By Kamran Ashraf Bhat
It has been almost four years that Jammu and Kashmir is under the Lieutenant Governor’s rule and the whole system is run by the bureaucratic establishment, therefore mass public representation is at the 3rd tier level and the state assembly is not functional leaving a major vacuum in a democratic system. What is most important here is that the vacuum has not only damaged democratic values but also lead to a trust deficit between the public and institutions of the state.
I am not going to comment on or discuss any political controversies rather my contention is about ‘system collapse’ in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Some of us will not buy this argument that a system that has been prevailing for almost 70 years in Jammu and Kashmir will suddenly fall apart with so much resistance in different sectors of state establishment. It’s correct, by the collapse of the system I want to argue that if a system is not providing a space for public participation on a general level where they are solemnly given authority to choose their executive authority the subordination of that foundation will never be able to survive the legitimacy.
I will discuss the current setup in Jammu and Kashmir and analyse its stability following with my independent opinion. The main discussion will be about the idea of absolutism and its impact, how it is condemning democracy which ultimately becomes a source of disintegration within the dimensions of the ‘Republic’. Moreover, I will examine the reasons which are used as arguments to make Democracy irrelevant. It will be purely a critical research discourse without any partisan commentary.
The One-Man Show
The current Lieutenant Governor administration backed by the union government is enjoying absolute authority in Jammu and Kashmir and does whatever he wants with his interpretation of the law. One of the disturbing things about the administration is how quickly it changed the systematic outlook of governance in Jammu and Kashmir. It went from democratic influence with its legislative Assembly and elected members of the cabinet to one unelected executive power with absolute power and influence. Most of us had thought that the Republic of India has now left bitter memories of the past and is progressing towards a new age of democracy. And the democratic values weak or strong in Jammu and Kashmir are strong to be easily dismantled. In many modern democracies, we can see evidence of indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness. There is low voter turnout and an assumption that things will be the way they are no matter what an individual does.
But now the situation and way beyond our expectations, and we can see indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness among people. Those who are defending any autocratic set-up or any imposed system come around with the argument of voter turnout in local body elections as the will of people and trust in the prevailing system. We have failed to understand this phenomenon of local village-oriented politics and their urgencies for daily-based needs. Any participation in such exercises will never be called majoritarian democracy because still the shows are run from the hierarchy of L.G, Chief secretary to Deputy Commissioners along with security establishments.
The local political class is being presented as a fool, stupid, fraudulent, and incompetent and consider themselves as saviours who elevate people from darkness. People are being indoctrinated with media and motivated by political trials that the former political class was a representation of the bourgeois. When Satya Pal Malik was governor of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, every day he used to target political parties in Kashmir calling them corrupt and looters. At a public meeting in 2019, Satya Pal Malik said that terrorists should “kill corrupt politicians who have looted the entire wealth” of the state” rather than innocent people and security personnel.
“These boys who have picked up guns are killing their people, they are killing PSOS (personal security officer) and SPOS (special police officers). Why are you killing them? Kill those who have looted the wealth of Kashmir. Have you killed any of them?” Satya Pal Malik said at an event in Kargil.
The Governor of state who has ultimate executive power at his disposal can make such statements, who was stopping him to investigate these political parties and putting them behind bars? It was just as Satya Pal was leading a political campaign for elections. There is a hidden pattern in such political statements which are motivated and consciously issued as a process of legitimating their administration and demonizing the local political class.
Such stunts are part of attempts to isolate people who already feel isolated from political parties. When people in any state of republic feel disconnected from the system around them and the political representatives it has, when you are mad to believe that neither your vote nor opinion matter and any struggle to change it is futile, then it is not too far for citizens to feel that their very self is unimportant and helpless. This is the feeling which is been indoctrinated by a system influenced by absolutism which manipulates with a random terror and ultimately damages the network of the democratic system. The absolutism in Kashmir now demands an unalterable locality of a citizen without any discourse or accountability- such loyalty can only be expected from the people who have been forced to feel isolated. Absolutism is always struggling to perpetuate its relevance and existence; the fear is built that anyone going against an imposed system will be dealt with serious consequences. The fear of consequences is what keeps a singular system, which doesn’t come under public security, alive.
Hanna Arendt, a political philosopher, argues that there is a “possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”
This battle with truth is something we see today. Opinions are being given the same weight as facts, leading to endless debates and the assumption that nothing can be known anyway.
This battle of defaming a political class which is representing a democratic system is what absolute power is thriving for. Opinion makers are given tasks with monetary assistance or fear to lead unending debates and assumptions that have nothing to do with reality or fact. Just make a sweet cookie with ingredients of lies and propaganda with the help of selective opinion makers and then serve a mass public for a mud-sledding debate.
Ardent calls it a vicious cycle as, “once you are inside, it’s about breaking down the individuality of the citizens until there is nothing but a subdued population. the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.” And then in that ongoing struggle, the absolute power politically neutralizes all those who might question the credibility or even rise eyebrows over the actions of that administration. Such systems pay no attention to popular governing and are not likely to be sustainable in the long run.
