PAGD’s Rise & Capitulation: A Political Deja Vu

By Shehlat Maknoon 

ON October 13, 2020, Mehbooba Mufti, the last chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was released from detention after 14 months. A few days later, mainstream Kashmiri politicians came together to form the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD). This declaration was signed a day before the abrogation of Article 370 last August. It stated that “any modification, abrogation of Articles 370, unconstitutional delimitation or trifurcation of the State would be an aggression against the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.” In its first press conference, PAGD accused BJP of breaking the federal structure of India by abrogating the limited autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and subsequently downgrading it to a union territory.

On October 17, barely a week after Gupkar Alliance was established by the mainstream politicians of Kashmir, the Indian government amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989. It has paved the way for establishing District Development Councils (DDC). With no signs of assembly polls being conducted any time soon, New Delhi introduced this new governance unit in the region. The members of DDC are supposed to be elected by the voters of the new union territory. Many had speculated that the alliance leaders would boycott these elections like the Panchayat polls which were held earlier this year. DDCs were established a year after the abrogation of Article 370, under the new bureaucratic power structure. Participating in these elections would mean accepting the constitutional changes made on August 5 last year. Therefore, many people were shocked when the alliance declared that they would be contesting the DDC elections. They claimed that they were fighting these elections to bar the “free run” of the Bhartiya Janata Party.

Recently, Home Minister Amit Shah sent a series of tweets against the alliance. He accused the “Gupkar Gang” of colluding with the foreign forces and insulting the tricolor. It was said that Gupkar Alliance had check matted the BJP by deciding to participate in the elections. However, in the larger perspective, this interpretation seems faulty keeping in mind the political history of Kashmir post 1947.

Kashmir’s politics is often described as complex and unpredictable. This description is used by every other politician to justify their actions and it often contradicts their own stand. In all fairness, a conflict zone like Kashmir offers little room for people to oppose the narrative of those in power. However, as the stakeholders of this dispute, we can objectively understand these political happenings through the prism of history. It may never repeat itself in totality but the post-partition history does offer some insights into what has been happening in Kashmir since the last couple of years.

A few days into the “security” lockdown imposed on August 5 last year, a video from inside a passenger flight went viral. In the video, a Kashmiri woman was seen narrating the ordeal of Kashmiris to Rahul Gandhi. Later in the video, Gandhi held her hand while she described the misery of Kashmiris under a strict lockdown and communication blockade. Many were impressed by what they saw as the compassionate side of Rahul Gandhi.

However, in October 2019, former Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh had said that Congress was not against the abrogation but only criticized its implementation. In fact, the dilution of Kashmir’s autonomy started long ago under the Congress rule. The dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah, followed by his arrest in October 1953, was not just because of mistrust between him and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Sheikh Abdullah’s government was dismissed without allowing him to prove his majority. The then Sadr-i-Riyasat (Constitutional Head of State) Dr Karan Singh cited that Abdullah had lost the confidence of his cabinet. However, back then, no fax machine was blamed.

Similarly, in November 2018, J&K governor dissolved the state assembly after Mehbooba Mufti announced that she would seek to form the government with her traditional rivals, the National Conference (NC) and Congress. No floor test was allowed this time as well.

In 1954, a presidential order extended several provisions of the Indian constitution to the J&K’s constitution, furthering the policy of “integration”. After Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi subverted what was left of the state’s autonomy. In 1965, the Congress government amended the constitution of J&K and replaced the posts of Sadr-i-Riyasat and Prime Minister with the governor and chief minister respectively. Although by then, these posts were disempowered to a large extent and only had a symbolic meaning for the people. The Indira-Sheikh Accord of 1975 officially ended the movement for self-determination and plebiscite. Sheikh Abdullah’s political career was based on promises of self-determination, which he effectively dropped after signing this accord. Sumantra Bose, in her book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths of Peace, notes that the first clause of the accord, which declared that J&K as the constituent unit of the Union of India will be governed under Article 370, was hypocritical. Twenty-three constitutional orders had already been made by the mid-1970s, and 262 union laws had already been implemented in the state. Sheikh Abdullah became the chief minister after signing this accord and continued as such until his death in 1982.

A recurrent theme in the political history of Jammu & Kashmir is the disempowerment of the state by coercing the local politicians. However, the so-called mainstream politicians of Kashmir have always obliged, settling for the leftovers. PAGD’s sudden enthusiasm to keep BJP away from Kashmir through DDC polls is ludicrous. By willfully or ignorantly participating in these elections, they are only helping the “normalcy” narrative in Kashmir.

Projecting “normalcy” in Kashmir through elections is the oldest trick in the book. For all the logical reasons, PAGD’s move will not disrupt the plans of BJP.  Home minister Amit Shah’s tirade against the alliance is more of a pre-election attack and a control mechanism deployed against the local politicians. The brinksmanship will only push the Kashmiri politicians to prove their legitimacy through these elections.

People’s Alliance fighting the elections suits the optics of the Indian government. Even if they win all the seats in Kashmir, they’ll have nominal power. BJP will still be calling the shots through the Lieutenant Governor and the subordinate bureaucracy. They will also declare that the democratic process has “restarted” in Jammu & Kashmir. Speaking at a press conference in Srinagar recently, BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain claimed that “Gupkar Gang” had accepted the decisions taken on August 5 because they are taking part in DDC elections. This jubilance among the BJP cadre is quite obvious given that Kashmiri politicians are aiding their attempts at normalizing the August 5 changes.

There is a little element of newness when it comes to the current government’s Kashmir policy. What has changed, however, is that the policy of disempowerment has reached its climax, and speaking for Kashmiris or their rights will cut your vote share in India. Congress distancing itself from Gupkar Alliance immediately after Amit Shah’s tweets indicates just that. One must not see BJP’s political maneuvering in Kashmir in isolation but a culmination of Indian government’s policy towards the former princely state.

The author is can be reached at [email protected]

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