J&K: Flag, Constitution, Media Freedom and Local Elections


Mehbooba Mufti insists on restoring the J&K Constitution and the State flag as the first step towards taking part in the elections and hoisting the Indian flag

Facts on the ground
On 23 October 2020, Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of J&K and the leader of the PDP made a statement that she would neither contest the elections until the State Constitution is restored, nor she would hold Indian flag until J&K flag is restored. Responding to a question in Srinagar, the Hindu quoted her: “As far as I am concerned, I have no interest in elections. Till the time the Constitution under which I used to contest elections is returned to us, Mehbooba Mufti has got nothing to do with elections.” On the flag, she was quoted, again by the Hindu, “When this flag of ours (J&K) is restored, we will hold that (Indian) flag also. But we will not hold any other flag till the time our flag, which was robbed from us, comes into our hold.”

She was responding to a question whether the PDP would contest the District Development Council (DDC) elections. 
Focus issues in the background
Mehbooba’s stand is a reflection of the position taken by the constituents of the Gupkar resolution. The leading parties – the PDP and the NC led by Mufti and the Abdullahs see the restoration of pre-2019 August status in J&K as a starting point for any meaningful dialogue with the Union government.
Taking part in any electoral process at this stage, for these parties would mean accepting what had happened on 5 August 2019. Hence her statement on not taking part in the local elections makes sense from her party’s position. It is neither for the State legislative assembly nor for the Parliament. (The above response was to a question whether the PDP would take part in the local elections) So, what they (PDP) lose vis-à-vis what they gain – should have been a calculated move. Perhaps, for the PDP, it would lose more politically, if it has to take part in any local elections, under the present administrative structure.

It is the right of every party to contest and keep away from it. However, what the Union government should be worried about – is the larger political process, and what it means to keep the mainstream parties away from any electoral process – whether it is for local elections or State elections.
Second her statement on the flag. Her position linking holding the national flag, only if there is space to hold the J&K flag as well – stems from the earlier position. Historically, flags and anthems – have a political meaning, and also is an emotional issue. Hoisting a flag in this context – also has a larger political and constitutional significance for the PDP. One should not get overly emotional about the statement and forget, that the PDP and the NC – have been hoisting the Indian tricolour, and have been swearing by the Indian Constitution. Her statement now – is more political and should be seen as supporting the Constitution and the Flag of J&K, than undermining the same of India. The government, and actors who are associated with the ruling party, should desist from any jingoistic statements and actions on this count. 

One should be proud to hoist the flag or wear it on their chest. And should not be forced to do it. Forcing the other to do so will backfire. It always has. One has to look back into history and see what has happened in the past – from the days of the Roman empire to the British. 
If one does now want to hoist it or hold it, so be it. It is a personal decision and not an affront to the flag. New Delhi has to look at the larger picture in J&K and look at long term strategic goals than pursue a short term objective, scoring tactical points.

The Estate Office in J&K seals one of the offices of the Kashmir Times in Srinagar

