Mid-year Mini List of Favorite Non-fiction Reads

You know I am into non-fiction, writing and reading. A consistent trend in non-fiction writing has been the emergence of academics as non-fiction writers and as more and more do so, we can clearly see how some of them are gifted writers.

I laid my hands on two super books of narrative non-fiction this year – Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch. While Desmond’s book tracks eight homeless families in America, Shah embarks on a ten-day journey with some of India’s most dreaded Maoists. Both are great works of narrative non-fiction. The writing is deep and informed, coming as it does from years of research by the academics who wrote these books. But what’s really interesting is that both the books use immersive storytelling to craft stories and both writers have spent years observing the people they write about. This is a masterful, credible and empathetic body of work. This is what has made narrative non-fiction literature very interesting. The book I am working on falls in the genre, so I asked Alpa Shah about dabbling in the genre as an academic. The interview will soon be out on my blog, so keep reading. I also reviewed Shah’s book for Newslaundry.

I also loved Anand Giridhardas’s Winners Take All and James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj. Crabtree’s book is a book about the rising inequality in India, the story told through the lives of the super-rich in India and their unwieldy influence on Indian institutions. Read Ajit Ranade’s review here.

I greatly enjoyed reading Winners Take All – the book has a catty, acerbic tone and it’s, therefore, a delightful read. Giridhardas’s book turns its gaze on people immersed in social innovation and philanthropy efforts, social impact consulting and impact investing. Anand argues that “business elites are taking over the work of changing the world,” and that “many believe they are changing the world when they may instead—or also—be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.” In this book, the contradictions of those who work for social change from positions of privilege and wealth are exposed as the author probes into their shortcomings and their limitations.

Anand’s book drew my attention because I too have spent five years working for some of the startups in India and has had a close view of the ecosystem. The author raises thought-provoking questions in the book – are the capitalists who have been working hard to solve the world’s problems, part of the problem y perpetuating the evils? Are they looking enough within their own business practices, privilege, and access to power? Giridharadas writes that “a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system” will always fail. And while I love the book, here is a very interesting criticism of the book, though, as catty as Anand’s book itself. Do read for fun.

Hilliby Elegy by JD Vance and Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body are stunning memoirs. While Vance’s book presents a detailed and moving account of the American struggle (a New Yorker review is here), critic, translator and author Gokhale recounts her unusual life lived through the body. I wouldn’t say much because excellent reviews on both are available online. For Vance, this one is my favorite and this one for Gokhale.

I would end this list of my favorite reads this year with Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother and Karoline Kan’s Under Red Skies, both eminent reads on contemporary China. Fincher’s book turns its focus on a section of college-educated Chinese women in China’s major cities who have come together to lead a feminist revolution working to put up a challenge to patriarchy, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexism, facilitated by social media. In 2012, these women took to the streets in China to engage in performance art and shared videos of their activities online. This provoked widespread discussion and debate and the Chinese govt had to act to restrain them. Fincher’s book recounts this in her gripping book, which is based interviews with these young women, including the group that came to be known as the Feminist Five.

Kan’s Under Red Skies is a beautiful, evocative memoir on growing up in China as a millennial. Kan, born in 1989, the year of the massacre, writes a coming-of-age story blending family history and China’s cultural landscape as a background that not just highlights the generational differences and the urban-rural divide in China but also delves deep into the psyche of a millennial who grew up in China in the midst of the state-mandated one-child norm and cyber-surveillance. If you are interested in China, these are the two essential reads for you.

So that’s it – I have deliberately kept the list short, forcing myself to pick just a few. Not all books I have mentioned have been released this year but I list these because I read them this year. This is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list – it only reflects my interest and appreciation of books I have truly enjoyed reading so far this year. Hope you find the list useful. Happy reading.

18 percent of 50

Wikipedia has been a deeply unequal place and this wasn’t going to change anytime soon. But thanks to the efforts of academics and researchers and gender experts around the world, the gender gap on Wikimedia has narrowed. Check out the figures for every country here.