Hannah Arendt believes that the person who is at the top order is not the only person who is to be blamed but the absolute system has a tendency to the carnage that tears apart all democratic institutions and social fabric. And, this is what Jammu and Kashmir is now facing; the individual power in the shape of L.G is not responsible for any worst outcome of the current setup but the whole system is now immune from any public scrutiny and it enjoys a significant amount of power.
How Absolutism Kills Trust of People (Democracy)
Daniel Ziblatt, a writer and advocate of democracy, considers the consolidation of power works to marginalize its opposition. The absolute administrative system has no legal biding to face public outrage in the shape of an electoral process, it is selected not elected. Any decision taken by Executive position holders in this system is always influenced by bureaucratic input. So, such individuals have no fear of public backlash. Heads of this absolute authority are typically outsiders and don’t have a lot of political experience. We witness the same pattern in the current administrative setup of Jammu and Kashmir- outsider heads and no knowledge of local political dimensions.
Some may argue that the prevailing system is not long-term and will be replaced by the electoral process. But we have to understand the potential of absolutism in dismantling the trust and faith of the public in the democratic process. Absolutism follows a pattern that first damages the neutral institutions and then creates a trust deficit between citizens and administrative platforms. To understand this argument, I will put forth two examples that will make you understand how public trust is the first casualty of unelected power:
Let’s go back to the famous 1990s in Jammu and Kashmir, political events which were influenced by unconstitutional manoeuvring by then Governor Jagmohan saw the departure of Farooq Abdullah as Chief Minister. This departure was followed by bloody insurgency, imposition of AFSPA law, and immigration of Kashmiri pandiths.
Till now, Kashmir is not able to recover from economic disasters and human rights violations. The young population has no opportunity to meet their financial needs, social disintegration has been significant. The mistrust in the ballot box remained for almost two decades. All happened under the watch of the absolute authority of Governor rule in Jammu and Kashmir, which remained for six years. So, in the current setup, people are served false narratives of development and they are being forced to believe that prosperity has engulfed the whole union territory.
Daniel Ziblatt, the writer, says about the state’s false narratives that “If we have a false narrative of what happened or a contested narrative, this weakens the immune system of our democracy for future events”. Take a look at “Periodic Labour Force Survey April-June 2021” which was released by the statistics and program implementation ministry and clearly shows out 46 percent of youth are unemployed in J&K.
Moreover, exams conducted by JKSSRB were either stopped by Courts for procedural misconduct or they were null and void repeatedly due to alleged corruption scandals within the department. A report which was published on Outlook states that from post-5 August 2019 event, an unending list of corruption and bribery allegations in the recruitment drives in Jammu and Kashmir has dented claims of “corruption clean” by the administration. And, the only narrative two governors have been advocating since 2019 is that they have come to free Jammu and Kashmir from corruption. The same website (outlook) reported that there have been allegations of irregularities in the Jammu and Kashmir Police sub-inspector recruitment examination, Finance Department, Junior Engineers recruitment, and Fire and Emergency Services Department recruitment. In all four recruitments, the selection lists have been cancelled after the allegations of corruption surfaced.
I don’t give clean chit to former political governments of NC, PDP, INC, and BJP, there have been also massive alleged corruption scandals in their tenure. But we have to understand that they had a constitutional biding of facing the public in elections and every time a government had to face the brunt of opposition narrative. In absolute power where no one is elected, they don’t have to face the public nor they will be thrown away with voting. They are part of the deep-rooted establishment and always remain enacted in the corridors of power.
Daniel Ziblatt while commenting on absolute authority says that “without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not”.
A weak democratic System is far Better than Absolutism
In this subtopic, I will put forth an argument about how a fragile democratic government is far better than a selected system that is driven by absolutism. A public elected government is controlled by the representatives of the people who should hold offer for a fixed tenure and give up their office if they lose elections. However, on the other hand, a selected system carries no faith of the public and has no fear of public scrutiny. They have no fixed tenure if any, and they are not bound to any electoral process.
One of the arguments people are giving in favour of the current administration of L.G is that with absolute power in hand, this setup can deliver progress and it will be faster. But one has to understand that if there is no discourse between representatives of the Public and no opposition how can freedom of speech and expression thrive? How can there be a check and accountability in administration? If there is no public accountability then there is no transparency in development. Take my previous example about how a department of administration (JKSSRB) has been playing with the future of thousands of students and how they forced them to live under mental pressure. Had there been an elected government the opposition would have waged a full-scale political war against the leader of the house. And at least the government had been forced to answer and address such blunders at the administrative level.
If you give authority and a lot of power to one person without any public accountability there are high chances that the outcome will not be good. If people are not able to elect their representatives or able to express their choice the differences between the administration and the people will be always significant. And with differences, the system will always be transgressing its sphere of responsibility. So, I believe that a weak democratic system has enormous possibilities to auto-correct itself, and pave way for discourse but absolutism is always living in denial. The denial of being imperfect pushes the whole system into delusion.
It is high time for the State of India to allow people to create a government that will represent a popular choice and fills the void of uncertainty.
Kamran Ashraf Bhat is a researcher at Bahçeşehir Üniversitesi, İstanbul, Türkiye. He is also former Joint Editor of Daily Inside Kashmir. Kamran Ashraf Bhat writes about Political, Social, and Environmental topics.