If any confirmation was needed Narendra Modi is determined to cast himself as a carbon copy of Indira Gandhi- albeit one with a venomous, communal edge – you need not look further than his latest Kashmir gamble.
There is true ‘Indira-style’ audacity written all over his regime’s decision to scrap the
special status given to the Himalayan state under the Indian Constitution, boldly bifurcating it and downgrading it to a union territory for direct rule from Delhi. The move goes against long-standing Indian government approach to Kashmir, risks a geopolitical backlash and stands a good chance of being struck down by the courts.
Not that Modi, who has become synonymous with the BJP he leads just as Indira was with the Congress party, really cares. For, this is his own ‘Bangladesh moment’ – the equivalent of Mrs. Gandhi’s dismemberment of regional rival Pakistan in 1971, by enabling the liberation of its eastern, Bengali speaking territories.
And just as Indira intervened in Pakistan’s civil conflict, following a sweeping victory in the Indian elections at that time, Modi has also ‘made history’ within months of a massive mandate for his regime in the mid-2019 pools. The forcible ‘integration’ of Kashmir, flouting all democratic and even Constitutional norms, is likely to seal Modi’s reputation among ‘real estate’ Indian nationalists[i] as a ‘great leader’ – on par with the ‘Iron Lady’ of Indian politics.
As Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader turned bitter critic of Modi conceded to the Indian media, if an election is held tomorrow Modi will probably win more seats in parliament, than any other leader since Indian independence seven decades ago. It is no longer ‘Narendra’ but Nar’Indira’ Modi now.
However, while there are other similarities between Modi and Indira, including a common authoritarian streak (Watch out! The Emergency is coming soon!), there are crucial differences too in the convictions involved, context and the consequences of their actions. It is these differences that will determine whether Modi is really BJP’s answer to Indira Gandhi or is only a farcical repetition of the latter’s history.
Going back to the Bangladesh parallel, Indira Gandhi’s momentous decision to send troops to liberate East Pakistan was done – not only from an Indian military strategic point of view – but as a genuine move to end the then ongoing genocide of Bengali-speaking Muslims there, by the Punjabi-Muslim dominated Pakistani army. The Indian action was fully supported by the people of Bangladesh and it was a resounding success.
In sharp contrast, in the case of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-dominated state, it is the Indian government itself that has been the main oppressor for long, robbing the people of the state of their democratic rights and treating it like a colony of India. Despite the Constitutional guarantee of autonomy provided by Article 370, very little of it was implemented in practice by successive Indian regimes. It is safe to say, Kashmir remains Indian territory only because of the presence of over half a million of its armed troops there, making it one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world.
In his first term as Prime Minister, though the Modi-led BJP managed to form a government in Kashmir with the People’s Democratic Party, a regional outfit, the alliance collapsed and worsened the strife in Kashmir. Dozens have been killed, thousands injured- mostly civilians- in street battles between Kashmiri citizens and the Indian armed forces in the last few years.
On the geopolitical front also, the Bangladesh story is completely different from what Modi is attempting in Kashmir now. Half a century ago Indira’s decision to take on the Pakistani army head on was an act of some courage, as it was also done in defiance of threats from the superpower United States, then a close ally of the generals running Islamabad.
In the case of Kashmir though the Modi government has denied recent claims by US President Donald Trump that he was asked to ‘mediate’ in the conflict, there is evidence that its move on Kashmir has all the blessings of Washington. According to Indian media reports the US had been ‘consulted’ well in advance before announcing the abolition of Kashmir’s special status and its geographical dismembering.
Perhaps the biggest divergence between Indira Gandhi and Modi’s ‘Bangladesh moment’ is the impact of their actions on the Indian Republic itself. Back in 1971, Mrs Gandhi managed to unite the political and social spectrum with her action – billed rightly or wrongly as a noble mission undertaken by India – and also won global admiration to boot.