Since 2015, ‘Women in Red’ project based has been leading efforts to mitigate the biases on the internet, especially the “content gender gap” prevalent on websites like Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, women have been underrepresented and this forms the basis for the ‘Women in Red‘ project to work towards turning the non-existent red links on Wikipedia into blue ones, with women’s biographies, details on their work and career, and other gender issues. Since 2015, the entries about women on Wikimedia were just about 15% of the total entries on the site; four years later, it has touched 18%.

At Rice University, Prof Diane Straussman has been encouraging students to take up wikimedia entries as part of their student projects. An interview with her to learn more about her efforts will be on this blog soon.

While I get back here with the interview, here , here, here and here are some interesting reads on the gender gap and efforts to bridge the gap, highlighting the credit for outstanding work by women that either arrives late or almost never comes!

 

 

Trump’s Crazy Quibble Over Yuan

First, the madness over Huawei (I blogged about this here) and now, the accusation of currency manipulation – US President Donald J Trump has let the world know that the US-China trade war is far from over. But what exactly has happened with Yuan to warrant Trump’s accusation?

The Yuan fell to its 11-year low against the US dollar last week. It happened because China’s central bank set a lower than usual reference rate for its currency Yuan, and when Yuan hit a low, it didn’t intervene. Trump immediately lashed out, calling China a “currency manipulator”.

China’s Shady Past

This label (of currency manipulation) has come back to haunt China after more than two decades when in 1994, it had earned the tag and rightly so. Currency manipulation is essentially an artificially lowering of the value of a country’s currency against the US dollar, usually done to boost exports. Artifical lowering refers to the weakening of currency by policy measures rather than market forces. With weaker currency, goods and services being exported from a country become cheaper in international markets, raising the volume of exports. Such behavior is unwelcome as gains derived from artificially lowered currencies tend to provide an unfair competitive advantage to countries with weakened currencies, in global trade. China’s export-led economy today is a manufacturing hub, but not without concerns being raised over its currency manipulation in the 1990s. China is known to tightly control its exchange rate and in the last two decades, its always been around 7 yuan per dollar.

US Tariffs and Yuan

In the ongoing US-China trade war, negotiations over tariffs haven’t been going well. Last week, just before the fall of Yuan, US-China failed to arrive at a settlement on tariffs. Instead, US announced more tariffs on 300 billion dollars worth of Chinese goods. China retaliated saying it wouldn’t purchase US agricultural products. This development was succeeded by the fall in Yuan, which China said was driven by market forces. However, for a country known for its tight control over the exchange rate, this was unusual. When the Yuan was falling, China’s central bank, like several times earlier, didn’t intervene.

Here is an excellent piece on currency manipulation that I strongly recommend.

Back to the Q: Is China Manipulating Yuan?

Experts say it depends on whether China runs a huge trade surplus today and as facts stand, China hasn’t been burying foreign exchange neither does it have a large current account deficit as it used to have in the 1990s-2000s. Even US Treasury investigations have concluded for many years now that China doesn’t qualify to be a currency manipulator.

What Now

Experts have termed US’ current labeling of China merely symbolic as the tag of currency manipulator may not have huge and direct implications for either of the two parties involved. However, it’s the intent and purpose of the Trump administration in this matter that appears terrifying. Besides countless reports on China over its intellectual property and other trade practices, Trump government hs its fangs out for China with tariffs and more tariffs. This has huge implications for the global economy (I have already discussed this in an earlier post). Economists at Morgan Stanley have predicted that if the US-China trade war continues for another four to six months, the global economy will plunge into a recession in nine months.

Negotiations between China and the US, irrespective of the name-calling and labeling, seems to be the only way out. It appears that the US and China both would still like to negotiate a deal, given that plans are already underway for a Chinese trade delegation to visit the US next month. Only more trade talks will stop this trade war from getting out of hand.

