In the week since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in, a succession of controversies have threatened to overshadow his core agenda of growth and governance reform. None, however, threatens to erupt into so great a conflagration as the bitter exchanges over Article 370 of India’s Constitution. Ever since Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh, was reported to have said that the process of abrogating Article 370 had begun, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been locked in aggressive polemical exchanges. Dr. Singh has clarified — correctly — that he only spoke of initiating a debate on abrogating Article 370, a commitment made in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto, rather than of the actual process of removing it from the Constitution. The rancour isn’t surprising, though: just as many Hindu nationalists oppose Article 370 as a barrier to the full integration of Jammu and Kashmir, many in the State see it as their only protection against existential threat. Fears of being swamped by a hostile majority remain a powerful motif in Kashmir politics — last erupting into large-scale street battles in 2008.
Little understood outside Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370 lies at the heart of the State’s constitutional relationship with India. It makes six special provisions, all emerging from the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir. They include allowing the State its own Constitution, and limiting Parliament's authority to legislate for it. In 1954, with Sheikh Abdullah in prison, Syed Mir Qasim’s regime expanded Parliament’s powers, and extended the Constitution’s Fundamental Rights to the State. In the years since, other Constitution Orders have given the Supreme Court jurisdiction over the State, and extended to it the supervisory power of the Election Commission of India. In 2001, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passed a resolution seeking the restitution of the original, pristine Article 370; the BJP and some Congress leaders from the Hindu-majority Jammu province wanted it overturned altogether. The National Democratic Alliance flatly refused to discuss the Assembly’s demand. There is no doubt that there will have to be a debate on Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status at some point, especially if there is a final resolution of the India-Pakistan dispute over the State. The debate must be had in a calm frame of mind, though — and this is not the time to have it. Prime Minister Modi, who spoke in measured and open terms on the issue during the election campaign, would do well to douse the sparks his junior Minister has let fly, before a fire breaks out.