Originally Published 2019-05-31 07:41:32 Published on May 31, 2019
A look at why the stalemate in relations between New Delhi and Srinagar persists.
In Kashmir, power eludes those who wield it

In a seminal 1974 book, sociologist Steven Lukes presented three dimensions of power. The first dimension is expressed when A’s preferences on an issue prevail over the competing preferences of B. Here, one is powerful because one possesses the ability to make decisions on issues.

In the second dimension of power, A is able to set the agenda by limiting the menu of issues that are contestable. In other words, one is powerful because one controls the context within which decisions are made.

The third dimension goes further and involves A’s ability to influence the preferences of B in such a manner that they align with the preferences of A. Here, one is powerful because one can control what people think and want, and which issues and objectives they pursue.

Applying this three-dimensional notion of power to the Kashmir issue allows us to better understand how the stalemate in relations between New Delhi and Srinagar is constructed and why it persists.

New Delhi has effectively leveraged power’s first dimension – the ability to make (legislative) decisions – in its piecemeal efforts to dilute Article 370 and integrate Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian Union. It began doing so in 1954 when – through a presidential order – it reduced Jammu and Kashmir’s fiscal autonomy and extended to the state both the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and the fundamental rights section of India’s constitution.

It did so again in 1965, by replacing the post of Sadr-e-Riyasat with that of a Delhi-appointed governor, by changing G.M. Sadiq’s title (and that of his successors) from prime minister to chief minister, and by introducing the direct election of Jammu and Kashmir’s representatives to the Lok Sabha. Over the last seven decades, Central governments have collectively issued 50 presidential orders to constitutionally integrate Jammu and Kashmir with India.

It is only because of New Delhi’s demonstrated willingness to leverage power’s first dimension that calls for further erosion of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy – say, through the scrapping of Article 35A – carry resonance.

But the Centre’s ability to exercise power along the first dimension has always been contingent on its simultaneous access to power’s second dimension – the ability to set the agenda. The pronounced legislative changes governing Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status have only been possible because New Delhi has consistently state-managed the Valley’s political context, particularly the makeup of its legislature.

In order to reduce resistance to its agenda in the electoral arena, New Delhi has barred “disloyal” Kashmiris from contesting elections, rigged electoral outcomes, dismissed elected governments and arrested popular political figures in the Valley, keeping them (and their views) out of public view.

Such expressions of power’s second dimension were displayed when the Centre dismissed and arrested Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, when it artificially sustained the unpopular but pliant governments of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad (1953-1964) and G.M. Sadiq (1964-1971), when it engineered the dismissal of Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference government in 1984 and when the 1987 election was rigged to keep Muslim United Front candidates from entering the legislative assembly.

If New Delhi invariably controls what can and cannot be said in the electoral arena, it has also relied heavily on the preventive detention tool to mute any resistance its agenda may encounter in the streets.

While the Indian state has a monopoly on power’s first and second dimensions, power’s third dimension – the ability to shape what people think – rests firmly with elements in the Valley. In the recently-concluded Lok Sabha election, more than 40 lakh electors in the Valley were invited to cast their ballots; less than a fifth did.

Sadly, this is the norm. In fact, of the cumulative 1.64 crore Valley-based electors who were eligible to vote in the last five Lok Sabha elections combined, more than 1.23 crore (or 75%) opted out, actively refusing to endorse institutions that have failed them time and again.

New Delhi must accept that it is inescapably trapped in a trade-off: the more it exerts power along its first and second dimensions, the more it enables Kashmiris of all stripes – parents, teachers, politicians, separatists and religious men – to leverage power’s third dimension by shaping and reinforcing local preferences against the Indian state.

The implications are clear. To the extent that New Delhi has any interest in winning hearts and minds in the Valley, it ought to stop trying to win everything else all the time.

This commentary originally appeared in The Wire.

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