Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The limits of democracy

I have always argued that the Indian media and political class unquestioningly abide by certain ‘deep-state’ redlines when it comes to talking about Kashmir and Kashmiris. The liberal among the ‘deep-state’ analysts empathise with Kashmiris, the more liberal might even critique New Delhi’s Kashmir policy – but would never challenge the foundational claims of the Indian state on Kashmir. That is why when Prashant Bhushan talked about the need to conduct a referendum in Kashmir, I was pleasantly surprised. But then he clarified subsequently that he argued for a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir only to decide whether the people want the army to handle internal security or not meaning that he was not talking about the “plebiscite”. While that is a comedown, it is clearly courageous of Mr. Bhushan to even say that much. 

The BJP reacted predictably, with Arun Jeitley saying, "issues of national security cannot be decided by populism or referendum. They can only be decided on security considerations." Under heavy fire from the twice-born Indian nationalists, his party chief Arvind Kejriwal clarified: “Whatever the army wants to do regarding deployment, there is no question of a referendum on it. We do not support Prashant Bhushan's statement…Deployment of the army within the country should be decided on the basis of internal security threat. There is no question of a referendum on this. But we believe the sentiments of locals should be respected. Otherwise democracy will be under threat”. 

What surprises me is not the BJP’s reaction to the Bhushan statement, not even AAP’s flip-flop on the issue, but the stark division that the party makes between ordinary issues and national security issues. Even for a party that talks about conducting consultations with the people on every issue concerning governance (from bijli to paani to crime prevention), the contentious issue of Kashmir is untouchable and is to be treated as sacrosanct and managed by the specialists of security – the Indian state and its security agencies - without any consultation with the people general or at least those people who are suffering, the Kashmiris. 

Why is it that AAP does not think it is a good idea to consult the people of Kashmir whether or not they want the continued the presence of the Indian armed forces in their midst? Why don’t they think it useful or politically correct or in keeping with the foundational aims of their party/movement to extend the fruits of their ‘revolution’ to the hapless Kashmiris? Why not think of organizing a few mohalla sabhas and public consultations with the people in Kashmir on the desirability of the presence of the armed forces in Kashmir? Why should they be denied the fruits of democracy? If the people of Vasant Vihar or Greater Kailash can pour in to the streets of Delhi, air their legitimate complaints, topple the government that did not listen to their voices and vote a bunch of people to rule them who they think will redress their grievances, why not let the people of Kashmir do the same?  Has any mainstream Indian political party shown the courage to hold public consultations in Kashmir on the question of demilitarization? I am not aware of anyone doing so. 

APP might be under the impression, and rightly so, that it can do without the votes of the Kashmiris in their quest for power in Delhi. Indeed, every Indian political party thinks so except of course the Congress party which believes in “managing” to get the votes and seats in Kashmir using innovative “methods” well-known to most Kashmiris. 

The larger question that we must ask is whether AAP has the political willingness to take unorthodox positions on national security issues? Can they stick to their pro-people approach and image when it comes to Kashmir and Kashmiris? I am not very confident that they can, because, as I have long argued, the great Indian middle class, APP’s primary support base, is extremely orthodox when it comes to national security issues, and Kashmir, whether or not one likes it, is a fundamental national security issue in the security imagination of the Indian middle class.  Indeed, this is evident not just in the case of Kashmir. I am certain that this orthodox approach of the Indian ‘liberal parties and intellectuals’ will extend to most national security issues – insurgency in the north-east, Pakistan etc. Hence, to make a larger point here, India’s self-styled liberals steer clear when it comes to challenging some of the long-held fundamentals of New Delhi’s national security constructs. In doing so, there exists a silent agreement among the liberals in letting the arenas of national security have “special” rules and norms that are not applicable in the rest of the country. 

Of course, this is not to put all the blame on AAP or the country’s liberal intellectuals. This is a far more widespread disease – most of us are schooled into believing that we must not problematise or question certain things around us – clams and practices of national security tops the list, with Kashmir being an excellent example. As a result, anything and everything – human rights violations to the denial of legitimate democratic rights to the curtailment of the freedom of movement and expression - tends to get justified by a mere invocation of national security. 

(Source: Greater Kashmir, 22 January 2014. http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2014/Jan/19/the-limits-of-democracy-59.asp)

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