 

Two insightful reads on the subject that I so want to recommend:

https://mises.org/wire/trumps-hypocrisy-currency-manipulation

http://econbrowser.com/archives/2019/08/guest-contribution-rmb-reaches-7-0-us-names-china-a-manipulator

Should India toe the US line on Huawei?

Huawei, since the start of 2018, has emerged as the most controversial Chinese company. The telecommunications major, with $100 billion in revenue in 2018, has been facing the wrath of US President Donald J. Trump and other leaders who have accused it of aiding the Chinese government with cyber espionage, IP threat and trade violations. The struggle has gone on for too long (the entire timeline of the conflict is here), and with significant impact, potentially shaping the trajectory of the global technology landscape, especially Asia’s.

In the US-China tug-of-war over Huawei, other countries seem to also have acted against the Chinese company. Australia and New Zealand have blocked mobile providers from using the company’s 5G services, besides European telecoms companies — France’s Orange (ORAN) and BT (BT) in the United Kingdom. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (DTEGY) and Japan’s SoftBank (SFTBF) are reviewing their use of Huawei equipment.

Yet, Huawei has reported an increase in smartphone sales and has also announced the development of its own operating system called the Harmony OS, independent of iOS and Android operating systems. Trump’s ban on the company has led to unpleasant outcomes though: Huawei has laid off hundreds of US workers; its revenues are expected to drop to $100 billion this year, down from around $104 billion last year; and its new launches are severely delayed.

India is roughly 100 days away from its 5G trials and it can’t make up its mind on whether Huawei should be invited to the trials. Reasons are obvious. Huawei operations in India are now in the 22nd year, having built the trust of Indian consumers and a strong market presence since 1998 when it first entered India with an R&D center in Bangalore. India is now a strong market for inexpensive mobile devices and Huawei is doing very well in this market. In 2015, the company also became the first large Chinese corporation ”to supply locally-made products” in the Indian market. Reaching here means huge investments by Huawei in India and this can not be ignored while making any decisions on the India operations of Chinese telecom major. Pre-empting any adverse action, China has gone ahead and warned India of reverse sanctions if it bans Huawei. 

So, should India put curbs on Huawei just like the US has? The answer lies in the policies India wants to adopt to grow its share in international trade. Any attempt to place the curbs would be short-sighted, at best. We can’t deny the presence of domestic lobbies within India who have been wanting Huawei out for the sheer expansion of the company in India’s smartphone market that has made it a market leader. This has happened in spite of the absence of any free trade agreement between India and China. Huawei, for cellular operators in India, also continues to present a more affordable choice given its utterly competitive pricepoint. Placing any curbs at this point in time would only address concerns of domestic cellphone manufacturing lobbies at work, and not really address the future needs of the telecom industry in India which is set to explode with 5G.

Concerns that Huawei may be collaborating with the Chinese government to gather and pass on sensitive information and jeopardize India’s national security, maybe valid and therefore, need to be adequately addressed. But merely banning Huawei isn’t the solution given that there are a number of foreign companies at work in the space and any of them could inflict the same damage as Huawei is feared to inflict. India may be part of US’s plans to forge an anti-China alliance, but it is in such difficult times that it becomes all the more important that India independently decides what’s good for its people. Having Huawei around means India has more choice in terms of smartphones, more competition in the market, and a chance at better telecom services, all of which augur well for the growth of telecom industry in India. With the US closing its doors, Huawei will try its best to hold on to India, and India reciprocating the same can position herself not just as a country that can hold on to its own stance independent of where the US and its geopolitical ambitions stand, but also as a country that thinks and acts to safeguard her long-term economic interests.

What Machine Learning has to do with Global Trade

Machine Learning (ML) is commonly seen as the scientific study of algorithms and statistical models used by computers to perform specific tasks. Considered a subset of artificial intelligence, ML could have game-changing implications for people of the world struggling with language barriers. As we know, Chinese, Spanish and English are the most spoken languages of the world. What ML can potentially do is to help people translate native languages into other different languages they may need to speak in with the help of artificial intelligence, and when this happens, this could seamlessly unite the world in more ways than one. Just sample Google Translate and you’ll know what I am talking about.

