Sheikh Abdullah’s granddaughter reflects on Kashmir, asks, “Is it time for a new, regional order?”

A Visiting Professor at the University of Oklahoma, the granddaughter of late Sheikh Abdullah speaks on Kashmir, wonders if it is time to think of a new, regional order in the Indian subcontinent

Nyla Ali Khan
Nyla Ali Khan

Ashutosh Sharma

Ahead of October 31, when Union Territories Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh formally come into existence, Kashmiri-American academic and author,
Nyla Ali Khan—granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, founder of the National Conference and first Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir—shared her thoughts with Ashutosh Sharma.

She is at present aVisiting Professor at the University of Oklahoma and a faculty member at Rose State College.

“I seriously doubt that the revocation of Article 370 and 35A will strengthen the foundations of democracy and secularism in J&K, nor will the distrust between Kashmiris and India lessen,” she said and added, “The BJP government is in too much of a rush to erase diversity and homogenise India.”

What’s your reaction to the arrest of your mother and sister?

On the morning of October 15, my mother, Suraiya Abdullah Ali, my cousin, Safia, and several of my mother’s former colleagues attempted to gather at Pratab Park, Srinagar, for a silent protest against the lack of civil and democratic rights
in Kashmir.

The entire group of women was accused of violating Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973, which empowers an executive magistrate to prohibit an assembly of more than 4 people.

My mother and the rest of the women with her, most of whom are highly educated and professionalised, were first taken to Kothi Bagh Police Station and then to Central Jail, Srinagar.

They have been put behind bars for the sin of attempting to peacefully and silently protest the strong-arm methods of the Government of India and its appendages.

What’s your reaction to the government’s decision to revoke J&K’s special status and turn the state into two Union Territories? How does it reflect on Indian federalism?

The unilateral decision to end the autonomous status of J&K and bifurcate the state into two federally administered Union Territories are flagrant violations of the Constitution of India. These manoeuvres jeopardise the federal structure of India. The erosion of the rights and privileges of a state is an unhealthy precedent to set in a diverse and federal country.

In a federal setup, the best way for emotional integration and national unity is not over-centralisation of power but its decentralisation, leading to restoration of power in the hands of the federating units, which have acceded to be a part of the federation of their own volition. But India is gradually tending to be a unitary rather than a federal state and I do not consider this trend as a good omen for the integrity of the nation.

Amid a communication and security lockdown, Panchayat polls are being held despite a boycott announced by the NC, the PDP and the Congress. Did you ever imagine this kind of situation in Kashmir?

I spoke with my parents the other day. In effect, dissenting voices, even those of legislators and parliamentarians of opposition parties, have been stifled. In doing so, the federal government has ignored the statute of limitations and constitutional checks and balances that should have prevented over-centralisation of power in J&K.

With the suspension of the Legislative Assembly of J&K and now detention of legislators, the space for young people in Kashmir to reflect on strategies, dialogue, and accommodation, which would bring every stakeholder to the table, has been seriously conscripted.

I had never imagined this sort of a situation in Kashmir. As I’ve said on other forums, the Constitution of India seeks to guarantee respect for rule of law, independence of the judiciary and integrity of the electoral process. But time and again, provisions of the Constitution of India have been breached in Kashmir, and the ideals that it enshrines have been forgotten.

The heads of governments cannot avoid their ethical and moral responsibilities toward the people of states in a federal country. The lives of those people cannot be torn asunder by paramilitary forces. After all, secularism means that all people have equal rights irrespective of their faith and religious leanings, and that everybody should respect the other’s feelings.

Most mainstream political leaders of J&K have been rendered irrelevant and vulnerable. What will be the ramifications?

The revocation of our special status, without consultation with the State Legislative Assembly, makes it clear that parliamentary democracy in India has been unable to protect a genuine democratic set-up in Kashmir.

The conscious policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cohorts to revoke autonomy and downgrade the state and democratic institutions in J&K has further alienated the people of the former State. The exposure of some democratic institutions as a brutal facade has instigated disgruntlement and antipathy toward democratic procedures and institutions in the State.

The Narendra Modi government has, as you said, rendered mainstream politicians irrelevant and been sending additional troops to the Kashmir Valley. There is a heavy deployment of paramilitary troops in the Valley and an information blackout that keeps military operations under wraps. It is an egregious mistake and one that has severe ramifications to allow the military of a nation-state to bludgeon its democratic processes. And I cannot emphasise this point enough.

The Modi government, by insisting on the rigidity of its stance which doesn’t allow political accommodation, encourages malignant uncertainty, which helps in the institutionalisation of corruption. How will the institutional and political paralysis in Kashmir do any good?

How do you look at Modi government’s claims that Article 370 was a major hurdle in the economic development of J&K? When compared with several other Indian states, J&K has the best human development indicators.

There was a reason that autonomy was guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. On July 13, 1950, the new government of J&K made a landmark decision.

Between 1950 and 1952, 700,000 landless peasants, mostly Muslims in the Valley but including 250,000 lower-caste Hindus in the Jammu region, became peasant-proprietors as over a million acres were directly transferred to them, while another sizeable chunk of land passed to government-run collective farms.

By the early 1960s, 2.8 million acres of farmland and fruit orchards were under cultivation, worked by 2.8 million smallholding peasant-proprietor households.

