The Narendra Modi government’s decision to book former Jammu and Kashmir chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and three other leaders of the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party under the Public Safety Act (PSA) is wrong and condemnable. Not only is it a deeply undemocratic move that violates the rights of citizens but also, it will deepen Kashmiri anger against the Indian State and make the Kashmir-India conflict even more intractable. By wielding the PSA against leaders who have participated in democratic processes and institutions, the Modi government has blurred the distinction between moderates and militants. This will strengthen the argument of Kashmiris who have chosen the path of the gun. In the wake of the revocation of Article 370 on August 5 last year, over 412 Kashmiris, including former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, a sitting parliamentarian, were booked under PSA. No explanation was given then as to how Farooq, 82, and others posed a threat to public order or state security. Omar and Mehbooba were taken into preventive detention and with their six-month preventive custody ending on Thursday, the government swiftly slapped the PSA on them as well. This will allow the government to detain them for up to two years without pressing charges. Although a PSA advisory board will need to determine within a period of eight weeks whether there are sufficient grounds for their detention, it is likely that BJP loyalists will be appointed to the board, ensuring the continued detention of these leaders without charges.
With the dilution of Article 370, Kashmir’s socio-political dynamic has been reset after decades of violence and terror. Even as India congratulated itself for its electoral democracy in Kashmir, there wasn’t normalcy. Democratic politics accompanied by constant violence cannot produce normal outcomes. Prime Minister Modi cited some statements made by Farooq and Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti to justify the decision to book them under the PSA. None of those comments merit the PSA. Worse, Modi cited fake news in ostensibly quoting Omar, showing how arbitrary and flawed the process of booking people under PSA has become. The PSA is a draconian legislation. Many have been calling for its revocation. Instead, the government is using it as a weapon to settle scores and silence dissent. This is indefensible. It is six months since the Modi government took steps to stamp out Kashmiri protest against revocation of Article 370. These have not yielded positive results, underscoring the need to change course. However, the government is persisting down its perilous path.
The BJP seems to be afraid to face the leaders politically and democratically on the ground. The party’s decision to book them under the PSA reveals a certain anxiety that the Modi government has about its decisions on Kashmir, especially the scrapping of J&K’s special status. It is said to be talking to some politicians, with a view to creating an alternative political party in J&K, one which is in sync with its own thinking. This has proved to be a non-starter so far. Besides, will a Delhi-created party enjoy credibility among the Kashmiri people? The government must rethink its decision to slap the PSA on Kashmiri leaders. It must release them immediately as a first step towards political dialogue and reconciliation with the Kashmiri people.