This haste will haunt us

WHENEVER SOMEONE usually sensible does something exactly the reverse it is best to suspend judgment, because there may be more to it than meets the eye. However, this does not preclude examination of such evidence as exists for understanding events and reading their shadows. The case in point is the way the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Union Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani, on one side and Dr. Farooq Abdullah on the other handled the matter of the J&K State Autonomy Committee's Report, and what the consequences might be.

On June 30, several correspondents at the Prime Minister's press conference on board his aircraft heard him say that the autonomy resolution passed by the J&K Assembly was within the Constitution, and they so reported in the next morning's newspapers. On July 2 followed a ``clarification''. It said what the Prime Minister said was that the Report would be ``considered in accordance with the Constitution''. Both comments were unnecessary statements of the obvious. All powers of any State are, and can be, only as they are in the Constitution, they can be reduced or increased in (and only in) accordance with the Constitution and its amending procedures; any demand for changes can only be considered in accordance with the Constitution, and in that sense it is not outside the Constitution. The demand itself is unconstitutional only if made in an unconstitutional way, which a resolution by a State Assembly is not and if anything is conceded which is incompatible with the Constitution it is bound to be struck down in any case.

What this sequence did was only to heighten the contrast between what happened on the morning and the evening of July 4, and what the Prime Minister and the Home Minister had been saying until only a few days and hours earlier.

Even in the in-flight press conference, the Prime Minister said there was no mistrust between New Delhi and Srinagar, the Autonomy Report was not a ``serious'' development, and ``this situation will be tackled with complete success''. The Home Minister went further on June 27. ``The Government of India will take a considered view on the autonomy resolution (and) ultimately it has to be decided by Parliament.'' Asked if other States would make similar demands, he replied ``I do not think'' while also adding that the National Democratic Alliance had received a mandate on the devolution of power to States. Similarly reassuring was his reported comment in London on June 22 that the Centre was not against autonomy, and ``the J&K Assembly's views will be kept in mind when we consider the Report''. This was after a meeting between Mr. Vajpayee and Dr. Abdullah the preceding day.

Thanks to such views and their extensive reporting a mood of hope had spread through Kashmir which was summed up in a newspaper headline on July 1 which said ``Fed up with war, Kashmiris forget azadi settle for autonomy'', and a signed article by the paper's well known chief editor said ``End game in the valley. Azadi to Autonomy''. ``There is a lot of room for give and take'' he added in a highlighted passage. The mood of hope was justified because for years a credible report had been doing the rounds that Mr. P. V. Narasimha Rao had said in 1995 that short of secession, ``the sky was the limit'' for autonomy.

But what came to pass instead on July 4 was a startling anticlimax. At a single sitting that morning the Union Cabinet rejected the Report ``unanimously'' and summarily. It was nothing like ``this is acceptable'' ``that can be considered'' ``but that cannot be.'' The report was rejected in toto. Mr. Advani announced ``the Government would not do anything'' to bring the Report before Parliament though a private member could do what he might. This followed his statement on Doordarshan the previous evening which can only be described as selective truth. He held up to the camera a copy the text of the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullal Accord of November, 1974, and read a sentence from it which said ``... provisions of the Constitution of India already applied to the State of Jammu and Kashmir without adaptation or modification are unalterable.'' But he said nothing about nine points which are going to matter much in the coming months.

First. The same Accord also says that the ``adaptations and modifications'' made in (numerous) provisions before applying them to the State can be ``altered or repealed'' on merits. Second. It also lists many other extensions of the Union's jurisdiction to the State after 1953 (that is after Sheikh Abdullah was arrested) which could be terminated, and the State's recommendations about them would be ``sympathetically considered''. Third. It promises ``fullest consideration'' to the views of the State in taking any steps, going beyond the acceeded subject of ``defence'', for protecting the safety and integrity of the State and of the Union. Fourth. The Accord is an extra- constitutional bilateral agreement between the Sheikh and Indira Gandhi and open to change by mutual agreement between their successors. Fifth. The Centre is already committed, and proud to be, to devolve more powers to the States, including presumably J&K. Sixth. There is little difference between the quantum of powers the State may get under a practicable and exercisable autonomy and those it may get under a devolution which has now become practically irreversible all over the country.

Seventh. If ``give and take'' had begun there would have been a good chance of consensus on the extension to the State of the jurisdictions of the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, and the Comptroller and Auditor General. In the late 1950s, Sadiq Sahib, the best Chief Minister the State has had, said these jurisdictions were so popular with the average Kashmiri that no politician would have opposed the chance of a consensus on them. Eight. Given that consensus, and the Supreme Court's new-found power to protect ``the basic structure'', the State's essential interests in the union and of the Union in the State would have been equally safe. And finally, and most importantly, the issue on that fateful morning and evening of July 4 was not what was more constitutional but what was more conducive for a political climate, within the State and between it and New Delhi, which would nurture a consensus. Surely a sincere and open- ended invitation to patient talks, not the abrupt and almost insulting rejection of the Report, which has sharply diminished the standing of the most outspoken Kashmiri defender of the State's accession to India and has encouraged some ambivalent leaders of the Huriyat to push their oars into the newly-troubled waters.

Who is responsible for this debacle? Facts are scarce as yet. But the needle of speculation points to the two meetings the Prime Minister had just before the cabinet met, one with the BJP president, Mr. Kushabhau Thakre, the other with Dr. Abdullah. Even while the Prime Minister and Home Minister were holding out uncommon hope. Mr. Thakre had already, on June 26, called upon people to reject the autonomy resolution, which he called ``a retrograde step''. Two days later the BJP General Secretary and party spokesman predicted rejection of the resolution by Parliament. Prime Minister and the Home Minister probably blinked, confronted with the false argument that other Indian States would prove to be dominoes Dr. Abdullah's failure was patent and it must have soured his meeting with the Prime Minister. He had failed to keep his (reported) promise to the Prime Minister that the State Assembly would only debate the Report not adopt a resolution demanding its acceptance. Worse, he could neither prevent, anti-India venom in the Assembly debate nor build a consensus in the State, as shown by the demonstrations in Ladakh and Jammu. While trying to persuade the country that autonomy for the State was good for it, he could not tell the two regions of the State what was in it for them. There is only a long way out of this mess, if there is one.

Mr. Vajpayee and Dr. Abdullah have fortunately given themselves a chance to recover some lost ground. The least they must ensure is that substantial discussion ensues between New Delhi and Srinagar. There is much that can be offered to J&K without going beyond desirable devolution. New Delhi need not think of other States as thoughtless dominoes. How many asked for a Constitution for themselves just because J&K was given one in the very special circumstances of the accession of the State to India.