Save secularism from defeated history
By KPS Gill
The Report of a very controversial Regional Autonomy Council for Jammu & Kashmir has been forwarded by the State Government to Delhi, and is currently pending the Centre s approval. This Report, and the entire sequence of events that went into its drafting, are a piece of unmitigated mischief, the very distillation of the destructive communal politics that have wreaked such havoc in J&K, and in so much of the country. That the report has already reached the Centre without significant public debate, and with the approval of the State Government, is evidence of the sheer depth to which communal thinking and cynical opportunism have infected the major political formations in J&K, and the degree of complicity that exists between communal, anti-national and purely destructive forces, on the one hand, and the structures and institutions of governance in that State, on the other.
Before going any further, look at the Regional Autonomy Council and its antics. The RAC was set up shortly after Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah who is also its chairman took charge of the State in 1996. Its professed objectives were laudable. It sought to create a structure for greater regional autonomy within the State and to ensure that the interests of the minorities were safeguarded within this structure. Balraj Puri was appointed its working chairman, giving the entire exercise a secular mask. Its other members were the State s Finance Minister, Mohammad Shafi Uri, MLAs Syed Mushtaq Bukhari and Mubarak Gul, and Ladakh representative Pinto Narbu. From its very inception, significant pressure was exerted on Puri and the Council to recommend the constitution of new districts and provinces, largely along communal lines. Mr Puri did not succumb to this pressure, arguing that the RAC s terms of reference did not extend to such administrative reorganisation, and required measures only for the promotion of better involvement and participation of people in different regions for balanced political economic, educational, social and cultural development. Late in 1998, the RAC circulated its proposals for regional autonomy, consisting primarily of recommendations for the strengthening of existing local institutions of governance at Panchayat, block, district and regional levels. These evidently failed to serve the narrow political ends of the Council s sponsors. The National Conference members of the Council abruptly distanced themselves from the draft. Then, in January, the Council was told that its term had expired. However, in March that year, the RAC s term was extended, and all its members reinstated, with the notable exception of its politically inconvenient working chairman, Mr Puri. A new report was drafted within three months. But it carried the signatures only of the three Muslim members. Mr Narbu did not sign, nor did the chairman of the Council, Mr Farooq Abdullah. Yet, the Report was tabled in the J&K Assembly, and has now travelled to the Centre.
The Final RAC Report recommends the creation of eight new provinces in J&K. The boundaries of all these proposed provinces follow no historical, geographical, administrative or economic imperatives, and are created out of the crude application of communal criteria. Ladakh is to be divided into two provinces, Buddhist majority Leh, and Muslim majority Kargil. In Jammu, Doda and the Muslim-dominated tehsil of Mahore would be constituted into a new Chenab Valley Province, while Hindu majority Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur districts would unite under the Jammu province. Poonch and Rajouri districts would constitute the Pir Panjal province. Three new provinces are also proposed within the Kashmir Valley, but no clear logic defines the determination of their boundaries. Moreover, the Report makes no effort to explain how the manifestly communal reorganisation of the Jammu and Ladakh region would assist in the tasks of governance, development or improved autonomy of the reorganised provinces.
Any endorsement of the RAC Report would be an endorsement of the thesis that different communal groups cannot co-exist within a single administrative unit, and consequently, an endorsement of the pernicious and, given the current conditions of Pakistan, manifestly ridiculous two-nation theory. This Report is only the latest among a series of deliberate and sustained attempts to communalise the situation in J&K. It is critical that we understand that the fundamentalist and communal character of the extremist movement in this State took seed only in a soil made fertile over decades of the divisive and communal practices and politics of supposedly secular formations. It is this politics and these practices that constitute a far greater danger to the unity and integrity of the country than do the activities of terrorists and mercenaries. This politics does its damage insidiously, gradually, in an atmosphere and context of compliance and collusion, not only among communal forces, but among all secular formations as well. The result is that it meets with no effective opposition till the greatest harm has already been realised.
The fact that this issue is being raised in the context of J&K does not, however, imply that this pattern of politics only operates in this State, or that Muslim communalism alone is at fault. In this particular case and it may not be politically correct to say this it certainly is. But the same patterns are visible in other parts of the country today, with Hindu, Sikh and other communal and sectarian formations at work. Worse still, there is a conspiracy of silence in the supposedly secular parties and institutions that implicitly encourages these trends. The desire to pander to communal and sectarian vote banks is often the cause of this silence. However, sheer cowardice and an unthinking surrender to the intellectual fashions of the day provide equally powerful, if dubious, motives.
We must constantly guard against the clandestine introduction of a communal approach to various contemporary political issues, and prevent the deliberate and deceitful distortion of apparently laudable concepts for viciously communal ends. This will often imply the somewhat crude and intellectually unfashionable imperative of calling a spade a spade. A great deal of hypocrisy has attended our approach to religious, communal and other sectarian issues since Independence, and many of our present problems are a consequence of this dishonesty, and our fear of injuring the sentiments of extraordinarily sensitive and fanatical sub-groups within various communities. This has had a drastic and dampening effect on the content and character of political debate in India. Worse still, it has suppressed and silenced the larger, and far more rational, majorities within these communities. To a very large extent, and certainly for the first four and a half decades since Independence, this suppression of debate was encouraged and institutionalised by the so-called secular parties on the grounds that the minorities and their opinions needed protection. As a result, however, it is the minorities themselves who have suffered the most. To take the most obvious example, the Muslim stereotype in India today is defined almost exclusively in terms of the Mullah and the Mujahiddeen the only two groups within this community who have unfettered rights of expression . The contributions of millions of other peace loving and patriotic Muslims are entirely ignored. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims serve in our police, para-military and armed forces, fighting the scourge of supposedly Islamic terrorism shoulder to shoulder with all other communities. Millions of others contribute to the nation?s development in all walks of life. Yet they have no voice, little recognition, and even less power to oppose the ideological tyranny of the more extreme members of their community, essentially because they are not provided a safe context and the requisite protection of a truly secular state within which they can air their views.
It is time that the constitutional imperatives of secularism were translated into the practices of governance in the States and the Union of India. If this does not happen, and soon, the very dogmas, the ideas and the values against which constitutional governance was intended to protect the nation, will sweep the Constitution and all its institutions into the realm of the forgotten and defeated ideas of history.