August 9, 1953, and November 21, 2018, will go down in the history of Jammu and Kashmir as the blackest days of Indian democracy.
On the morning of August 9, 1953, the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, was arrested by his own Superintendent of Police on the orders of New Delhi executed by the Sadr-e-Riyasat (President), Karan Singh.
The government of Sheikh Abdullah, who had opted for the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to a Hindu-majority India rather than a Muslim Pakistan, was dismissed unceremoniously. In the State, this was seen as a blow to the democratic credentials of the country that Sheikh Abdullah had stood for.
Sixty-five years later, on the evening of November 21, 2018, history repeated itself when Governor Satya Pal Malik dissolved the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly as soon as the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti staked her claim to form the government with the support of her party’s arch-rival, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (N.C.), and the Congress.
Ironically, Mehbooba Mufti, N.C. president Omar Abdullah and State Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir had been asking for the dissolution of Assembly for the past five months, ever since the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) pulled out of its alliance with the PDP in June.
However, Malik, who assumed office as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir in August, was adamant about not dissolving the 87-member Assembly on the pretext that with the Assembly in suspended animation MLAs would be able to carry out day-to-day development activities in their respective constituencies.
What then forced a decision to dissolve the Assembly abruptly, especially just when the three major political parties of the State—the PDP (with 28 MLAs), the N.C. (15 MLAs) and the Congress (12 MLAs)—had come together to stitch an alliance?
This clearly points to the fact that Governor Malik, after taking over from Governor NarinderNath Vohra, had, by not dissolving the Assembly until November 21, given the BJP and its alliance partner, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference (P.C.), a chance to cobble up the numbers. While the two parties failed to get the numbers to form the government in the State, within minutes of Mehbooba Mufti staking her claim, P.C. chairman SajadGani Lone, who has become the mascot of the BJP in the State, also staked his claim to form the government, stating that he too had the numbers.
Soon after Malik took over the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir, Ravinder Raina, the BJP’s State unit chief, said the new Governor was “their man” and that the BJP “did not want Vohra to continue”.
By dissolving the Assembly when there was a threat to the BJP and when its ally, the P.C., was being sidelined in the State, Governor Malik proved the State BJP chief’s assertions right.
Sheikh ShowkatHussain, the Dean of the School of Legal Studies, Central University of Kashmir, and a constitutional expert, sees the development as negative as well as positive.
“It’s negative in the sense that constitutional propriety has not been followed. Whether the claimant has a majority or not has to be decided not by the subjective satisfaction of the Governor but on the basis of the numbers demonstrated on the floor of the Assembly. The Governor has failed, rather bulldozed, democracy on that count,” he said.
However, Hussain said the development was positive for the State in the sense that the Government of India was not allowed by the N.C. and the PDP to do what it had been doing in the past—installing people bereft of credibility in the government through manipulations and horse-trading.
Hussain was referring to the process initiated in 1953 by the arrest and imprisoning of Sheikh Abdullah and the installation of BakshiGhulam Muhammad as the Prime Minister of the State.
“People in Kashmir feel the powers that be wanted to repeat the same thing, but the move was pre-empted by the timely step of the N.C., the PDP and the Congress,” he said. “The worst aspect of this development has been that the democratic system which always lacked credibility in Kashmir has lost that too in this process, thus vindicating the claim of the Hurriyat leadership that democracy over here is simply a means of camouflaging predetermined results.”
Referring to the Supreme Court judgment in S.R. Bommaivs Union of India, which attempted to curb the blatant misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution allowing President’s Rule to be imposed in States, Hussain said the tragedy of the present scenario was that while in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition the BJP was against the dissolution of State Assemblies, today the party favoured it.
Sequence of events
More than the dissolution of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, what brought embarrassment to the State government and the Government of India was the manner in which the events unfolded.
Mehbooba Mufti said that when she tried to send a fax to the Governor’s house for staking claim to form the government, no one received the fax and when she tried to call the Governor, no one answered her calls. Following that, she said, she put her letter in the public domain on the micro-blogging website Twitter.
