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Is the removal of special status for J&K justified?

Jammu and Kashmir, under Premier Sheikh Abdullah, recorded some of the best land reforms in India in the early years after Independence. Picture shows Abdullah with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru

Jammu and Kashmir, under Premier Sheikh Abdullah, recorded some of the best land reforms in India in the early years after Independence. Picture shows Abdullah with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru   | Photo Credit: Baldev

On August 5, the Centre decided to end the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) under Article 370. In addition, J&K also lost its statehood and was re-organised into two Union Territories. How do these moves change India’s relationship with J&K? More importantly, what do they mean for federalism, parliamentary democracy and diversity? In a conversation moderated by Varghese K. George, former J&K interlocutor Radha Kumar (RK) and journalist Sukumar Muralidharan (SM) look at the changed scenario. Edited excerpts:

The BJP has always argued that Article 370 led to separatism. However, the founding fathers of India had a different idea, believing instead that such provisions were essential to build unity among a diverse population. How do you see it?

RK: A look at the history of Kashmir reveals that the conflict always intensified in response to dilution of Article 370. Empirical evidence also shows that [it is] the periodic erosion of Article 370 that gave strength to separatist elements.

SM: I would agree. It is necessary to understand that J&K is unique among Indian States; it is an amalgam of three cultural regions and finding the proper power balance has been a tricky affair. Since the beginning, there was a conflict between Jammu, which insisted on closer integration, and Kashmir, which believed that autonomy would safeguard the integrity of the State. Article 370 was a compromise between these two demands.

Unfortunately, this difference in political perception has become communalised. The BJP sees the political dividend to be harvested from the rest of India by cracking down on what it has successfully portrayed to be the ‘special status’ of Kashmir which is but a recognition of the historical realities and circumstances surrounding Kashmir’s accession to India.

We could then argue that for both camps — those who believe India is a secular, pluralist country and the other who see it as a Hindu nation — Kashmir holds a demonstrative value. Would that be the right characterisation?

RK: I’m afraid so. J&K has been instrumentalised by the rest of India. I’d add a proviso: in a ‘quasi-federation’ of States like India, it is inevitable that what happens in one State will impact what happens in other States and resonate at the national level too. People in J&K, and particularly in the Valley, are aware of this but do not know how to engage with the political views of the whole of India. Early political leaders like Sheikh Abdullah, G.M. Sadiq, D.P. Dhar and others knew how to engage with Indian political leaders but it was an unfortunate time for democracy in J&K. This is a key element we often forget to consider: in India, the most successful States are those where democracy has grown unimpeded, whereas States where democracy has been interjected are in trouble, tense or volatile. Kashmir is a prime example of it.

Would you then agree that the question of autonomy has been central to the debate on Kashmir? The binary always used in this debate is autonomy vs. integration. Can we argue that relative autonomy in the earlier decades helped development in Kashmir?

SM: In the early years after Independence, J&K recorded some of the best land reforms in India. Landlordism and large feudal estates that flourished were dismantled and land was redistributed. A new Kashmiri middle class was created which was significant in underwriting early phases of stability. [But] subsequently, when they sought a voice, democracy was throttled. The reason is that the operative principle in J&K was not accountability to the people, but to New Delhi. J&K was not allowed to function like any other State in the Union.

The political geography of southern India reflects numerous changes since Independence. The linguistic re-organisation of States gave stability to the region. [However] due to constraints owing to the complex history of J&K, it was not reorganised. Thus, a chronic state of instability was created over the [sharing] of power between the three regions, further compounded by New Delhi’s interference.

After the 1971 War, India was confident of having diminished Pakistan’s status as the homeland of the subcontinent’s Muslims. Indira Gandhi was able to conclude a pact with Sheikh Abdullah. Bringing him back to the mainstream of politics might have shown a promise of integration of J&K. [But] in 1980s, when Abdullah’s son and successor Farooq Abdullah started functioning in national politics as an Opposition leader, he invited the wrath of Mrs. Gandhi, who dismissed him from office and started to meddle in the politics of the State. J&K has had a history of its democratic processes being impeded.

Radha, what is your view on the difference in terms by which various regions were folded into the Union of India? Is asymmetric federalism good for the regions involved and the idea of India?