Facts on the ground
On 19 October, the Estates Office of the J&K administration sealed a property that the government has earlier allotted to the Kashmir Times, one of the leading daily published from both Jammu and Srinagar. 
Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times, was reported to have tweeted on the incident: “Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation and eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu where my belongings including valuables were handed over to ‘new allottee’. Vendetta for speaking out! No due process followed.”
The Indian Express, quoted an official, giving the government version: “They have been allotted two buildings – one is office and the other was allotted as a residence to Ved Bhasin sahib…Since Bhasin-sahib died some years ago, we issued them notices to vacate the house. They themselves handed over the building to us and today our officials went to take possession.” According to Anuradha Bhasin, quoted by the Indian Express, “We have not received any order or any notice. Some lower-rung officials used to come to our office, verbally saying that the allotment has been cancelled but when we asked for eviction notice, they never provided us. In fact, our staff went to their office, saying if there is any eviction order give it to us… but they weren’t giving. Since we were little apprehensive, we approached the court some four weeks ago…They haven’t served any eviction or cancellation notice to us. They have simply locked our office. We haven’t handed over anything to them. Our infrastructure is here, our computers are here, all the machinery and technical things are here, our generators and other equipment are here.”
Showing solidarity with the Kashmir Times, and the need for free media, the Editors Guild of India in a statement said: “The Editors Guild of India considers the action of state administration vindictive and injurious not just to the Kashmir Times, but also to the entire free media in the Union Territory. The Guild calls upon the government of Jammu and Kashmir to restore status quo, and to create circumstances in which media can function without hindrance and without fear.”
Focus issues in the background
The Estate Office in J&K has been allotting offices and residences for the media. Many journalists stay in these residences. For the government, it is an allotment provided to the media, and perhaps believes can be withdrawn, or reallotted to someone else. Earlier, before the 19 October incident, the government has asked Anuradha Bhasin to leave her residence allotted by the government.
The government’s move – either Bhasin’s residence or locking down one of the premises it has allotted to the newspaper, maybe within the administrative ambit. However, there is a larger political objective to pressurize her, or punish her for pursuing a legal course and approaching the Supreme Court against the government’s actions in J&K since August 2019. Besides, sections within the State have always viewed Kashmir Times as pro-Kashmiri and anti-State. 
Undoubtedly, a free media is an essential aspect of democracy. As the Editors Guild has noted in the statement, the media must function without hindrance and fear, not only within J&K, but also in the rest of India. The State should not be petty; asking an occupant to leave the government residence, removing the security cover, sending the Enforcement Directorate – all such actions may be legal and administratively admissible, but also underlines the pettiness of the State. Unfortunate, but this has been a South Asian curse!
On the other hand, a section within the media, especially in the region is projecting the closing down the plot allotted to the Kashmir Times, as that of closing the newspaper itself. The two are different. “Free” media also has a responsibility, and should not be projecting only one side of the story – either “pro-State” or “anti-State” because of ideological differences.
Unfortunately, in J&K, either one is with the State. Or against it. One needs a middle ground as well. 

Three-tier Panchayat Raj approved in the J&K Union Territory

Facts on the ground
On 17 October, the Union Cabinet approved the adoption of Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Raj Act 1989. This would enable the Union Territory to hold the Panchayat Raj elections, as is the case in the rest of India. 
Mr Javedekar, the minister for Information and Broadcasting, was quoted by the Hindu to have stated: “The three-tier system was not there in Kashmir before. They did not have the opportunity to elect their local representatives. This step redeems the promise made by the Prime Minister in Kashmir, and the Home Minister in Parliament. Now there will be early elections, and the power to manage local bodies will go to the people. Locally elected representatives will be able to do district and block level planning, and implement welfare schemes.”
Focus issues in the background
This is one of the positive developments in J&K during the last one year. 
Local elections in J&K have always attracted the attention of the people of erstwhile J&K State across the three regions. There have been better polling percentage for the National Assembly and the State Legislative Assemblies, across all three regions of the then J&K State. The ruling parties in J&K have always been hesitant to conduct local elections.
The decison to extend Panchayat Raj into J&K is a welcome development, as it would bring local governance to the people. One of the primary reasons for the failure of governance in the far-flung regions/districts of the State has been the absence of local participation in the governance process. Whether it is in the Gurez Valley in the Bandipora district in north Kashmir, or the Kishtwar district in the Pir Panjal, or Bani and Basholi in the Kathua district in Jammu region – substantial parts of the State were ruled from the district headquarters through officials who have never visited the entire region. 
Besides, the absence of panchayat raj leaders also provided an extra space and power for the State officials – the IAS, IPS, KAS and KPS officers. Besides the officials, the then-existing system also provided more power to the members elected the legislative assembly of the State – the MLAs, at the cost of panchayat raj leaders. While the elected leaders across the States in India play a role, the political parties do not attempt to provide the State funds only through the MLAs, and make them the primary point of distribution. In J&K, there was party patronage, and the system was bound to yield fewer results. It made the system and the people dependent on the MLAs and the bureaucrats. The lack of panchayat raj leaders was a primary reason for corruption at the higher levels of the administration in J&K.
Political parties and the bureaucracy are bound to oppose this move, and make it irredundant. The Union government should insist on implementing the Panchayat Raj, and ensure it is functional in accordance with the spirit of the same.


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