How does this help global trade? If economists are to be believed, language barriers have hurt trade substantially, and precisely why, with ML demolishing the language barriers, world trade could change. According to the “gravity model”, a common language between trading partners could raise trade by almost 50 percent. If trading nations, involving millions of people and corporations, begin dealing in a common language (thanks to ML), imagine the gains from the trade! This could mean people being able to work in countries where they couldn’t earlier as they didn’t know the native language, or communicate easily for work, leisure or fun.

With machine translation becoming more efficient and widely used, speakers of languages other than English, Chinese or Spanish will compete with them and the global market will be full of such people wanting a share of the employment pie. Job markets will no longer discriminate on grounds of language. Machine learning may just be paving the path to the possibilities of great human cooperation by bringing down the language barriers.

Yet, ML’s direct benefits for trade remain a matter of discussion for many scholars. They argue that the progress in ML may be limited to indirect communication and as far as trade ties involving direct communication are concerned, factors such as a preference for local products, trust between trading partners and familiarity with business may undermine the role of a common language. Then, there are linguistic, religious, and legal influences that could play a significant role.

Sources here and here.

 

 

The Week That Was: Favorite Reads

I am always intrigued by developments in China, but this piece felt like the disturbing facts have moved closer home in India, especially in the context of what has happened in Jammu and Kashmir in the last few days (I blogged about this here).  Imagine being tracked down by the government down to every step you take or intercepted at every corner of the world you drive to? The court-approved Deadbeat Map does worse to Chinese people, and in that country, such things apparently have stopped bothering people.  The Deadbeat app tracks people blacklisted by the Chinese government for creditworthiness or payment of fines and also allows the dissemination of this utterly private information on social media by complete strangers, to alert authorities! I haven’t heard of a more bizarre government-public partnership at work, enabled by technology! But, imagine this being very, very popular with people in China, and it is.

Adam Minter, in the Bloomberg piece, writes:

Depicted outside of China as a creepy digital panopticon, this network of so-called social-credit systems is seen within China as a means to generate something the country sorely lacks: trust. For that, perpetual surveillance and the loss of privacy are a small price to pay.

….

Rather than generating outrage, these digital debtor prisons have proven extremely popular. A 2018 survey of more than 2,200 Chinese citizens found that 80 percent had joined a commercial social-credit system (Sesame Credit, which requires users to opt-in, was the most popular service), although only 7 percent were aware of that they’d been included within a government system. More surprisingly, 80 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approved of social-credit systems, with the strongest support coming from older, educated and more affluent urbanites — a demographic generally associated with more “liberal” values such as the sanctity of privacy.

On social media, at least, China revels in seeing individuals land on social credit-related blacklists. In 2016, when the National Tourism Administration published the names of people banned from plane travel, the news generated thousands of “likes” and repostings on the Sina Weibo social media site.

Hmmm. Read more here.

This Cambridge University Press research also illustrates how, compared to other countries, average public concern in China, especially about issues such as climate change, is relatively low, and concern varies greatly among Chinese citizens, across different provinces and between coastal and inland areas.

Another super interesting piece in The Economist tracked the shift of global banking and finance to India in spite of the constraints it poses to business, thanks to the large churn out of engineers graduating from the country’s university system. Interestingly, unlike manufacturing, global finance firms in India are managing to overcome the typical challenges: a labyrinthine maze of permissions, taxes and red tape, business-unfriendly labour laws, and struggling transport and communications networks.

India has long received other countries’ outsourced jobs. Some of those are unsophisticated, such as answering phones or processing forms. Many, however, rely on Indian universities’ remarkable ability to turn out engineers in great numbers, and computing firms’ ability to use them to solve complex problems. Such tasks may be dismissed as “back-office”. But they are at the heart of modern finance.