RK: First, on the issue of development, I’d like to add that integration is not a matter of pen on paper, but of hearts and minds, processes and sense of belonging. Development depends on stability, peace and efficient and corruption-free governance. However, J&K has had short periods of stability interspersed with long periods of instability and violence. The first thing should be to work towards a peace process that will establish stability on the ground. That has nothing to do with autonomy.

Corruption, as we know, is a product of black economy in an unstable region. That is anyway a problem across the country. Transparency International would help us realise that J&K might not be the most corrupt. In fact, my State, Tamil Nadu, is probably the second or third-most corrupt and it does not have an ‘integration’ problem. So, development and integration have little to do with each other.

The government sought legitimacy by claiming that the majority of Parliament voted in its favour. In essence, that majority comes from five or six States. So, a majority of a handful of States has become the national majority and can be used as a tool to change the character, nature or composition of any State.

SM: This is not majority but majoritarianism, wherein a brute majority imposes its will on a reluctant minority. The Constitution and Supreme Court have said that Article 370 cannot be revoked without consent from the Constituent Assembly, in the absence of which the J&K Legislative Assembly fulfils that role. President’s rule is, by definition, a transitory phase. He cannot assume the will of the people and allow Parliament to ratify a Bill following a highly questionable legislative procedure. Further, the celebration in [many parts of] the country while Kashmir is under lockdown goes to show how deeply alienated J&K is from the rest of India. The spectacle of last week has been a sorry commentary on our democratic morals and sense of loyalty to constitutional principles.

Radha, technically this move was democratic in that an elected government did it. Do you, however, fear that this kind of move may be repeated elsewhere in the country?

RK: Before I go to the future, I want to underline that this [move] was completely undemocratic. The Governor and the President represent the Union in a State, not the will of the people of the State which rests in its Legislative Assembly and elected government. Parliament represents, on the other hand, the will of the entire country. Within Parliament, there are only a handful of representatives of J&K. Amongst them, the bulk was not present or displayed their opposition and only one spoke.

Clearly, this parliamentary decision did not include the will of the people of J&K. In such far-reaching parliamentary changes, Parliament cannot substitute the will of the people unless there are compelling reasons (like an armed resistance). Besides, it is not clear how changing the status to a Union Territory would help maintain security since, under Article 370, it is anyway a Central subject.

Due democratic process in the State was pre-empted and it was put under lockdown and its political leadership was arrested. No reason has been given for their arrest, no charges have been pressed and they have not been produced before a magistrate court. The worst is that this may be used as a precedent in other parts of the country.

Can judicial review make the move ineffectual?

RK: I can only hope that a judicial review finds grave fault.

The Prime Minister, Home Minister and a lot of supporters say cultural autonomy and political aspirations are a small price to pay for development.

SM: Since [the days of] Jawaharlal Nehru, there [has been] an aspiration that cultural particularities would be subsumed by modernisation but it has not worked that way. Instead, there is now a re-assertion of these particularities.

The irony is that while claiming to solidify citizenship rights of Dalits and refugees from Pakistan in Kashmir, and enforcing uniform rights on all residents by taking away special rights of indigenous residents, the government is stripping people of their citizenship rights in Assam and, in Nagaland, has permitted granting separate rights to the State’s indigenous people. Playing two different games is creating a mosaic of great inconsistency.

[T]he real tragedy is that the people of J&K are being victimised by our lack of ability to arrive at a principled and democratic solution.

Radha, do you think that the BJP’s view on cultural particularities has any continuity with the Nehruvian view on utopia?

RK: In a single word, no. In the last five years, the BJP and RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] have attacked Nehru with increasing virulence. They attack his secular principles and misrepresent his political moves. They pin [Article] 370 on him when we know perfectly well that it was a joint decision between Sardar Patel, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru, not to mention other members of the Cabinet. With respect to development, some of the most developed countries have seen conflict. Countries like Ireland chose to give up development, knowing possibly that they will be [stuck in] a spiral where all institutions are disrupted. China has pushed development over culture and succeeded, but it is not a democracy.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 5:14:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/is-the-removal-of-special-status-for-jk-justified/article29103095.ece

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