Modi’s move on Kashmir, despite initial euphoria, however is likely to divide the nation deeply. For all its audacity the ideologically driven decision shows a complete lack of sagacity about its long-term implications. In that sense it is quite like his surprise demonetization of high value Indian currency notes three years ago – hailed by his cheerleadersas a ‘masterstroke’ but which brought disastrous consequences for the Indian economy. Kashmir is going to be a repeat of India’s ‘notebandi’ experience, except the damage will be even higher- both politically and socially.
No, this is not going to be because of what the people of Kashmir feel, think or want. It is quite clear that, not just successive Indian governments, but much of the Indian public itself, has really cared very much about them at all. Internationally too, India’s open imitation of Israel’s ‘Gaza model’, will not raise too many eyebrows except of course in Pakistan and to some extent in China – but there is nothing much either can do immediately.
Yes, there will be turmoil and brutal suppression of protests but also carrots dangled before the Kashmiri public in the form of fresh, speculative investments from around India. And strange as it may sound, even a significant section of the population may actually welcome Modi’s ‘bold step’ – despite opposition from the current lot of Kashmiri politicians –who have neither the credibility nor the clout to prevent turning of minds and bodies that money makes possible.
The real impact of revoking Kashmir’s autonomy and the dubious way in which it has been done, is going to be on the rest of India, a federation of diverse cultures, religious, ethnic and linguistic groups held together – ultimately by nothing much more really than goodold-fashioned trust. Trust in the inviolability of the Indian Constitution, the fairness of various state institutions, in the honoring of past promises and the belief that,in a dispute,no partywill pull a fast one on the other.
The simple question for many around the country will be, if the Indian government can so cunningly and casually discard a historical agreement or turn a full-fledged state into a union territory without consulting anyone in Kashmir– can’t this also be done to Bengal, Kerala or Punjab tomorrow? In other words, the entire organization of India into states demarcated along linguistic lines – a cornerstone of the country’s federal structure- is today in question.
Nobody caught the real meaning of the Modi government’s Kashmir ploy better than Chidambaram, the former finance minister, a constitutional lawyer and a senior leader of the Congress Party.
“People of India, people of every State must wake up to the grave danger that was set as an example today by these completely unconstitutional and illegal resolutions. I want to warn every party, every State, every citizen of India that the idea of India as a union of States is in grave danger,” he told the press soon after the Indian parliament rammed through the measure changing Kashmir’s status drastically.
Chidambaram’s insight had nothing to do with being part of the Congress party or his legal background. It rather came from the fact he is from Tamil Nadu, where the idea of a ‘united’ India has been challenged, for decades, by the leaders and ideologues of the Dravidian movement as a power grab by ‘Aryan supremacists’[ii] of northern India.
The founder of the Dravidian movement, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, sounded the warning bell at the time of Indian independence itself about how the new nation of India was going to control and suppress all other cultures and nationalities on behalf of upper caste Hindus. If he had been around he would have seen the Kashmir development as an open land grab by politicians from India’s Hindi-speaking, cow-belt states.
“Who are India and Pakistan to talk about the Kashmir issue? The Kashmiris have all the rights to decide for themselves. The Kashmir issue must be left in the hands of Kashmiris alone”, thundered Periyar more than six decades ago.
Substitute ‘Kashmiri’ with Tamil, Malayali, Bengali, Oriya, Punjabi, Manipuri, Mizo or Naga – Periyar’s message is going to resonate more and more with the people of the Indian sub-continent in the days ahead.
Nar ‘Indira’ Modi and his sidekick Home Minister, Amit Shah, can jump around for the moment , claiming they ‘made history’ – but when history actually happens it is going to be nothing like they wanted or expected. Many more ‘Bangladeshs’ are waiting to happen.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at email@example.com
[i]Those, mostly from India’s notorious cow-belt states, who fervently hold that Kashmir is India’s property – the people and their wishes be damned.
[ii]Brown skinned Indians who think they are ‘superior’ because their ancestors were ‘Aryans’ – whatever that means.