On Article 370, Congress should be marching from Lal Qila to Lal Chowk: Digvijaya Singh

At the launch of the journalist Dhirendra K Jha’s book, Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu vote, the Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said that the party had erred in the past in its dealings with religious fundamentalism, and at great cost to the Indian polity. COURTESY WESTLAND
08 August, 2019

Less than an hour after the Rajya Sabha passed a bill downgrading Jammu and Kashmir to a union territory, on 5 August, the senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh suggested that his party launch an emphatic protest against the house’s decision. “What would have Mahatma Gandhi done … in a situation that this bill had come and passed? I think he would have taken a march from Lal Qila to Lal Chowk to show the solidarity with the Kashmiris,” Singh said, at a book launch in Delhi. When a journalist asked him whether the Congress leadership would have the courage to do so, Singh said, “That’s what I would want them to do.”

Singh was speaking at the launch of the journalist Dhirendra K Jha’s book, Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu vote—the publishers Westland Publications co-hosted the event, alongside The Caravan. Singh expounded on a number of political issues—he admitted, for instance, that the Congress was facing a leadership crisis. He felt that it was the “wrong timing” for the party president Rahul Gandhi to have resigned. Singh further said that the Congress party had erred in the past in its dealings with religious fundamentalism, and at great cost to the Indian polity. Among these mistakes, he said, were the party’s response to the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgment in the late 1980s and its failure to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Within forty-five days of the Congress’s crushing defeat in the general elections this year, Rahul Gandhi had posted a letter on Twitter, accepting responsibility for the loss and announcing his resignation as the party’s president. Gandhi’s resignation was preceded by weeks of media reports that shed light on the failings of the Congress’s campaign, bringing to light its shoddy planning and flawed outreach programs. Senior Congress leaders, news reports said, had attempted to convince Gandhi to stay on, but the party scion was adamant.

Singh, too, did not agree with Gandhi’s decision. “This was an opportunity when everyone felt that the only political party that can take on the BJP and the Sangh is the Congress party,” Singh said. “The way Mr Rahul Gandhi had been attacking the ideology of hate and violence … if he had continued this campaign, I think this was an opportunity for him.”

Since Gandhi announced his resignation, on 3 July, the Congress has not elected a new president. A central-working committee of the party is reportedly due to meet on 10 August, to elect its new chief.

Singh’s comments assume significance in the face of the Congress’s muddled stance on the defanging of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. On the morning of 5 August, the home minister Amit Shah tabled two bills in the Rajya Sabha—the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2019, which introduced reservations to government posts in the state; and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019, which proposes to split the state into two union territories, Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir. Shah also presented a presidential order issued earlier that day, which effectively rendered Article 370 of the Constitution—which specifies that Jammu and Kashmir has a special and autonomous status—ineffective.

In the week before the announcement, the government deployed close to 40,000 troops in the state, and evacuated all the tourists that were visiting the state for the Amarnath yatra. The government claimed that it had received information of a possible security threat in the region. In the intervening night between 4 and 5 August, the Narendra Modi-led government imposed a curfew in Kashmir, cut off internet and phone lines, and placed prominent leaders such as the former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti under house arrest. By the next day, both houses of parliament had passed the reorganisation bill as well as an extraordinary statutory resolution curtailing Article 370, amid a complete blackout of media and communications in Kashmir.

The government’s actions were met with grave criticism from some within the Congress—including Gandhi. The next day, the outgoing president termed the developments as “an abuse of executive power.” He tweeted, “National integration isn’t furthered by unilaterally tearing apart J&K.” Aside from being “undemocratic,” Gandhi said, arresting politicians in Kashmir is also “short sighted and foolish because it will allow terrorists to fill the leadership vaccum created by GOI”—government of India. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, took this stance even further—he suggested that the issues pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir were not an internal matter for India. Chowdhury’s stance allowed the home minister Amit Shah to launch into an aggressive performance. “What are you saying?” Shah screamed. “We are willing to die for it.” Ghulam Nabi Azad, a senior Congress leader who hails from Kashmir, gave a fiery speech in the Rajya Sabha, accusing the government of playing with the lives of Kashmiri people.

The views of others within the Congress, however, such as the former members of parliament Jyotiraditya Scindia and Deepender Singh Hooda, were starkly at odds with these stances. Scindia posted a tweet supporting the move, but adding that it “would have been better if constitutional process had been followed.” Hooda told the media, “I think for the unity of the country and development of Kashmiris, it is the right decision.”

The confused party line came to the surface at a meeting of the central-working committee, held on 6 August, to discuss the issue. According to a report on the news website The Print, the younger leaders of the party criticised the senior leadership for “its refusal to read the public mood.” The Print reported that a young leader told the leadership that “people outside are all for this” and that they “have to face the people in our constituencies.” Leaders such as the former finance minister P Chidambaram and Gandhi, however, reportedly defended their decision to criticise the move.

At the book launch, held on 5 August, Singh did not stop at laying out what he believed his party’s future course of action ought to be. In what appeared to be a candid reflection, he described many of the Congress party’s decisions in preceding decades as “mistakes,” and admitted that the party itself had contributed to the rise of the Hindu right wing. “To some extent I am also guilty as a political person to have engaged with some of these people,” he said.

Among these mistakes, Singh said, was a law that the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government passed in 1986, which nullified the Supreme Court’s landmark Shah Bano judgment—the court had awarded Shah Bano, a Muslim woman, the right to receive alimony after divorce. The law restricted a Muslim husband’s obligation to provide for his divorced wife only to iddat—a period that lasts ninety days after the divorce. “We did not have to succumb to the pressures of the Muslim clergy,” Singh said. “This would have allowed us to carry on the space which was both against the religious fundamentalism of the Hindus and the religious fundamentalism of the Muslims.”

Singh also said that the demolition of the Babri Masjid, four years later, was in part the fault of the Congress. “The Congress party and the government of India could have prevented the demolition of the Babri Masjid had it taken preventive steps and allowed the army and central forces to protect the place,” he said. He added that the former prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, had failed to effectively contain the fallout of the demolition. Rao intended to set up a trust that would have managed the disputed land over which the mosque had stood, but decided not to do so in the face of impending general elections. “He did not go through the process … had he gone through the process, half the problem would have been over.” On the count of Congress’s patronage to Hindu ascetics in Ayodhya in the subsequent years, Singh did not deny that the Congress had done so. He also admitted that he was close to Swaroopanand Saraswat, the shankaracharya, or head, of the Dwarka Peeth. Early this year, Saraswat announced that he would lead a march to Ayodhya and lay the foundation stone for the construction of temple on 21 February.

Singh went on to prescribe means for the Congress to fight against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its Hindu-nationalist ideology. Those wishing to fight the Sangh, he said, must understand that Indians are a religious people. “To counter RSS, you have to understand the psyche of the people,” he said. He then added that the Congress must “aggressively talk to the people, and particularly the youth of the country” who had “been so consistently poisoned over social media.” Young Indians, he said, had been given “the wrong historical facts about the role of Mahatma Gandhi, of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru … even the conflict of ideas of differences that a party may have had between its leaders,” such as Nehru and the former deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel.

When asked why, with all its political ploys failing, the Congress had not yet taken to the streets, Singh agreed that protest was the way forward. “Sadak ki aur zameen ki ladai hi ultimate ladayi hoti hai prajatantra mein”—the fight of the street and of land is the ultimate fight in a democracy. His comments appear to outline a conversation that the Congress leaders must have within themselves—whether they will do so is anyone’s guess.