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Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

#PROPRIETY: Kashmir activist hijacks Salman Khurshid SOAS lecture

A lecture on democracy in India by the country's foreign minister at a London university on Wednesday was brought to a premature end after a Q&A session was hijacked by a vocal young activist haranguing the minister about the contentious issue of Kashmir.

The unnamed student of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) berated minister Salman Khurshid about India's occupation of Kashmir and alleged human rights violations carried out by Indian troops - now numbering more than 700,000 - stationed in the divisive and divided former princely state in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Oxford-educated Mr Khurshid, a stalwart of the ruling Indian National Congress, was forced to plead to be allowed the chance to state his position on the issue as the lecture descended into an unseemly spat.

Another Pakistani student criticized Mr Khurshid for "ignoring" the issue of Kashmir during his talk, which was titled "Challenges to Democracy in India". 

He then proceeded to describe as "bullshit" a statement by the Foreign Minister on India's desire to hold a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

"Your UN aspirations, I would call them bullshit because how can you work towards world peace through the Security Council when India doesn't have peace because of what is happening in Kashmir", he queried.

The student's female friend then joined the fray, haranguing Mr Khurshid about the "hundreds of rapes" and other atrocities committed by occupying Indian forces. 

She also questioned the minister about a recent incident involving several Kashmiri-origin students at a university in north India, who were charged with sedition after they allegedly celebrated a Pakistani win over India in a cricket match.

The feisty young student - speaking in a British accent, sporting a hijab and referring to Kashmir as "my country" - refused to back down despite pleas by the mediating lecturers and angry members of the audience.

Mr Khurshid, a published writer whose work includes books and plays on Kashmir and identity politics, eventually managed to get a word in edgeways: "I first went to Kashmir when I was four years old.  I have a sense and a feel and a deep love for Kashmir", he said.

"The charges against the students were opposed by many people, including myself, and that's why they were withdrawn.  Kashmir is not a satisfactory issue for me.  But there are larger issues in India that need to be addressed which will in turn help us deal with Kashmir.

"We defined India in a particular way for all the people of our country in 1947.  And we are very sad that that definition has been hijacked by people who have tried to qualify that definition and defeat its purpose.  But we can't turn the clock back.  Today, India is home to the second largest population of Muslims in the world.  Do you really want something to happen in India that would put a huge question mark on that population", Mr Khurshid asked pointedly. 

Ironically, one of the main talking points during the lecture had been the pressing need for the different political factions in India to engage in a political discourse with what Mr Khurshid called "propriety, decency and a level of intellect".

"I think it is important that we need to turn the debate to something serious.  There are many serious things that are still to be done in the country.  There are questions on which we have taken a position.  On nuclear power for instance.  But we don't know what the other side want to do about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.  We believe that the world is supporting us with regards to a restructured UN Security Council. 

"Therefore politicians cannot be street fighters.  If a country provokes us with an unwholesome act on our borders, we have to take it seriously.  We have to take steps to address it but not by declaring war.  India is considered a country that can make a valuable contribution to world peace.  I think that people are trying to change the rules of the game.  But I think it's important to raise the level of discourse in our country, especially in our parliament."

IMPOTENCE

Days earlier, Mr Khurshid himself had come under fire for calling opposition leader Narendra Modi - the first Indian Prime Ministerial candidate running a "presidential campaign", according to the Foreign Minister - "impotent", a word that caused considerable consternation among supporters of the "earthy" Modi. 

Mr Khurshid clarified his remark, saying that it had been taken out of context.

"Many have taken the word in a manner in which I didn't use it.  I charged him with the word 'impotent' because he went around saying he had a "57-inch chest" and that my leader (Congress president Sonia Gandhi) was a criminal.  The interesting thing is that I was told by Shobha De that I shouldn't have used that word as I am an Oxford Don but then she went on to say that all Indian men are impotent.  And then the Indian Express said that I was only interested in 'sexology'. 

