Damaras of Democracy

A recent reference to my column, “Junior MLA or Senior Panch”, (Indian Express, 24.12.2020) along with a personal jibe, reminded me of an anecdote about Joan Robinson, an economist of outstanding calibre. In the 1930’s after Keynesian school, to which she belonged, became the most influential economic doctrine, Robinson found out that an unknown polish economist, Michael Kalecki, had  few years earlier published a better version of their theory. After meeting him in Poland she told her colleagues, “He is a strange man. The moment you agree with him, he starts disagreeing with you!”

Be that as it may, Ram Madhav, a knowledgeable and influential voice on Kashmir within the BJP-RSS, has referred to my view that DDCs effectively are “District Assemblies”, as an “exaggeration” (An election, a vindication, Indian Express, 28.12.2020). At least he doesn’t think it is erroneous.  May be he does see a grain of truth in it somewhere.

More important than this, though, is his attempt to explain the new structure as being similar to the one envisaged in Naya Kashmir, 1944. There was a time when the Panchayati Raj system of J&K, which predates partition, independence,  accession and much else, was seen a model by experts. The first initiative on strengthening the grass root institutions had been taken in 1935 with the promulgation of the J&K Village Panchayat Regulation Act. This was amended in 1941, which later became the basis for the Act V of Samvat 2008 (corresponding to 1951) of the Sheikh Abdullah’s government. If indeed it was so, what was the need to not only amend the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 in 2014 incorporating the provisions of 73rd amendment and make it virtually synonymous with the national legislation? And then to demolish the existing structure and instead of homogenising it with other states, replace it with another unique system. Wasn’t the reason for doing away with the special status to do away with the “unique position” of J&K? Or was the nose cut just to spite the face?

If anything, the new system is reminiscent of medieval Kashmir and not modern India. Around the 11th century, the ruler of the state was for ever kept busy competing and fighting against the territorial chieftains, known as Damaras. The newly elected representative of the recently defined territorial constituency are the modern day Damaras. (See tailpiece below).

While it important who sits in the DDC, it is equally important how a member is made to sit in the DDC. Is a member elected or nominated? If elected, who elects them and how? It is here that the rub lies. The institutional structure of the three tier Panchayati Raj system provides that the members to the DDC are elected collectively by the concerned Sarpanchs.  This ensure a link between the DDC and the Panchayats. Now, with the DDC members being elected through adult suffrage this link has been broken in J&K. This is not a small change. It also has wide ranging implications on the notion of representation and authority.

The observation that J&K DDC’s “filled with unelected leaders, or ex officio members like the MLAs and MPs. Bureaucrats have dominated the executive authority in these bodies” is factually correct. But to be fair, that was a consequence of the Panchayati elections not being held. It has nothing to do with the system. Let us also not forget that the J&K has had long spells of “no elections”, which were proceeded by “rigged elections” and succeeded by “boycotted elections”. It is then the Panchayati Raj institutional system fell into disuse.  It is also true that there were times when the regional parties dragged their feet on it.

As I explained in the earlier column, “These DDCs have replaced the earlier District Development & Planning Boards (DDB) with one all important difference: the members of the DDC are elected through a direct elections.  Whereas, the DDB members, all across the country, are elected by a council of Sarpanchs representing Panchayats, and also include the local MP and MLAs as ex-officio nominated members.  Not so in Kashmir, not any more”.

It is on this basis it was argued that the existing architecture of the legislative democracy in Kashmir has been redesigned. In the Indian parliamentary democracy, citizens directly elect through adult suffrage representatives only to three institutions which are provided for in the Constitution – Parliament, State assemblies and Panchayats – and have the powers to make laws. Now, in a unique exception, an elected governance layer with delegated powers is being elected directly in Kashmir. It is not even a statutory body but the creation of an executive fiat. To be sure, this kind of a model doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country.

From BJP’s national perspective, the DDC elections were an end in itself. In the bargain, wittingly or unwittingly, BJP has ensured that in this election, boycott gets replaced by participation even as an affirmative articulation of dissent. There were no boycott calls that were heard.  For the PAGD, an alliance of adversaries, these elections were only the means to an end. As it stands, the end is not only some distance away, it is also rather amorphous and elusive right now.

Apart from these serious distortions in the legislative framework, it will also end up creating an administrative structure which will be a nightmare to deal with; both for people as also the politicians. Consider this. As of now the Union Territory of  J&K, has two administrative provinces, Jammu and Kashmir, which barring a common legislative assembly have separate administrative structures. Within each of these there are sub-regions, represented by five parliamentary constituencies, three in Kashmir and two in Jammu. In addition to these, there will now be 90 assembly constituencies. And right below these, another layer of 280 elected representatives of “territorial constituencies” has been added at the district level. Below these is the existing third tier of governance with 2182 panchayats in Kashmir alone.

Being effectively made to sit alongside the developmental and revenue administrative structure, the DDCs will sit atop the administrative structure of district level and below which includes the sub-division, tehsil, CD block, Nayabat, and Patwar Halqa and so on. And if this is not a maze enough, there is more to come. Across the state, there are, what for the want of a better word are called, service zones; there is an education zone, and a medical zones etc. Development, to be sure, will fall between two stools; the democratic decentralization apparatus and the developmental administration machinery.

However, if the new system is able to deliver development, as is being promised, then it might just as well be replicated in the rest of the country. Like the “Pope’s Revenge” in Berlin — when the sun shines on the Fernsehturm TV stainless steel dome, erected on the site where a church stood, an image of a Christian cross appears, which Berliners nicknamed “Rache des Papstes” — the “Kashmir model” would remerge for debate and duplication across the country!

Tail piece:

The politics of medieval Kashmir was dominated by semi-autonomous, intractable territorial chieftains known as the Damaras. They forever kept the successive Kings of Kashmir on tenterhooks with revolt and rebellion which considerably weakened the sovereign; the monarch.  In the Rajatarangni, Kalhana writes that they are known to join conspirators often from outside or rebels from within.  The Damaras were at the peak of their power during the 11th century Kashmir under the Lohara dynasty. Indeed, Kalhana records that the clan of Damaras was so powerful that they controlled the royalty of ancient and medieval Kashmir. Some of the big Damaras like Kosthesavara even had private armies. In fact they were the King makers of ancient and medieval Kashmir. In Kashmir of 2020, the newly elected DDC members are the modern day Damaras and the “territorial constituencies” are new bastions.