Friday, October 24, 2014

Balraj Puri (1928-2014) An Extraordinary Socialist Democrat - a tribute by Manoranjan Mohanty

India lost a political thinker, a socialist democrat and a radical federalist in the passing away of Balraj Puri in Jammu on 30 August 2014 after a prolonged illness. The loss has been mourned not only in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) cutting across regions and communities, but all over India among human rights activists, autonomy movements, socialists and other left groups and above all by forces of secularism and communal harmony.
Balraj Puri pursued certain democratic values of politics and social transformation for over six decades of activism and intellectual work that inspired generations of youth and anticipated many of the central concerns of the 21st century.
Activist-Intellectual
Like many of the leaders of India’s freedom struggle, Puri was both an intellectual and a political activist. Starting off as the young editor of the Urdu weekly, Pukar in 1942, he remained a journalist, among other things, all his life. In fact he set up the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Jammu for the training of competent journalists. Almost all important dailies and weeklies of India carried his articles from time to time. The Economic Weekly and later the Economic & Political Weekly carried many of his seminal pieces providing a valued perspective on crucial junctures of Indian polity as well as on the critical points in the history of the Kashmir question. 
Policymakers and the public were equally anxious to get the Balraj Puri perspective on major political issues. He set up the Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs in 1986 to systematically promote research and writings on J&K. In a rare way he combined activism with scholarship, directly participating in people’s mobilisation while writing analytical articles presenting his critical assessment of the actions and policies of governments and parties. Historical depth and a theoretical grasp with a close eye for details charactised Balraj Puri’s writings which included not only commentaries but a number of books. Besides his well-known books on Kashmir, Puri’s scholarship on Muslims of the subcontinent set high standards in objective analysis as was reflected in the book Muslims of India since Partition (latest edition in 2007).
Balraj Puri and the Kashmir Question
From 1947, when he was in the forefront of the efforts of the Jammu Students Union to maintain communal harmony in the wake of the armed conflict, and until the end of his life he had a clear perspective on the Kashmir question. He asserted that full play of freedom and participatory democracy with regional autonomy was the only way to address the aspirations of the people of J&K. He worked to realise this objective all his life and confronted ruling parties and opposition groups with clear democratic alternatives. That earned him the goodwill and respect from all sections of people of J&K – something which very few could claim. He played a key role in the making of the Delhi Agreement of July 1952 persuading Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to accept autonomy for J&K under the popular leadership of Sheikh Abdullah. He strongly condemned the subsequent steps taken by the central government to curb democratic space and erode the autonomy of J&K which was guaranteed under Article 370 of the Constitution.
In 1964 it was on his initiative that Sheikh Abdullah was received by Nehru and a fresh understanding was in the making when Nehru passed away. Balraj Puri mediated between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah, setting up the dialogue between G Parthasarathi and Mirza Afzal Baig in 1975 that paved the way for democratic politics in J&K, only to be disrupted once again a few years later.
Balraj Puri insisted that free and fair elections must take place in the state and the three regions – Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir – be given adequate autonomy to manage their affairs. In his book, Jammu: A Clue to the Kashmir Tangle(1966) he spelled out his thesis. When Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah constituted a Committee on Regional Autonomy with Balraj Puri as chairperson in 1999, he got the opportunity to put his idea into practice. But to his disappointment he found that Farooq Abdullah was not prepared for that line of action, and so he resigned. His statement on that occasion is a blueprint for regional autonomy for J&K providing a framework of relationship not only between the centre and the J&K but also among the regions within J&K.
He was consistently critical of the way the Praja Parishad in Jammu frustrated all the democratic initiatives that Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah undertook in the early years of Independence. Later, the Jana Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) persisted in their demand for scrapping Article 370 and went slow on it only under the pressure of coalition partners. Once when L K Advani blamed Nehru for not allowing the Indian Army to establish control over the whole of Kashmir in 1947 and Indira Gandhi not doing the same in 1971, Balraj Puri retorted that much of the present crisis was caused by the communal politics of the Praja Parishad and its successors, while Nehru and Indira and other central leaders did share the blame for denying the full play of democratic politics in Kashmir.
In his monumental work, Kashmir: Towards Insurgency (1993) he gave detailed reasoning as to how this process took a violent turn and how the secular foundations of Kashmir society were ruptured.
