The manner in which the status of Jammu and Kashmir has been transformed is revealing of the political style of the Narendra Modi government, which does not try to build consensus but acts unilaterally in the name of efficacy — a method that had already been used at the time of demonetisation. The present episode offers a good illustration of India’s journey towards an illiberal form of democracy as the government intends to amend the Constitution on the basis of a presidential order. But it has larger implications, as it may mark a turning point towards the making of an ethnic unitary state.
The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill 2019 is the first legislation substantially affecting the Constitution since the BJP’s rise to power in 2014. So far, its majoritarian ideology had found expression in non-official moves, including campaigns against cow slaughter, “love jihad”, conversion, etc. These campaigns, and the violence that accompanied them, including lynchings, had created a sentiment of vulnerability among minorities. The present move is qualitatively different because the state commits itself to the making of a majoritarian nation.
The Hindu nationalist movement never reconciled itself with this form of diversity. As early as 1950, the Praja Parishad, which represented the Dogra community (mostly made of Hindu landlords), and which was to represent the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in J&K after the party was formed in 1951, opposed Article 370. In 1952, it launched the agitation that the BJS president, S P Mookerjee, was to join in 1953 — during which he met a mysterious death. The RSS chief, M S Golwalkar, supported this Kashmir aandolan in the name of national integration.
His successor, Mohan Bhagwat, more than 60 years later, is thinking along the same lines. During his 2017 Vijaya Dashami speech, he said, referring to J&K: “Necessary constitutional amendments will have to be made and old provisions will have to be changed in that state. Only when the constitutional amendments are done can the residents of J&K be completely assimilated with the rest of Bharat and their equal cooperation and share will be possible in the national progress.” This view of the nation calls to mind Mookerjee’s trilogy during the Kashmir aandolan — “One country, one emblem and one Constitution” — which had clear affinities with Savarkar’s definition of Indian nationalism, “Hindustan, Hindi, Hindudom”. One of the few BJP leaders who thought otherwise was A B Vajpayee, who believed in another trilogy, “Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat, Insaniyat”.
For most Hindu nationalists, to give autonomy to Kashmiris prepared the ground for separatist demands, while Congress leaders, including Nehru and Patel, held that Article 370 would help contain separatism. For their liberal heirs, separatism developed because New Delhi betrayed its promises by not implementing Article 370 and by curtailing J&K’s autonomy after 1954. The Hindu nationalists’ views have been shared, gradually, by many sympathisers, including Jagmohan and Ajit Doval who once said about the Kashmiris: “Once you accepted… (that) they were different, you sowed the seeds of separatism”.
For Hindu nationalists, cultural difference should not find any public expression and result in any official recognition: The identity of the nation has to be uniform and those who are different need to be assimilated. The integration process they long for is similar to those that European nation-states have pursued and which has generally implied coercion and violence — including recurring pogroms and forms of genocidal oppression, like in Vendée, a Catholic region of France which resisted the post-revolutionary regime from the late 18th century onwards. So far, India had opted for another model which, at least on paper, and therefore in the text of the Constitution, acknowledged and even valorised diversity — a model the late social scientist Ravinder Kumar called a “civilisation state”.
The Sangh Parivar is more favourably inclined towards a unitary state, where differences will be erased. Federalism, which has been enshrined in the Indian Constitution for accommodating territorial diversity, is viewed with suspicion by Hindu nationalists who define Akhand Bharat as a “punya bhoomi”, a sacred land harking back to the Vedic era. They see federalism as potentially conducive to separatism. In the mid-1950s, the RSS opposed the redrawing of the administrative map of India according to linguistic criteria. On January 26, 1956, the Republic Day issue of Organiser demanded “the abolition of autonomous linguistic states with their emphasis on regionalism and their dangerous potential for secession”. One may argue that, on the contrary, the creation of linguistic states diffused centrifugal forces and that Nehru, who was against this reform to begin with, understood its raison d’être, as a real visionary, in contrast to Ayub Khan who, following in the footsteps of Jinnah and the One Unit Scheme, fostered Bengali separatism by over-centralising the Pakistani state.
The Hindutva forces may make the same mistake today. While Union Territories have been transformed into states, the Modi government is not only abolishing the special status of J&K, but it is demoting it by transforming its two successor states into Union Territories. This paradigmatic shift is well in tune with the centralisation of the Indian state initiated by the Modi government since 2014.
Since then, the Centre has asserted its prerogative at the expense of the states. The centrally sponsored schemes that Narendra Modi used to criticise when he was chief minister have gained momentum. The terms of reference of the Finance Commission, for the first time, mention that the criteria presiding over this distribution of funds will now include the states’ “achievements in implementation of flagship schemes of government of India.” Similarly, the GST is monitored by a Council where the states have only two-thirds of the voting rights. Since any decision can only be made in the GST Council if it gets 75 per cent of the votes, the law gives a veto power to New Delhi, which can prevail if it gets the support of only 19 states.
The two trends — obliteration of cultural differences and state centralisation — that are well illustrated by the way J&K has been dealt with, may impact policies vis-à-vis other states and other domains. For instance, Hindi may be promoted at the expense of linguistic diversity more decisively. Reforms promoted in the name of development and national unity are not easy to fight for the Opposition. Who’s prepared to look “anti-national”? But the efficacy of these changes remains to be seen. In the long run, uniformity may prevail. But in the meantime, tensions will probably increase because of identity clashes.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 7, 2019 under the title ‘Unity in unity’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London.