Nuanced Readings of the Politics of the Indian National Congress in the Wake of Elections in India

About a year ago, I wrote an article on majoritarianism in South Asia, which is feared as much as monarchism. Several well-meaning people—academics, writers, intellectuals, and opinion makers—are worried, rightly so, about the overwhelming victory of the BJP in the recent general elections in India. But wouldn’t it behoove those opinion makers and intellectuals, some of whom are my friends, to hold the Indian National Congress (INC) just as accountable for having, historically, given short shrift to constitutional checks and balances, particularly in terms of center-state relations?

We need more nuanced readings of national politics if we are invested in invigorating the very well written Constitution of India with the dignity and vigour that it deserves.

Since Independence in 1947, the Indian polity has undergone dislocation and restructuring, with, as Aijaz Ahmad tells us, “contradictory tendencies towards greater integrative pressures of the market and the nation-state on the one hand, greater differentiation and fragmentation of communities and socioeconomic positions on the other” (191).

The unitary concept of nationalism that political organizations like the Congress and the BJP have subscribed to challenge the basic principle that the nation was founded on: democracy. In this nationalist project, one of the forms that the nullification of past and present histories takes is the subjection of ethnic and religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state. The unequivocal aim of the supporters of the integration of J & K into the Indian union, which included honchos of the Indian National Congress (INC) was to expunge the political autonomy endowed on the State by India’s constitutional provisions. According to the unitary discourse of sovereignty disseminated by nationalists of the INC, J & K wasn’t entitled to the signifiers of statehood.

The INC proclaimed the victory of integration in J & K, which had sought the subsumption of ethnic and religious minorities into a centralized and authoritarian state since the 1940s. The furtherance of this centrist movement was enabled by the complicity of one of the architects of democracy and secularism, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His adherence to the unitary discourse of nationalism galvanized the suppression of demands for the autonomy of J & K state. These integrative and centralist measures were met with massive opposition, which the INC suppressed at the time.

The financial and fiscal integration of the state into the Indian Union; the authority given to the Indian Supreme Court to be the undisputed arbiter in J & K; the application of the fundamental rights that the Indian constitution guaranteed to its citizens to the populace of J & K as well, but with a stipulation: those civil liberties were discretionary and could be revoked in the interest of national security. These measures were implemented in J & K by the INC government at the Center.

Jagmohan, the governor imposed by New Delhi on the people of J & K, was adept at carrying out the oppressive policies of his patrons to a tee. Formerly Vice Chairperson of Delhi Development Authority, he had been hand-in-glove with Sanjay Gandhi, son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in carrying out the demolition of Turkman Gate slums and forced sterilizations—measures that adversely impacted the Muslim community. Governor Jagmohan employed belligerant measures to pulverize the support that some religiopolitical groups had managed to garner in the Valley: night-long house-to-house raids became the order of the day. Governor Jagmohan’s autocratic rule and the tyranny of mercenaries resulted in the militarization of Kashmiri culture and the torture of hapless Kashmiri civilians. Strategies deployed by successive Congress regimes had the adverse effect of stunting the development of democratic and civic structures conducive to suffrage and participatory procedure in J & K. The conscious policy of the INC to erode autonomy, populist measures and democratic institutions in J & K further alienated the people of the state from the Indian Union.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Congress regime characterized every demand for regional empowerment in Jammu and Kashmir as potentially insurgent, and discouraged the growth of a progressive generation of Kashmiris.

More recently, the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act was enacted in 1990 by the Union government in New Delhi and its representative in the state, the Governor, the authority to arbitrarily declare parts of J & K “disturbed area” in which the military could be willfully deployed. At the time, the Congress was a major player in the federal government. The introduction of other severe laws by the Government of India has made it further non-obligatory to provide for any measure of accountability in the military and political proceedings in the state.

The INC should be held just as accountable for having failed to truly revive the spirit of parliamentary democracy.

As I’ve said before, national parties will need to reconceptualize their politics in order to pay attention to the emergence of peace, political liberty, socioeconomic reconstruction, and egalitarian democratization, good governance, and resuscitating democratic institutions.


Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at