Last week’s dramatic development — of Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik’s decision to dissolve the Legislative Assembly immediately after rival parties staked claims to form a government — was so patently wrong as to be outrageous. What was Governor Malik thinking?
The question is, of course, rhetorical. Mr. Malik’s actions clearly reveal what he was thinking. Having given five months to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to try to cobble together a government, the surprise challenge by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), supported by the National Conference (NC) and the Congress, forced him to reverse course, and hastily dissolve an Assembly that he had kept in suspended animation without once consulting the MLAs.
The Governor’s reasons for dissolution are not only disingenuous, they are downright dangerous. The allegation that political parties with opposing ideologies should not come together can more plausibly be levelled against the coming together of the People’s Conference (PC) and the BJP than against the PDP-NC-Congress grouping. The PDP, the NC and the Congress share several common positions, including on confidence-building measures (CBMs), peace talks and safeguarding constitutional rights. As to horse-trading, it was the PC, with the BJP’s support, that succeeded in breaking the PDP and winning over one of the NC’s most articulate spokesmen. Irrespective of who was being targeted, however, if a Governor can decide which parties may ally with each other, or take five months to recognise the horse-trading that was an open secret in the Valley, then we might as well give up the pretence of democracy.
More worrying still, what does Mr. Malik mean by the reference to security? Is he suggesting that a PDP-NC-Congress alliance would impact negatively on the “fragile situation” in the Valley? That is a very serious allegation, made even more serious by statements from as senior a BJP leader as Ram Madhav, who also happens to be in charge of Jammu and Kashmir for the party. He tweeted that the three parties received instructions from Pakistan to stake a claim to govern. Absurd as the allegation is, its absurdity does not veil the fact that it is disgusting. What possible grounds can there be for such an accusation, or have we now come to a point where no grounds are required since the purpose is solely to tarnish?
The greatest damage done by Mr. Malik has been to strengthen Kashmiri cynicism about New Delhi. Most Kashmiri commentators, in any case, argue that there has never been more than a pretence of democracy on the part of New Delhi when it comes to Kashmir. What happened last week vindicates their argument. Sadly, it also represents a return to the dark days of political meddling by the Centre in State politics, a practice that had been gradually relinquished between 2002 and 2014, a period which saw three of the freest and fairest elections in the State. Those years, of partial peace-building, have been forgotten in the Valley.
The graph has been of rising violence since 2014 not only in the Valley, but in the border districts of Jammu as well. In this volatile situation, the impact of the events of the past six months, from the BJP toppling its coalition government with the PDP to the Governor thwarting the PDP-NC-Congress claim to forming a government, has been disastrous. It has driven even those who sought a peaceful and feasible resolution to the sidelines.
By his actions, Mr. Malik has joined a line of Governors appointed by the BJP-led government at the Centre who have skated far too close to constitutional red lines, violating the propriety of their office. As numerous constitutional experts have pointed out, this is a fit case for the Supreme Court to overturn a Governor’s decision, but there are few Kashmiri parties which wish to go to court. The PC might have greatest reason, but it cannot go against the Governor. The NC, the PDP and the Congress all stand to gain from elections.
Will the Governor try to postpone elections again, on the pretext of security? Violence has increased under his mandate. Governor’s (or President’s) Rule is rarely more stable than under an elected government, even an unstable coalition as the PDP-BJP combine was. A more coherent coalition – the most likely outcome of Assembly elections – will certainly provide better political conditions for reconciliation than a Governor can, since the latter will have neither the grassroots reach nor the experience of local conditions that the former does.
Time to build confidence
Meantime, it is worth noting that while New Delhi debates Mr. Malik’s actions, Kashmiri attention has turned to a low-profile visit by former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, organised by the Art of Living Foundation. Mr. Bondevik met Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and has now travelled across the Line of Control (LoC) to meet local leaders there. Whether the Narendra Modi government will accept inputs from him is unclear. What is clear is that Kashmiris continue to hold hope for the revival of peace initiatives, irrespective of elections.
Can we read the opening of the Kartarpur corridor across Indian and Pakistani Punjabs as a sign of other peace initiatives to come, in particular for Kashmir? The Kartarpur agreement has been widely welcomed by India-Pakistan experts, but the hope that peace initiatives on Kashmir will follow could be misplaced. The Modi government’s acceptance of the Kartarpur proposal might have been prompted by the desire to garner credit, especially for its alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, rather than to pave the way for peacemaking on Kashmir. But in its earlier incarnation, the India-Pakistan peace process combined Punjab to Punjab and Sindh to Rajasthan connectivity with cross-LoC CBMs. Former Army chief General V.K. Singh, who is Minister of State for External Affairs, recently spoke of delinking the Kartarpur corridor from the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case. Why not consider Kashmir CBMs in the same spirit?
All the factual information — whether political, security, social or economic — shows that the Modi government’s counterinsurgency-alone policy has gravely damaged the Valley as well Jammu and Kashmir’s relations to the Union. Will the Central government allow this downward spiral to continue through to the national elections next year, with increasing rhetoric on terrorism, anti-national elements and the like, or will it put the interests of the State and the Union first?
Radha Kumar’s latest book is ‘Paradise at War: a Political History of Kashmir’