In recent years banks have become global networks that link apps on smartphones, workstations used for sales, and sophisticated programs used to manage compliance and allocate capital. Systems that once merely updated balances now determine financial-product marketing—whom to send offers to, when to increase credit limits and when to adjust charges. For banks all over the world, many such tasks are now done in India.
…. bankers say they have been startled by how fast India, notwithstanding its local challenges, has become an intellectual force that is now shaping their global futures.

In EPW, a smart curation of articles to understand inequality in India is enlightening and keeps you updated on the latest in this area. Mainly, the themes here focus on the question of inequality and whether economic growth alone can mitigate it, how inequality is measured and if at all it’s being correctly measured in India, the areas of concentration of wealth, rise in inequality in the post-reform period and long term trends in inequality in India. Another EPW curation of important reads on the growth of Hindu nationalism might be useful too.

A critical McKinsey report released earlier this month on the future of Asia and ways in which the continent will lead the world economy offers an overview of Asia’s role in international trade, corporations in Asia, technology, and the Asian consumer, drawing a comprehensive picture of how the continent is growing and what this could mean for the world.

One of the most dramatic developments of the past 30 years has been emerging Asia’s soaring consumption and its integration into global flows of trade, capital, talent, and innovation. In the decades ahead, Asia’s economies will go from participating in these flows to determining their shape and direction. Indeed, in many areas—from the internet to trade and luxury goods—they already are. The question is no longer how quickly Asia will rise; it is how Asia will lead.

The McKinsey report on International Trade:

Because of its diversity and geographic sweep, Asia is not and likely will never be the same kind of tightly integrated trade entity as the European Union or NAFTA. Although it is a looser constellation of countries, trade ties and cooperation are deepening across the region. Today 52 percent of Asian trade is intra-regional, compared to just 41 percent in North America. This points toward a new trend of firms building self-contained regional supply chains to serve Asian markets. It also indicates deepening trade ties among Asian countries themselves—with much more room to grow. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a new free trade agreement that includes 16 countries across the region, including China, Japan, India, and Vietnam.

While trade in goods has flattened, service flows have become the real connective tissue of the global economy. In fact, services trade is growing 60 percent faster than trade in goods—and Asia’s services trade is growing 1.7 times faster than the rest of the world’s. While India and the Philippines are among the biggest exporters of back-office business services, trade in knowledge-intensive services is still in its infancy across most Asian countries and represents an important gap to be filled.

On Corporations:

Asian firms have become global market leaders not only in industrial and automotive sectors but in areas like technology, finance, and logistics. Over the past 20 years, as these economies have evolved, the industry mix of the region’s largest firms has shifted. Manufacturing of capital goods is now a smaller share of the region’s economy, while infrastructure and financial services have grown significantly.

The ownership structures, growth strategies, and operating styles of Asian corporate giants differ from those of publicly owned Western multinationals. About two-thirds of the 110 Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 are state owned. The region also has a number of large conglomerates. South Korea’s top five family-controlled chaebols together account for roughly half of the value in the country’s stock market. Japan’s “big six” keiretsu similarly have outsize weight in the country’s equity market; each one owns dozens of companies spanning several industries. All major Japanese car manufacturers, for example, can be tied back to a keiretsu. India’s top six conglomerates alone employ more than two million people.

 

On Technology:

Whether they are digital leaders or laggards, the next stage of the journey for countries across the region is to go beyond consumer use and encourage wider adoption of digital tools in traditional sectors, from agriculture to retail and logistics. Similarly, the public and social sectors can continue deploying digital systems to make government services and healthcare more efficient. The ultimate goal is harnessing the latest technology tools to boost productivity in a meaningful way.

Innovation hubs are starting to take root. As of April 2019, Asia was home to more than one-third of the world’s “unicorns” (start-ups valued at more than $1 billion). Ninety-one of these companies are in China, followed by India with 13, South Korea with six, and Indonesia at four.

