It is generally understood that public safety is the first duty of a government, but it has taken a petition in the Supreme Court to secure the safety of Kashmiris in 11 states across the country. The Court has directed the Delhi police commissioner and the chief secretaries and DGPs of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra to ensure the security of Kashmiri citizens and other minorities. A bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi required these officials to “take prompt and necessary action to prevent incidents of threat, assault, social boycott etc against Kashmiris and other minorities”. It is their duty to protect citizens, but it took a court order to remind them of it.
This amounts to a sharp response to a government living in denial of the feeling whipped up against the community following the Pulwama attack. This is not the first time that an entire community has been demonised for the actions for a tiny handful of its members, and the government should have acted swiftly to reassure them. On the contrary, human resource development minister, Prakash Javadekar, announced that the community was at no risk, at a time when reports of the targeted harassment of students and migrant labour were appearing in the media. Institutions were publicly denying admission to Kashmiris, and workers were living in fear. Imminent violence in Delhi was prevented by police action. At the same time, Meghalaya governor Tathagata Ray tweeted in support of a nationwide boycott of Kashmiris, and Kashmiri products and businesses. It was a sentiment that recalled a dark time in Europe, caused an uproar in society, but was met by the government with a disconcerting silence. It took far too long for Union law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, to speak against the motion, and he limited himself to saying that he did not agree with it. The cumulative result is that the citizens of one state, already alienated, are now certain that they are unwanted.
Historically, the Supreme Court has served as the custodian of the public weal, intervening to secure a range of assurances, from the protection of undertrials to that of the environment. However, it should not have been necessary for citizens to approach the highest court to secure the safety of a community. In addition, the Opposition has also been surprisingly reluctant to contest problematic statements on the issue. It, too, has failed in its duty, which is to call out the government when it falters. It is a lasting shame that the political class, across parties and ideologies, chose to be silent when mobs threatened to turn the anger over the killing of security personnel inward and against a particular community.