This metamorphosis of the agrarian economy had dramatic political consequences. This revolutionary measure, which greatly improved the human development index in the state, would not have been possible without Article 370.

The political logic of autonomy and Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was necessitated by the need to bring about socio-economic transformations.

In terms of land rights, mass education, percentage of people below the poverty line, female literacy rate, percentage of immunised children in the state, we were in a much better position than most Indian states, including Gujarat (on August 5, 2019).

The central government is being accused of treating J&K like a real-estate project. Even the historic progressive steps taken by first Prime Minister of J&K, Sheikh Abdullah, like sweeping land reforms have been given a communal colour just like the notion of Kashmiriyat. What are your thoughts?

Many policy makers in the Indian subcontinent, political scientists, and economists have acknowledged the effectiveness and rigour of land reforms in J&K which benefited underprivileged farmers in all three parts of the State—the Hindus of Jammu, Muslims of Kashmir, and Buddhist and Shia Muslims of Ladakh.

In August 1952, the government of Kashmir reiterated the commitment to the principles of secularism and democracy.

We maintained that the special position accorded to J&K could alone be the source of a closer association between the state and mainland India. The Constituent Assembly of India took note of the special circumstances in the state and made provisions accordingly. First, the autonomous status for Kashmir as envisaged by the Constitution of India was not a favour to us but an acknowledgement of the special circumstances that constitute a part of our past and future.

Secondly, autonomy was not meant for Kashmiri Muslims alone but for the Hindus of Jammu, the Buddhists of Ladakh, and the Sikhs and Christians of the state as well.

Many Indian social media users are celebrating the move with hashtags such as #ModiIntegratesKashmir and #OneIndia. BJP leaders have made shocking remarks that party workers were excited over the scrapping of Article 370 as it would now enable them to buy land and marry “fair girls” in Kashmir. Your reaction.

The attempts of BJP members to objectify Kashmiri women are reprehensible and belie their narrative about women’s emancipation. Given the high rate of sexual and physical violence against women in the state of Haryana, legitimised by their quasi-judicial bodies (Khap Panchayats), the sordid and vile comments of the Chief Minister of Haryana and other members of the BJP about Kashmiri women didn’t surprise me at all.

Vis-à-vis Kashmir, Hindutva ideology justifies repression of dispossessed classes and other sections of the Kashmiri populace, subjugation of Kashmiri women, and humiliation of the people with the language of affirmative action and good governance. The dominance of the fundamentalist order is valorised by the political party that enjoys a brute majority in the Indian Parliament.

Several petitions challenging Modi government’s Kashmir move have been filed in the Supreme Court. Do you expect the judiciary to step in?

I was encouraged by the petition filed by a diverse group of retired bureaucrats, officers from Armed Forces and others in the Supreme Court of India challenging the constitutional validity of the August 5 presidential order revoking the special status granted to J&K by a constitutional arrangement.

The petition underscored, “The action of the Union of India, without ascertaining the will of the people either through its elected government or legislature or through public means such as referenda, has undermined the basic principle of democracy.” That is the argument that those of us who subscribe to the ideals of democracy and decentralisation would make.

Unfortunately, India is now in the hands of RSS ideologues who have no clue what independence of the judiciary, integrity of the electoral process and sovereignty of the Constitution mean. This causes one to become sceptical about the integrity of judicial processes.

In an article earlier this year, you had said the revival of “Kashmiriyat” is likely to remain in a nebulous state so long as the destiny of mainstream Kashmiri politicians and separatist politicians is written by the calligraphers in New Delhi and Islamabad. Could you please explain it a bit in the current context?

One of the biggest problems that exists within Kashmir as well as Pakistan-administered Kashmir is that, in order to gain legitimacy, any political actor must enjoy the support and blessings of the establishment. So, a political actor, particularly a mainstream one, in order to be successful in J&K, requires the blessings as well as patronage of the Government of India.

Separatist politicians in J&K would require the patronage of the Government of Pakistan and the military of Pakistan. No political actor is eligible to run for office unless he or she enjoys the patronage of the Pakistani military and the deep state or high-level elements within the intelligence services.

So, the depoliticisation of the indigenous political space and criminalisation of dissident politics on both sides of the border is particularly troubling and has led to the brutalisation of Kashmiri society. It, clearly, has and will continue to have long-term damaging effects.

When excesses, whether they are military, religious or political, are not curbed, they have terrible long-term damaging effects.

In an interview, your mother told The Telegraph she has lost faith in Indian democracy. She advocated Kashmir’s independence from India, saying that the pro-India constituency is likely to shrink in Kashmir. What’s your take?

I am proud of my mother for holding her own and voicing her opinion courageously.

I believe that the key to the solution of problems that confront India and Pakistan is diplomatic relations and rapprochement between the two countries.

There is no doubt that the progress and future development of both these countries rests largely on their ability to proceed hand in hand with each other and cooperate in joint ventures, avoiding all wasteful expenditure, including loss of innocent lives, incurred by them on their mutual confrontation, as that would spell doom.

Identifying areas of common outlook and interest is a process of growth.

I firmly believe that in order to address wider political, socioeconomic and democratic issues in the subcontinent requires rethinking decision-making between State and non-State actors as well as between State and society.

Perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new regional order which would be capable of producing cross-economic, political and cultural interests among the people of the region.

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Published: 17 Oct 2019, 8:00 PM