A New Governor and New Possibilities for J&K

This thread continued with Indians after the colonial departure from South Asia.
A New Governor and New Possibilities for J&K
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The J&K State has had governors of all hues in its disputed life. One of its best was B.K. Nehru, whom my father acquainted me with when he took me to Sapru House in Delhi in the late sixties. The governor-to-be spoke on a subject now forgotten but immediately impressed me. His stature rose when he opted to resign rather than be used by Indira Gandhi to play politics in Kashmir. One of the least palatable governors was Jagmohan, a servile bully. Servile to those he owed his position to, a bully to those whose interests he was meant to serve. The contributions of the state's last governor, N.N. Vohra, is too close in time to assess fully. But from known facts, he was a cautious governor: ideologically neutral, administratively adroit and methodical in decision-making. Also, Mr. Nehru was a constitutional head with a backbone. Mr. Jagmohan was a governor with spine who did not care for the constitution or people. Mr. Vohra was a student of the constitution skilled at balancing multiple interests. 

The present governor, Satya Pal Malik, a new inductee into the seventy-year governance deficit that is the J&K State, is a puzzling out-of-box incumbent. Disturbingly, he comes across as a politician who is unfamiliar with the Constitution of the Republic of India, even as it is being challenged by the peoples of the State of J&K. It is his own words and actions that prosecute him. The portends for his tenure, therefore, are not good. 

Take for example the dissolution of the state assembly on November 21, 2018. Governors do have the constitutional authority to dissolve assemblies. But, as none other than Shyam Saran, the respected former foreign secretary of India has pointed out, "what is troubling is the justification [Mr. Malik] has provided for his action". (The Tribune, November 24, 2018) In a proclamation from Raj Bhavan, Mr. Malik defended the dissolution of the assembly based on his political opinion that a coalition would not be "stable" because it did not "comprise of like-minded parties". Surely someone amongst his retired and non-retired civil service advisors could have counseled that his opinion on what constitutes "stability" and "likeminded-ness" does not matter an iota when up against the Delhi whetted constitution? 

In this context, the non-role of the governor's advisors is also puzzling. True, the advice may not have been heeded; but advisors can still go on record (which is to say on paper) and be clear in conscience (which is to say with regard for truth) that they did recommend against such action. Have we no such advisors?

Speaking of advisors brings us to another example of self-indictment. Muzamil Jalil has reported (Indian Express, December 10, 2018) that one advisor took it upon himself to counsel the governor that having consolidated power in his own hands, he should use the hiatus between this grab-and-release of power to militarize and personalize the office of the governor for his own person and that of his family. Ironically, the move is described as a "well thought-out decision" to skirt the J&K Special Security Group Act, 2000, which does not provide for such personalized security. The proposal argues that the constitutional office of the governor needs autonomous military protection that is controlled by the office of the governor. The BJP government in Delhi may not be concerned, but the scheme is regarded with confident satisfaction among Kashmiris. The extraordinary assertion of power by a supposed figure-head provides one more optic to authenticate the contention that Kashmir is occupied territory.

Another broad strand of thought in Mr. Malik has been the publicly announced confident and sweeping generalization of the J&K State bureaucracy as corrupt, whose houses are stuffed with cash and carpets. The Governor's fellow politician, former union minister Saifuddin Soz, has acknowledged, correctly, that the state is no stranger to corruption. Nor is Kashmir a newcomer to such caricaturing of its peoples. Nineteenth and early twentieth century travelogues by Europeans – rankly ignorant of the valley's history, culture and politics – are replete with bigoted, even racist portrayals. This thread continued with Indians after the colonial departure from South Asia. The latest vintage of this line of thinking is the mimicking of such flotsam by a recent Vice Chancellor of the University of Kashmir in a book published after his tenure. In a generalized denunciation, he decries the work ethic of Kashmiri professors. 

But similar declarations by the governor, a former politician who has been nominated to a sinecure position in a conflicted state, is nothing short of confident arrogance. In this context, Mr. Soz's characterization (Free Press Kashmir, December 13, 2018) of the accusation as merely "sad" falls far short of the sharp censure it deserves from all Kashmiris. Speaking of which, one wonders how the Kashmiri bureaucrats serving in Raj Bhawan, or the current administration in general for that matter, can tolerate such language.

However, the generic objection to Governor Malik's actions is that he ignores the law, an observation made by none other than A.G. Noorani (The Dawn, December 15, 2018) who is arguably the leading living legal authority on the relationship of the J&K State to India. Governor's Rule, he writes, is a "caretaker regime". That is, the custodian of an administration in the hiatus between elected governments. As such, it is "forbidden" by the established rules of the Election Commission to undertake executive action which is the right of an elected body. Despite this, the Governor has sought to take several such actions already mentioned, including an attempt to redefine the character of the J&K Bank, the one institution that has largely survived and, indeed, been a mainstay in this drifting ship of state. To be sure, he beat a hasty retreat when challenged by the people and some experts. But such strange shifts are perplexing in an already perplexed state. 

That gives way to a thought: perhaps that is precisely why the BJP, the party of which the present governor is a member, chose Mr. Malik to be governor. To ensure that President's Rule can be imposed so that the Assembly elections can be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections in the next six months. This, presumably to give the BJP's state unit an advantage. As this column noted soon after Mr. Malik was appointed the Governor of the J&K State, he has been a pliant governor in Bihar and would prove to be so here. There is little doubt about that now.

But politics is an unpredictable game. The routing of the BJP by the Congress in Chattisgarh and Rajasthan, its narrow loss to the same party in Madhya Pradesh (where the Chief Minster was a "moderate" rightist) and its defeat in two other states to regional parties must worry India's Home Minister, sober its Prime Minister and alarm the Party president. What if this phase of the BJP's turn to be in power, won by deploying a strategy of polarization and the tactics of hate, has exhausted itself?

This bleak scenario could be an opportunity for the politician turned governor. Will it serve to convince his patron in the party and its ideological masters, the RSS, that President's rule in J&K must be extended beyond the Lok Sabha elections for a full year, when the State Assembly elections will be due? The trajectory of the governor's actions so far suggests that possibility.

If that is the path intended, it will provide ample time for more upheavals in the J&K state, greater complications for the Indian State and more complexity in the international dispute over the former princely State of J&K, in its entirety.

 (A version of this column was published on scroll.in)

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