Big Picture

Understanding Democracy and Diversity in J&K

18 Nov, 2014    ·   4745

Prof Varun Sahni provides historical and contemporary perspectives on the uniqueness of Jammu & Kashmir

As the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) goes to the polls to elect a State Assembly, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on how democracy, diversity and dissent are closely intertwined in the state. The last two state assembly elections, in 2002 and 2008, have by almost all accounts been free and fair. So have the general elections of 2004, 2009 and 2014 in the state. Perhaps most significantly, the Panchayat elections of 2011 were a resounding success, with an astounding 82 per cent voter turnout. There is no reason to expect that the forthcoming state assembly elections would be a departure from this trend. Undoubtedly, J&K continues to have many democracy deficits, but these are no longer deficits of an electoral nature.

The other aspect the ongoing elections are once again highlighting is the sheer diversity of J&K. While the rest of India has been territorially made, unmade and remade, and almost always on socio-cultural lines in order to manage diversity, the territorial expanse of the former princely state of J&K has been altered not by internal reorganisation but by external aggression. This ‘inside-outside’ dynamic – external compulsions preventing internal rearrangement – has ensured that J&K will remain, well into the future, exactly as we encounter it today: as a political community of extraordinary diversity. 

J&K is the only erstwhile princely state that has not been merged or amalgamated with neighbouring territory. J&K had only a few peers during the British Raj: the five Indian Princes entitled to the 21-gun salute were the Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar, the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda, and the Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior. The territorial trajectories of these five states are fascinating. For instance, after Gwalior State acceded to India in 1947, it was merged with the states of the Central India Agency to form Madhya Bharat, which later became Madhya Pradesh, which was later further reorganised in 2000 with the creation of Chhattisgarh. Baroda State formally acceded to the Dominion of India in1949 and was first merged with Bombay state. In 1960, when the two new states of Gujarat and Maharashtra were formed, Baroda became part of Gujarat.

What about Mysore State? As a result of the States Reorganisation Act, in1956, the Kannada-speaking districts of Belgaum (except Chandgad taluk), Bijapur, Dharwar, and North Canara were transferred from Bombay State to Mysore State. Bellary, South Canara and Udupi districts were transferred from Madras State and the Koppal, Raichur, Gulbarga and Bidar districts from Hyderabad State. Also, Coorg State was merged into Mysore, becoming a district of Mysore State. Those areas that spoke the Kannada language were thus unified into one state. As a large portion of this new state comprised the territory of Mysore, the name ‘Mysore’ was retained as the name of the newly created state until it was renamed to Karnataka in 1973. 

But none of these territorial changes compare with the way in which Hyderabad State was reorganised. In September 1948, the Dominion of India invaded the State of Hyderabad and overthrew its Nizam, annexing the state into what would become the Indian Union. In 1956, during the Reorganisation of the Indian States based along linguistic lines, the Telugu-speaking region of the Hyderabad State was merged with Andhra State, the Marathi speaking region was merged with Bombay state and the Kannada speaking region with Mysore State. In a very real sense, Hyderabad state was not merely renamed or reorganised; it ceased to exist. In June 2014, Telangana re-emerged as a separate state, with Hyderabad City as the capital of both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for 10 years.

These mergers, amalgamations and partitions are the story of independent India, as the open and democratic political system has catered to – and sometimes caved in the face of pressure to – popular demands emerging largely on socio-cultural and ethno-cultural grounds. The ‘other four’ 21-gun-salute states are a sample not only of all erstwhile princely states but also of all the territories in erstwhile British India. Apart from J&K, all other territories within India have been reconfigured by the operation of democratic politics, sometimes deliberative and sometimes agitational, but always seeking to diminish socio-cultural diversity

Untouched by the 1956 Reorganisation of States, J&K is by far the most linguistically diverse state in India. Despite some agitational politics on this issue in recent years, the state cannot easily be reorganised, for two distinct reasons. The first pertains to the external shadows that have always hung upon the state. Analytically, experientially and existentially, J&K is bordered by two foreign powers, China and Pakistan that view its territory with hostile intent. No other state in the Indian Union faces these geostrategic challenges. Secondly, in its socio-cultural geography, J&K is a land of nested minorities. Thus, any international reorganisation of the state will always be a blunt instrument and many people and communities would feel the brunt of such reorganisation.

The unique form of dissent in J&K is inextricably linked to issues of democracy and diversity. This important topic will be explored in a later column.