On Asian consumer:

The growing Asian middle class will soon be three billion strong. Southeast Asia alone had some 80 million households in the consuming class just a few years ago. Now that number is on track to double to 163 million households by 2030, with Indonesia, in particular, generating tens of millions of newly prosperous consumers.

Do read the full report here.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have raged on for more than two months now. This Economist piece succinctly sums up China’s continued interest in this Asian commerce hub and how it has a lot to do with China’s closed economy.

Key points below:

The paradox is that the more autocratic the mainland gets the more it needs Hong Kong commercially. Had China reformed its financial and legal system, the territory would be irrelevant to its global business. Instead the opposite has happened: China has grown fast and globalised, but not opened up.

As a result, Hong Kong’s economy is disproportionately useful to China. It has a status within a body of international law and rules that gives it seamless access to Western markets. The status is multifaceted. It includes: a higher credit rating; lower risk-weights for bank and counterparty exposures; the ability to clear dollars easily; independent membership of the wto; “equivalence” status for its stock exchange with those in America, Europe and Japan; recognition as a “developed” stockmarket by index firms and co-operation agreements with other securities regulators.

Cross-border bank lending booked in Hong Kong has roughly doubled in the past decade, much of it Chinese companies borrowing dollars intermediated through the territory. Hong Kong’s stock market is now the world’s fourth-largest, behind Tokyo’s but ahead of London’s. About 70% of the capital raised on it is for Chinese firms, but strikingly the mix has shifted from state enterprises to tech firms such as Tencent, Meituan and Xiaomi. These firms have specifically chosen not to do mainland listings because the markets there are too immature and closed off from Western investors. Alibaba, an e-commerce conglomerate, is also in the process of doing a Hong Kong listing (at present it is only listed in New York). Most Chinese foreign direct investment flows through Hong Kong. The stock domiciled in the territory has roughly doubled in the last decade, to $2trn. Hong Kong’s share of total fdi flowing into mainland China has remained fairly constant, at 60%. Although the amount of multinational money flowing into and out of China has soared, most firms still prefer to have Hong Kong’s legal stamp.

Meanwhile, the number of multinationals with their regional headquarters in the territory has increased by two-thirds since 1997, to around 1,500. Hong Kong hosts the most valuable life insurer in the world, excluding mainland China, aia, while a global firm with a big Asian arm, Prudential, is about to shift its regulatory domicile to Hong Kong.

This all means that how turmoil in Hong Kong is resolved matters to more than just to its own people. Already boards of multinationals are debating over whether to move their regional domicile to Singapore. Indeed, one existing weak spot for Hong Kong is that major American tech firms, such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, have set up their regional headquarters in Singapore, perhaps because of cyber-worries. An executive with a biotech startup says the company is moving money out of the territory and considering an American listing instead.

China will not take action in Hong Kong lightly: it knows how much is at stake economically and how much its biggest firms depend on the territory, quite apart from the reputational risk. Yet it also sees the situation spiraling into a threat to the Communist Party itself—one that America, it believes, is trying to exploit.

My favorite BJP leader Sushma Swaraj passed away last week. Here is Jaya Jaitley’s beautiful tribute to her.

On Indian economy’s current slowdown, a Business Standard op-ed that debunks the argument that the slowdown is cyclical, and another that takes a hard look at the growth figures, yet again.

Another brilliant piece by my former Mint colleague Remya Nair on how the Modi government has used the Food Corporation of India to keep fiscal deficit artificially low – by transferring its liabilities to the FCI via NSSF loans and keeping the actual food subsidy in the budget low.

I conclude this post two beautiful pieces of writing. First is this post by Adam O’Fallon Price in The Paris Review on his obsessive-compulsive disorder and writing:

Controlling a sentence—controlling this sentence, as I type—is for me the best, most pleasurable work there is. I build the paragraph, tagged by its thematic first word: control. In crafting this sentence, this paragraph, this essay, I get to be both architect and construction worker, and both jobs offer equally pleasing aspects of control. The former involves creative design and abstract thought; the latter brings the visceral, simultaneously logical and intuitive pleasure of finding the right word, moving it around, putting it in just the right place. Having written that sentence, I know I must reverse myself and concede that the idea of there being “just the right place” is illusory—that even this work is, in its essence, as arbitrary as anything else. This is true, but nonetheless as I write, I shut out the world, other responsibilities, Twitter, the news, everything.