"So I think the debate is being distorted.  Impotent rage is something all of us get into from time to time.  I think the word and the context in which it was used would be understood by those for whom English is the mother tongue.  Mr Modi himself should stop using phrases like a 57-inch chest so that we could get down to serious political discourse."

THE CHALLENGES

Prior to being caught off-guard by the activist and the various definitions of 'impotence', Mr Khurshid had delivered a wide-ranging lecture on the unique challenges faced by the world's largest and most vibrant democracy as it prepares for a general election on 7 May.

The poll will see a staggering 814 million people - greater than the entire population of Europe - cast their ballots at nearly one million polling stations across the nation to elect up to 545 members to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament. 

The poll will be the largest in history and is already being billed as a remarkable achievement.  The sheer scale of the undertaking and the vast electoral disparities, Mr Khurshid said, were among the more widely known trials the world's largest democracy has to contend with. 

He laid out a whole host of less well known challenges that make democracy in India so unique, among them the powers vested in the widely respected Election Commission of India and the country's Supreme Court.

"I must say that the Election Commission of India has done yeomen service, especially in the past few years cleaning up the election process and sorting out a lot of the ugly warts in that process.  Having said that, the Commission is made up of three  individuals.  And there is no appeals process. 

"The three of them can decide between themselves what words a candidate can use in an election campaign.  For example, our manifesto cannot offer promises to build roads because that 'distorts democratic decision-making'.  It also should not offer to supply drinking water because that too distorts decision making by voters.

"The broad philosophical approach of the Commission is that you should not say or do anything that lets you win an election.  I quite cheekily said to them, 'we do that for five years anyway but at least give us fifteen days in which we can try and win voters'.  It's an interesting area of study: the level of interference of the Election Commission in public discourse."

A similar challenge, Mr Khurshid added, were the powers exercised by the sprawling Indian Supreme Court which has continued to pass judgment on issues typically associated with the legislature, primarily due a lack of consensus in parliament.

"The Supreme Court's explanation is that it is forced to take over issues because the government is unable to address them", Mr Khurshid said. 

"For instance, they've taken over billboards.  Who will put what on which billboards and how far those billboards need be located from the road.  The Court has also decided what kind of fuel will be used in the National Capital Region of Delhi.  The courts are now deciding who can go to parliament and who can't.  This is judge-made law.  And if a parliamentarian is in contempt then they can be prosecuted.

"The trouble is if and when they make mistakes, what do we do then?  And they have made some very serious mistakes.  While they have a review system to keep a check on mistakes, you can't have that going on indefinitely because ultimately, the judiciary has an important role in deciding on cases of law. 

"So all institutions should come together and decide what course to take because there's so much litigation in our country with cases backed up for years.  Just to give you an idea, the Supreme Court in the UK decides on a maximum of 90 cases a year.  In India every bench of the Supreme Court decides on 90 cases every Monday and Friday of every week."

As many established politicians have been rencently forced to acknowledge, Mr Khurshid too welcomed the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party and its enigmatic leader Arvind Kejriwal as an alternative to Congress and the BJP but warned that populist rhetoric was not an alternative to concrete policies.

"The remarkable thing about the Aam Aadmy Party is that people say they have changed everything about politics in our country.  The remarkable thing about Mr Kejriwal is that he is able to say all the things that we have said for fifty years but nobody believed. 

"And he says it in such a way that everybody believes him.  And that maybe another challenge for our democracy.  If you start saying things that people will believe but which have no basis in fact or reality and even if you can't deliver on those things, then that becomes a major problem." 

The greatest challenge faced by Democracy in India however, Mr Khurshid opined, was a medium that is set to play an unprecedented role in the country's upcoming election: Social Media.  "We used to deal with voters and we used to be able to feel and hear and see and respond to the people that voted for us.  If a mistake is made they could come back to you and there would be a discourse on how to make things work. 

"You were dealing with a tangible in democracy.  Today we are dealing with an intangible called.  We don't know who said what and why and after saying something and causing damage they hide away.  If they get it wrong there's no way of redressing it.  That's possibly our biggest challenge."

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