law is hailed, but state accountability is extremely weak” and non-violent protest is the official aspiration of the state, but practically it is “met with heavy-handed security forces”.
Staniland argues that in Kashmir the fundamental spirit of democracy gets compromised because it is a “patronage democracy”. Political parties are propped up and the Centre establishes control over them, through what he calls “patronage money”. While political parties and their leaders are given some leverage, within a Lakshman Rekha, in crucial matters of “security” and the central policies on Kashmir, the local government becomes a non-entity. Political parties may float proposals (such as for autonomy or self-rule) and may raise slogans (‘withdraw AFSPA’ or ‘promote cross-LoC trade’) but in practice they do not matter.
Manipulating parties, eroding their credibility and base, and the dual emphasis on patronising and marginalising local governments has undermined governance and democratic credentials in J&K. This politics of manipulation and impunity erodes the trust of people in institutions. This is also clear from the following CSDS-Lokniti data.
When asked about institutional trust during a post-poll survey in 2002, the sampled respondents expressed their opinion as follows:
Not much has changed over the years. The question was asked during the 2014 election survey as well, and the responses are recorded below.
Similar opinions were expressed with regard to the paramilitary forces as well as local police. It is pertinent to mention that while the data provided here relates only to the Kashmir region, if data for the state as a whole is analysed, one will notice significant regional variations. This variation may not be visible for state institutions, however, with respect to central institutions, the Jammu region, and especially its Hindu dominated areas, show a very positive attitude.
Every move by New Delhi since last August has been carried out with the promise of fostering national integration, stopping militancy and ushering in a new era of development. This idea of developmentalism is not new for Kashmir. It has been used from time to time, with little success. One does not find any noticeable private investment having come to Kashmir since the abrogation of Art 370 and Art 35A. Political activity continues to be curtailed. The prominent Kashmir-based political parties are caught in a Catch-22 situation, while new political formulations are being propped up. On issues such as the domicile law, there is scepticism even in Jammu. There is an eerie silence on the ground and how this is going to unfold only time will tell.
Aijaz Ashraf Wani is author of What Happened to Governance in Kashmir? published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The views are personal.