The Day Democracy Died…


Opinion Page Greater Kashmir Summer 2008

Photo credit Mubashir Hassan

As newspapers are reporting today that the Valley has “limped back” to normalcy after ten days of martial law, I would like to register my protest against such premature claims. I may be accused of subjectivity, but truth is that most people I know here are not limping anywhere. Instead, they are trying to strap on the artificial limbs required to crawl after whatever was left of their belief in democracy has been brutally amputated. For those who think that democracy died in Kashmir on August 24th, being allowed to use ATM’s can never be a substitute for the right to free expression or peaceful assembly.For the larger part of ten days, I have tossed and turned all night while pondering the meaning of democracy and if there is still such a thing in today’s world. This had only happened to me once and right after the Patriot Act was enacted by the US Congress, awarding that Government blanket authority to blatantly disregard all civil liberties as we knew them to exist before “the war on terror” was declared. Now, I sometimes feel it may be less confusing to live under a military dictatorship because the rules of non-permissible conduct would be more clearly defined.Having been born to a family who suffered much under the Nazi regime for their dissenting opinions, and then being nurtured on a solid diet of Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s ideals of social change through civil disobedience, I am predisposed, as most members of my generation are, to lend my support to peaceful mass movements, if they are aimed at the resolution of grave issues impacting on a society’s continued well-being. Yet, being a witness to current events in Kashmir has all but destroyed my faith in both ability and willingness of our so-called liberal democratic institutions to deal with popular and peaceful uprisings in a constructive and non-violent manner. Moreover, I can’t help but think that the ways and means applied to crush this particular movement are now reserved for certain minority communities here and the world over. Sadly, in the backdrop of thousands of innocent civilians being killed by Western troops throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, which democratic country in the world has the moral authority to speak up about atrocities committed elsewhere? The rules of democratic conduct have obviously changed permanently.I have always believed that for a society to be a democratic one, it must fully acknowledge the necessity of dissent – any dissent — as long as it does not involve premeditated violence. If it cannot tolerate that need, and uses brute force to quell it, it is neither a viable nor a mature democracy and must be viewed as something completely different. Should a leadership fail to respect the desires of the people anywhere in a democratic set-up, it is the right and responsibility of citizens to act and speak out against that which they do not agree with. Given the severe curtailment on the ability of the Kashmiri people to speak out, and the lukewarm response the infringement of that right has received from elsewhere for obvious reasons, I can hardly be faulted for feeling that the essence of democracy does no longer exist here or anywhere. Just as it had stopped existing for me in the US when the Patriot Act came into force, and when millions of us across the world were ignored by our democratically elected leaders while voicing our opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the retaliatory targeting of innocent Muslims for the actions of a few.

Photo credit Mubashir Hassan

James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, wrote two centuries ago that, “It is of great importance in a democracy not only to guard society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will become insecure.” Similarly, in his essay On Liberty, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill warns of a “second danger to liberty, which democracies are prone to, namely, the Tyranny of the Majority. Loosely interpreted, he meant that if you can control the majority in a representative democracy (and get them to vote for, and elect, your candidates) then you can control everyone (because your candidates, once “democratically elected”, will pass whatever laws are needed for this, as was done by Hitler’s agents in Nazi Germany and the American Congress in the wake of 9/11.) In the present context, one only needs to compare the preferential treatment of armed and often violent rioters in Jammu to the punitive actions being taken against peacefully protesting Kashmiris, to see how the writings of both men assume new relevance today.Travelling outside of Srinagar yesterday to check on the flow of essential commodities to an area of the state where I have been working on rural development for a year, I witnessed no signs of any past or present democratic principles. I saw people rounded up on sidewalks to reveal names of others having participated in peaceful demonstrations so that they can be detained in the middle of the night; I visited the family of a peaceful protester, killed during the Muzaffarabad March, whose death has robbed his relatives of the only breadwinner they had; I saw fruits rotting along country roads and their handlers not being able to reach orchards to load them on trucks that were prevented from coming; I saw many of the villagers I so care about near starvation because they could not break through the giant barricades erected around their entire district as part of a collective punishment for speaking out; and all the way home to Srinagar, while seeing new and even higher barricades being erected, I wondered not only how I could help them all, but what might happen to me if I wrote about what I saw and felt.So, when I see reports of life in the Valley limping back to normalcy, I don’t understand how anybody could believe such frivolous assertions. In my view, most Kashmiris first and foremost want their lawful right to free expression and peaceful assembly to be restored, even if they may use their ATM cards while waiting for that eventuality. And thus far there is little to no evidence on the ground that it may happen any time soon. The democracy that died on August 24th will require much greater efforts to be resuscitated. If it isn’t, any limping that has been observed will most certainly turn into permanent paralysis. And there is little point pushing voters to polling booths in wheelchairs.

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