Radical Federalist
Balraj Puri was respected by all the political forces of J&K, including the various Hurriyat factions because he pointed out the root cause of alienation of the Kashmiri people, namely, lack of access to political power. His famous formulation that “development is no substitute for political aspirations of people” was true of not only J&K, but for all autonomy movements in the country. He was extremely critical of the way the United Progressive Alliance government wavered for long on the issue of the formation of Telangana State.
Puri’s notion of federalism was one of multilayered structuration of power, right down to the panchayat level. He believed that the regional level of democratic funtioning would guarantee protection of minority rights at every level. All regions had diversities which needed to be respected. That was possible by decentralised self-governance. He succeeded in the campaign for the formation of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council that the central government under the prime ministership of P V Narasimha Rao granted in 1993.
Balraj Puri was upset by the fact that J&K took a long time to amend the 1989 J&K Panchayat Act to adopt the statutory provisions of the 73rd amendment of the Constitution. When it finally did in 2011, the law turned out to be a disappointing   framework that placed nominated members at the district and block levels while allowing direct election of ward members only at the lowest level of the halqa panchayat. In contrast to the 73rd amendment which provided election of not less than 33% women the J&K law stipulated the nomination of only two women to the rural councils. Puri strongly criticised the whole exercise as another form of continuing centralisation of governance rather than promoting decentralised participatory democracy.
Debates over systems of federalism in the contemporary world veer around types of distribution of power. For Balraj Puri, however, the key question was whether the central leaders devolved power as a management strategy to secure conformity in implementation of the central policies at local levels or sharing of substantive power at every level which made them interdependent. The radical federalist in Balraj Puri did not accept the regional unit as a subordinate agent but as an agency of self-determination with decisive power over local resources and having a right to plan its own development. That is what makes Balraj Puri such a relevant thinker in the 21st century.
Socialist Democrat-Human Rights Advocate
Balraj Puri remained a socialist throughout his life. He was an activist and an office-bearer of Praja Socialist Party and stayed as such, refusing to follow Ashok Mehta and others and merge the party with the Congress. For Puri the essence of socialism was the pursuit of equality and human rights through a democratic polity. He was not attracted to either JP’s partyless democracy or M N Roy’s radical humanism which were the centre of much debates in the 1960s. Freedom of expression, competitive party politics and independence of judiciary – the basic postulates of liberal politics were dear to him. But at the same time he was a sharp critic of capitalism and was therefore critical of policies of the Congress Party which according to him favoured big business in India.
The human rights agenda formed the mainstay of Balraj Puri’s political and intellectual outlook. He was one of the founding-members of the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) along with V M Tarkunde and remained active in the organisation till his very end. He published a human rights journal – first as occasional papers from the mid-1990sand later regulaly as the J&K Human Rights Perspective till 2012 where he copiously documented the human rights violations in J&K by the security forces. He did not spare the militants either and condemned the atrocities committed by them. This journal remained for a long time as one of the rare sources of documentation of the field reports on the conditions of the common people in the long years of militancy in J&K. The bulletin also reported on the human rights situation in the rest of India. It also took note of the findings of various human rights organisations in India and abroad, thus making it a comprehensive source of information on human rights in the subcontinent. In 1995 Balraj Puri was awarded the coveted M M Thomas Award for his contribution to the human rights movement in India.
In 1963 when a crisis situation broke out when the Holy Relic was stolen from the Hazratbal Shrine, Balraj Puri was in the Committee for the Recovery illustrating the trust that he enjoyed among all sections of people in J&K. He continued his work for social harmony without interruption. In 1993 in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Mosque he was very active in the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity working for peace throughout the country. He was an active member of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy right from its founding in 1994, as he realised how important it was to address the political issues involved in order to promote peace and understanding in the subcontinent.
Balraj Puri enjoyed as much goodwill and respect in Pakistan as in India. Government awards can hardly capture the full import of the contribution of such a human rights activist. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005 and the Indira Gandhi National Integration Award in 2009.
For me personally he was Balraj Bhai, my friend and classmate Yogesh Puri’s elder brother whom I first met in 1962 and was captivated by his intellect. When he took a few of us to meet Sheikh Abdullah in Nehru’s Teen Murti house in April 1964 to give our suggestions on what should be done on Kashmir I saw glimpses of the daring democrat early in my life. Since then the extraordinary socialist democrat never ceased to inspire me.