Second and last is this touching, forever relevant The Newyorker piece by Toni Morrison who also passed away last week. The sentences that resonated with me:

I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.

The Kashmir Conundrum

Apologies for being away for almost a week. I have missed you, hope you have too.

I had no realization of what significant events my brief interlude from blogging would bring. But while I have been away, Jammu and Kashmir as a state of India don’t exist the way it used to. It’s now a Union Territory with a Legislature. The state was also bifurcated to create an independent UT of Ladakh with no legislature. This also meant article 370 of the Indian Consitution, which conferred special status to the state of J&K, was modified. Before this, this special status allowed J&K to have its own constitution, its own flag and its own laws independent of the same in the union of India. Now, people from all over India can buy land in Kashmir, set up businesses and invest; Indian government’s welfare schemes, rules, and regulations will now be applicable in the state.

Before the bill to this effect was passed in Parliament, Indian Army troops moved into J&K, clamped down on the Internet and detained local politicians and separatists. There have been apprehensions of violence and unrest over the development. As we speak, this continues with an eerie silence from the international community with the exception of Pakistan and China. What’s evident is that most countries in the world seem to be viewing this exercise by the Indian government as an internal matter of India, recognizing its sovereignty in dealing with its internal affairs. Pakistan, however, thinks otherwise and has already reached out to the UN and a host of other countries to offer their support in condemning India.

A Contested Past

Unlike the differing viewpoints on Kashmir, there are thankfully no conflicting opinions on how J&K acceded to India. I particularly liked this academic EPW piece on the history of the troubled state. The main points in the piece can be summarised as below:

  • At the time of independence of India, Hari Singh, the then king of J&K was ambiguous about acceding to India or Pakistan. He brokered a deal with the British govt to stay independent. This state was not to be, as an attack by Pakistani pastuns compelled Hari Singh to reach out to India for help. India, in turn, sought J&K accession to India.
  • At the time of accession, India adopted the policy that in case of dispute over J&K’s status, the matter should be settled in accordance with the wishes of people. However, India also considered the accession a purely temporary and provisional arrangement, as stated in the Government of India’s White Paper on J&K in 1948.
  • J&K was conferred the special status via Article 370; you could read all about the provision in detail here. Briefly, this article limited the Union government’s legislative power over Kashmir to just three subjects- foreign affairs, defense, and communications. This in effect ensured J&K’s autonomy.
  • Further, to strengthen this arrangement, certain riders were put in place: the central government couldn’t make any changes in the article without issuing a presidential order, with approval of the state legislature, and only after the changes were incorporated in the state constitution.

Why The Scrapping of 370 Was Welcomed:

  • Home Minister Amit Shah, in his speech in Lok Sabha, said article 370 had for years separated J&K from India, with the provision misused by separatists and sympathizers of separatists in the state. Shah’s argument was in line with the BJP’s historic stand on article 370, which has also been on their poll manifesto for years.
  • Another argument highlighted the lack of development in the state because of the special status of J&K. Shah said because of the article, many of the central government’s schemes and benefits didn’t reach the people of Kashmir.Manish Sabharwal wrote in The Indian Express:

Historians warn against “presentism” and Kashmir’s history is too long and complex to belong to any party, community, individual or religion. But it would be foolish to deny that Kashmir’s last few maharajas were distracted and disinterested in development. Monarchies or hereditary leadership are ineffective because they think of citizens or voters as a necessary evil that must be tolerated, possibly patronised, but certainly ignored. Naya Kashmir — a memorandum that Sheikh Abdullah submitted to Maharaja Hari Singh in 1944 — outlined a plan to convert J&K from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy, called for universal franchise, freedom of expression and press, ability of women to work in all trades and professions, and a detailed economic plan. Much of what he sought is enshrined in our Constitution but his vision of social justice, economic progress and poverty reduction — which he couldn’t achieve in his lifetime — is highly relevant for Kashmir today….

