‘The Idea of India’ is failing

The middle class that led India’s nation-building project has now embraced a nationalism that has no place for diversity

August 19, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:35 am IST

The “Idea of India” has always been grander in promise than in fulfilment. At Independence, the dream was that the people of a country of so much diversity — in language, religion, and tradition — would enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights and through democratic means, build a just society. A cornerstone of this dream was respect for diversity that was written into the Constitution. It has been a mixed record, with as many failures as achievements. The events of the past two weeks, however, signal to us that the “Idea of India” is in danger of collapsing. We may soon have to accept the “New India” which places no value on pluralism, fraternity and autonomy.

Everything about why and how the constitutional arrangements of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have been so radically changed violates the “Idea of India”.

A worrisome move

The processes used to modify the “Holy Book” that is the Constitution are as important as the content of the amendments. Yet, as many lawyers and constitutional experts have already pointed out, the manner in which the Narendra Modi government has withdrawn the rights J&K enjoyed under Article 370 can only be described as abusing the spirit of the Constitution. Now that the Government has tasted success, it should be confident about using the same kind of skulduggery to aggressively alter the Constitution to further its agenda. Only the courts stand in the way and there the Government of India must be feeling that its own actions will pass muster.

We also have the disappearance of J&K as a State. It is hard to think of anything more insulting to a people than to inform them one morning that their State has been turned into two Union Territories, effectively ruled from New Delhi. This is real “tukde tukde” work.

Since the early 1950s, States have been periodically divided and new ones created. Consultation of some form or the other has always been an integral part of the process. Nothing like the sudden disappearance of the State of J&K has happened before. In a supposedly federal system, the Centre has been able to ram through the necessary legislative changes while keeping 8 million people cut off from the rest of the world and without allowing them to express their views. In the past five years, we have undoubtedly had the most centralised government since the time of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Should we or shouldn’t we be worried about what more is in store for us? Was it short-sightedness or fear that made all the regional parties — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam being the only major exception — endorse the break up of J&K into two Union Territories?

Spirit behind special rights

There are legitimate reasons why in our diverse society, the Constitution has ordained special rights, for instance, for Dalits and Adivasis; for Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim (under Article 371); and so too for J&K until now under Article 370. A uniformity of rights across the nation and all classes does not necessarily make for a cohesive society. In fact, the opposite is the case in a country of vast diversity. Special rights for specific communities and regions enable them to feel a “oneness” in a large country that has so many kinds of differences. Here, the guarantees promised to J&K were especially important because of the circumstances surrounding the State’s accession to India.

The autonomy offered by Article 370 has been contentious for two reasons. One, it was enjoyed by a State that remained divided between India and Pakistan. Two, the constitutional provision applied to India’s only Muslim majority State. These two features should have made it all the more important to preserve the guarantees contained in Article 370. However, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Jan Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party, for whom uniformity has always come first, abolition of Article 370 has been a core demand.

Contentious Article 370 always was, but it was never adhered to in any measure. In this, there have been no saints in either New Delhi or Srinagar. If one systematically emptied the promise of autonomy right from the 1950s onwards with a series of presidential notifications, the other used it as a bargaining chip to feather its nest. Though emptied of content, Article 370 has retained an important symbolic value for the people of J&K as recognition of its unique character.

It has been argued that whatever the merits of the Modi government’s actions, the “Kashmir situation” of the old was no longer sustainable. But we must remember that the iron glove of this government has only made matters worse since 2014: every year since then has seen an increase in violence — of incidents of terrorism, security personnel killed and innocents murdered. When the lockdown in J&K is finally lifted, New Delhi will find that it will be dealing with a sullen population that feels its land has been occupied. We must fear a surge in violence for months and perhaps years, with or without a spurt in terrorism from across the border.

Dismissing pluralism

The middle and upper classes in the rest of India have welcomed the decisions of early August. This is not surprising. The long-running violence in J&K first made them weary, and then indifferent. So they now endorse “firm” actions that will put Kashmiris in their place. We talk about Kashmir not being integrated with the rest of India, when, truth be told, the rest of India has never integrated itself with Kashmir. Before the violence, Kashmir was only a place of natural beauty that was worth a brief holiday or one where film stars pranced on hillsides. We never saw Kashmiris as fellow citizens with the same dreams as all of us. We only saw them as residents of a State that Pakistan coveted, a people whose allegiance to the nation we thought was suspect and a State that was the cause of so much armed conflict and terrorism.

The same middle class that seeded the freedom movement, which gave the ideas for a modern Constitution and then led the nation-building project around “The Idea of India”, has now embraced an aggressive nationalism that dismisses the pluralism of India. We now do not seem to care one bit about what the people of Kashmir feel. We have been the least concerned the past fortnight about the lockdown they have been placed under. We openly talk about the possibility of buying up land in Kashmir. Lawmakers speak without being reprimanded about men from the rest of the country marrying “fair” Kashmiri women. And we look forward to effecting a demographic transformation in the Valley. How far we have travelled from when India drew up its Constitution.

There have been three days in the Republic’s history on which “The Idea of India” has been shaken to its roots. The first was June 25, 1975 when an Emergency was declared and many of our Fundamental Rights were suspended. The people’s vote rescued India at the time. The next was December 6, 1992 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed. We managed to limp away, though with neither atonement nor punishment. Now we have August 5, 2019, when the Constitution was subverted in spirit if not in letter, when federalism was shoved aside and the rights of the people of a member of the Union were stamped on.

It is difficult to see “The Idea of India” recovering from this latest body blow.

C. Rammanohar Reddy is Editor of ‘The India Forum’

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