Minutes later, the BJP-backed P.C. chairman, Lone, also claimed to have failed in sending a fax staking his claim to form the government. He claimed to have sent the letter to the WhatsApp number of one JagjeevanLal, who he said was one of the Governor’s personal assistants. It turned out that Lal was not even a member of the staff of the Governor’s house, let alone being a personal assistant.
A few minutes later, the Governor used the same fax machine to send his communication about dissolving the Assembly, making the institution of the Governor’s office and the democratic institutions in the country the butt of ridicule.
All the major political parties, barring the BJP and the P.C., termed the entire incident a “fiasco” and “murder of democracy”.
The Government of India’s recent handling of the State affairs has antagonised the mainstream political players in Jammu and Kashmir. The possible “grand alliance” of the PDP, the N.C. and the Congress was an expression of that newly antagonistic attitude of these major political parties of the State towards New Delhi. Furthermore, these political parties have, to some extent, also been able to revive their image, which had taken a severe beating—the N.C.’s after the 2010 mass protests in which over 120 civilians were killed and hundreds injured, and the PDP’s after the 2016 protests in which 100 civilians were killed and over 15,000 injured with bullets and pellets.
The coming together of the three parties with diametrically opposed viewpoints, and the subsequent dissolution of the Assembly, enabled them to keep their flocks intact.
The development was particularly a face-saver and a shot in the arm for the PDP, a party that was in disarray and was set to disintegrate as most of its legislators were not party loyalists but came from different party backgrounds, many from Lone’s P.C. For them, joining the P.C. could have been a homecoming.
However, the one leader from the mainstream camp who gained the most from this development was Omar Abdullah and his N.C. He was not only able to keep his flock together but could also take the moral high ground by offering outside support to the government of Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP.
As a means to keep the right-wing BJP out, Omar Abdullah had offered outside support to the PDP in 2015 after the Assembly elections threw up a fractured mandate, with the PDP winning the highest number of 28 seats and the BJP being a close second, winning 25 seats.
Mehbooba Mufti’s father, the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, ignored Omar Abdullah’s offer and went ahead with the BJP to form the government, which came to be referred to as a “North Pole-South Pole” alliance, considering the vastly different profiles of the two parties.
That the Muftis spurned Omar Abdullah’s offer then and took it now has made the PDP appear not only opportunistic but also power-hungry, while Omar Abdullah has been able to kill two birds with one stone.
On the other hand, the Governor’s office, by not dissolving the Assembly for months after June 19 when the BJP pulled out of the PDP-led government, caused uneasiness among the PDP, the N.C. and the Congress. These parties felt that it would result in “horse-trading” by the BJP and the P.C., a charge denied by both the parties.
Lone, who was tipped to be the BJP-backed Chief Minister if the rebel legislators of the PDP had joined hands with him, said he had not indulged in horse-trading and could not stop anyone from joining him. He said that rebel PDP leaders such as the influential Shia cleric Moulvi Imran Raza Ansari joined him because the leadership of the political parties had failed to inspire their cadres.
However, this development caused the biggest dent not on the image of the P.C., the BJP Governor Satya Pal Malik or the institution of the Governor’s office, but on the democratic institutions of the country. It once again showed how New Delhi has been dealing with the State of Jammu and Kashmir with strong-arm tactics.
On November 2, 1947, after the partition of the country, Sheikh Abdullah, along with the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, addressed a massive gathering at LalChowk, the heart of the State’s summer capital, Srinagar. He recited the Persian couplet “Man too shudam, too man shudi; ta kas ne goyadba'adazin, man digaram too digari” (We have become one today so that nobody from now on thinks we are different). Nehru in return promised Kashmiris plebiscite, saying: “The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people. We have given that pledge and Maharaja [Hari Singh] has supported it. It is not only a pledge to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not, and cannot, back out of it.”
A year later, in the same LalChowk, Nehru unfurled the Indian national flag. Six years later, in 1953, the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was unceremoniously removed and a new Prime Minister installed.
On August 9, 1953, one of the black chapters of Indian democracy was written in the State when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested and sent to 22 years of incarceration.
On November 21, 2018, another black chapter of Indian democracy was written with Governor Malik’s action.
Sixty-five years is a long time, but surely not long enough for New Delhi to learn how to handle Jammu and Kashmir better.