Lieutenant Governor G C Murmu’s abrupt departure from the Raj Bhavan at Srinagar, and the quick appointment of his successor has shone timely light on the continuing absence of democratic political processes in Jammu & Kashmir since the collapse of the PDP-BJP government in 2018, and subsequent dissolution of the Assembly.
Last August’s changes in J&K’s constitutional status have only served to exacerbate this absence. For two years, J&K has been ruled by an increasingly powerful bureaucracy, which has become even more empowered since last year’s changes. Too often, it sees people as numbers and development plans as power point presentations, and lacks accountability. One year after the BJP-led NDA government stripped J&K of its special status and carved it into two Union Territories, it may bask in its fait accompli, but its biggest failure in the former state, or even in its own cause, is to have taken away people’s agency, disempowering them while claiming to do the opposite.
The jailing of mainstream politicians, that too for prolonged periods with no apparent justification, has led to the defenestrating of the very leaders who might have mediated between Delhi and Kashmir. Some, including former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, remain under official detention, while others have been released, but are still not free to go back to their politics. Those who have found their voice after months of silence, such as former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah, have spoken about losing faith in Delhi.
Even the Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party, seen as the government’s specially curated political party, is reluctant to take Delhi’s case to the people of the Valley. Either reluctant or clueless about how to restart a political process, Delhi is dependent, therefore, on the office of the Governor to do its work of outreach. But an ex-bureaucrat like Murmu, or even a politician such as his successor Manoj Sinha in the Raj Bhavan at Srinagar, is no replacement for a democratically elected executive who mingles with constituents, listens to them and may be able to address at least a few of their concerns and complaints.
The only way out of the political cul de sac that the NDA government may be reversing itself into in the Valley is to put the changes it brought in last year before the people. That means elections, but before that, the unimpeded restoration of political discourse, release of the remaining political prisoners, restoration of freedom of assembly, and of the freedom of speech, which includes the return of full speed internet. A political vacuum, presided over by a governor, with the help of an all-powerful bureaucracy that has little connect with people, is a recipe for worsening the situation in Kashmir.