India and J&K are tremendously and permanently intertwined. When one does well, the other does well. And when we both do well, we are unstoppable.

  • An overwhelming number of Kashmiri pundits rejoiced the scrapping of 370, arguing that with the provision gone, they would return to their homes in J&K from where they had to flee at the peak of separatist violence in the state.
  • Article 370 was acted as a shield for terrorists in J&K, who brainwashed Kashmiri youth against India and took undue advantage of their economic situation arising out of the poor development in the state.

Why The Scrapping of 370 Was Condemned:

  • Scrapping of 370 hits at the autonomy of J&K, many argued.
  • With the special status gone, outsiders can buy and in J&K. Many viewed this as a vicious attempt to engineer a demographic transition in the Muslim-dominate d state.
  • The move attacked the “Idea of India” and diluted Kashimiriyat. 

    Economist Haseeb Drabu, in this piece for Mint, argued:

For the people of J&K, the biggest benefit of the state having greater legislative latitude under Article 370 has been the radical restructuring of agrarian relations. It was the first state in India, much before the communist government in Kerala, to carry out non-compensatory land reforms.

… These land reforms along with a massive debt write-off undertaken over 20 years, from 1951 to 1973, transformed the lives of rural masses and underlie J&K’s better-than national average human development indicators.

Samar Halarnkar in this piece for Scroll, argues that the move marks the slow un-democratization of India:

Aided and approved by vast swathes of the media, the Opposition, the administration and the Indian people, the Kashmir deception is the most impressive feat yet achieved in the slow, gradual process of dimming the lights of India’s democracy.

India has been set on course towards the darkness for some time. Successive Congress governments deliberately allowed India’s democracy to be clouded by the continuation and deployment of laws – old and new – meant to be used by a ruler against the ruled.

We did not complain enough when thousands suffered the wrongful use of vaguely worded laws: against terrorism, criminal defamation, information-technology misuse and sedition, the last of which has been freely used over the years against sloganeering students, villagers protesting power plants and cartoonists.

What Now?

I can not help but talk about the continued media clampdown in J&K. It’s been a week and news from the state has been a trickle, not a storm, as one would expect. The manner in which the move was hurried through, raises these legitimate concerns:

1. Future of media freedom in India – because even as we speak, reports suggest that people in and outside of Kashmir can’t still reach their families, and journalists aren’t moving freely in the state to be able to send regular reports.

2. State of democracy in India – because, firstly, the state assembly had no role to play in this move, and the parliament didn’t discuss a sensitive provision such as this enough before the bill was rushed to voting.

3. Position of courts on the government move – National Conference party has already challenged the government move in Supreme Court, but legal experts say this may not be a cakewalk. Here is The Print report that explored instances in the past when Indian courts have ruled on Article 370.

4. Role and future of political parties in J&K 

5. Will this bring about peace or conflict in the region?

6. Implications for India’s federal structure – Louise Tillin wrote in The Hindu:

 This is not the first time that a Central government has used its powers to bifurcate a State in the absence of local consensus. This was also seen with the creation of Telangana in 2014. As in the case of Telangana, the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh does respond to a long-run demand in this region with a substantial Buddhist population. However, the decision to transform the remainder of J&K State into a Union Territory, at the same time as annulling Article 370, is a departure with profound and as yet unknown consequences in Kashmir, and wider implications for Indian federalism.

There are undeniably worrying aspects to the latest development in J&K. While there are no clear answers to this now, it’s important to say that the manner in which the government went ahead with scrapping of article 370, it should not keep us in any illusion about the state of the democratic process in India. We could only hope that good sense prevails and there is no repeat.