In J&K, the unfinished democratic agenda
Over 20 foreign diplomats are in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), meeting political and civil society stakeholders and assessing the ground situation in the Union Territory (UT). The Centre has organised the visit — this is the third such batch of diplomats — to showcase its claims of normalcy and progress in J&K, 18 months after the decision to effectively abrogate Article 370, bifurcate the erstwhile state, and turn it into a UT. In the aftermath of the August 2019 move, there was widespread international concern over the detention of leaders, a crackdown on connectivity and rights, and the implications for regional geopolitics and security. The government has, since then, substantially restored connectivity, released key regional leaders, including former chief ministers, and held local body elections, which saw the participation of mainstream Kashmiri forces. With this, the government believes that its move to overhaul the constitutional status of J&K is slowly paying dividends.
The Centre’s willingness to both open up democratic space in J&K and engage with foreign interlocutors on the issue is positive — though it would have been more credible if the diplomats were allowed to meet diverse stakeholders, including those who operate within the Indian Constitution, but are sharply critical of the Centre’s policies. More importantly, the task of restoring democracy in J&K remains unfinished.
First, the government must prioritise the protection of civil liberties — do remember that juxtaposing liberty against security only breeds alienation, and while there must be no let-up in countering terrorism, ensuring citizens in J&K enjoy the same rights as citizens elsewhere in India, at all times, is important. Second, it must recognise that the situation remains politically fragile. The mood in the Valley, as reflected in the local elections and the support garnered by the Gupkar alliance, remains one of distrust of the Centre and its moves. One way to address this is by beginning the process of restoring statehood — home minister Amit Shah said this would be done at an “appropriate time”; that time should come sooner rather than later. This then will enable the third step — free and fair elections to the assembly elections, with widespread participation and legitimacy. For the sake of Indian democracy, pluralism, and its own image globally, the Centre must focus on the twin tasks of both managing peace and cementing democracy.