Akeel Bilgrami is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York. His research interests include political philosophy and moral psychology. He has written on secularism, identity and how Mohandas Gandhi integrated politics with philosophy. He has a forthcoming book titled, “What is a Muslim?” Bilgrami’s teaching includes courses on politics and rationality, and the effects of globalisation on political thought.
Over an email interview in October, Suhail Bhat, a data-journalism student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, spoke to Bilgrami on the contemporary political situation in India. They discussed the reading down of Article 370, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the fundamental differences between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Referring to Kashmir, Bilgrami said, “It is crucial for the rest of us in India to think not from the point of view of the interests of the sarkar but from the point of view of the desires of the region’s population. We owe it to the Kashmiri people.”
Suhail Bhat: Does the Bharatiya Janata Party’s abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by reading down Article 370 endanger the democratic foundations of India?
Akeel Bilgrami: It is an entirely illegal and unconstitutional step, as many jurist scholars have pointed out, not least [the lawyer and political commentator Abdul] Gafoor Noorani. The elementary and well-known facts about the abrogation’s unconstitutionalism, are roughly as follows: These articles formulated the provisions of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. Though there was some mention of the temporary nature of these provisions in the understanding of those who crafted the Indian constitution in 1949–50, it was also explicit that they could only be overturned with the endorsement of the regional constituent assembly.
Now, of course, it is in the nature of constituent assemblies that they are dissolved by their own will once their work is done. And when in December 1956 and early 1957, the Kashmir constituent assembly was dissolved, it was on an understanding on the part of the Jammu and Kashmir politicians that the constitution adopted had been made into a stable and abiding arrangement between the centre and the state, with these features of autonomy in place. There was a general and an explicitly stated understanding that this stable and abiding arrangement could in the future only be reconsidered and amended by the regional legislators. And it was this understanding that was preempted by the BJP government’s sleight of hand of first declaring President’s rule in Kashmir, and making the matter of reconsideration (and abrogation) turn on the legislators at the centre, where the BJP has a sufficient majority. [The centre imposed president’s rule in the erstwhile state in December 2018, following six months of governor’s rule.] And, in the short term, if not the long, control of the region via President’s rule is crucial too, so that the normalisation of this cancellation of autonomy proceeds apace without the noise of democracy.
SB: Why is the ruling government feeling this need to take aggressive actions such as the effective revocation of Article 370?
AB: That is a particularly good question because the fact is that autonomy, in most respects, was in any case a merely formal provision once the military occupation got consolidated. De facto, there was not much autonomy. So the question arises, what was the point now behind removing it formally, removing its de jure status?