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India’s Government Has Undermined the Very Essence of Federalism and Democracy

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About 15 minutes into our conversation in his pocket garden in a Srinagar suburb some years ago, my friend Altaf (name changed at his request) mentioned Sunil Gavaskar. Sunil Gavaskar and a comma, actually. We had been talking about Kashmir, and militancy, and the stern soldiers who are everywhere you look in this city, and Altaf’s colleague who was shot in the abdomen by some strangers who knocked at his front door, and elections and voting… and out of the blue, Altaf brought up Gavaskar, India’s cricket hero of the 1970s and ’80s.

And a comma.

Gavaskar wrote a book about the 1983–84 cricket season, Runs and Ruins. Understand that, with no disrespect meant to one of our greatest sportsmen, this is no literary masterpiece. It reads like the publisher told him, Keep a diary while you play, we’ll publish the thing when you’re done. In late 1983, the West Indies cricket team toured India. One match they played against India was in Srinagar. And Gavaskar’s account of that game in his book is titled “Rough House in Srinagar, India.”

“Why that comma?”Altaf asked, almost petulantly, almost accusingly. When he realized I was struggling to comprehend why a mere punctuation mark has so irritated him, he continued: “This is the kind of thing that hurts Kashmiris, you know. These subtle signs that we guys are not fully Indian and you don’t really care about us, you know.” (Altaf ended many of his sentences with “you know.”)

I felt the snappy rejoinders, many rejoinders, bubbling up; among them, “I thought many of you don’t think of yourselves as Indian anyway!”But something about Altaf’s earnestness and the look on his face made me stop and reflect. There’s plenty I had read about Kashmir, and plenty more I had seen and heard on this and a previous trip. Yet when it came to getting an idea of the climate here, the thinking here, maybe nothing hit the spot quite as tellingly as Altaf’s brooding over a comma.

Some of that’s been on my mind in the wake of the latest news about Kashmir: the Indian government’s abrogation of the state’s special status, as spelled out nearly 70 years ago in Article 370 of our Constitution. Because I remember Altaf’s despair, this decision is colored by a comma. For the message he drove home was about the people of Kashmir: all their fears and longings, and the question of how much the rest of us truly understand those things.

What’s in Article 370? Clauses that were negotiated as conditions for the entry of Kashmir—or, to give the state its full name, Jammu and Kashmir, which also included the vast territory of Ladakh—into the Indian Union. It allowed the state a separate constitution. It gave to the government of India power over the state only in matters of communication, defense, and foreign affairs. For any other central powers to apply in the state, the government of J&K would have to agree, and then the state’s constituent assembly would have to approve that agreement. The now-also-abrogated Article 35A spelled out more specific measures, defining what it called “permanent residents”of the state and giving them privileges over other Indians. Thus “outsiders” could not buy property in the state, nor take up jobs in the state government.

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Thanks !

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