Way to go

The Centre must do more to restore normalcy in J&K, and return it to full statehood

The release of five-time Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Farooq Abdullah on Saturday after seven months in detention is a welcome step that could open fresh political possibilities in the troubled region. The conditions of his release, if any, are not public but it is clear that there were backchannels open between him and the Centre before the release. Taken together with other recent relaxations in J&K that was put under a lockdown last August as the Centre unilaterally ended its special constitutional status, his release could help reopen the public space in the Valley. Coinciding with his release, Prime Minister Modi assured a delegation of the newly formed Apni Party led by former People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Altaf Bukhari that he would work towards the restoration of statehood for J&K, which was downgraded to a Union Territory as part of last year’s restructuring. Mr. Modi also said no demographic changes would be forced in J&K. Earlier, mobile telephony was restored fully and mobile Internet partially. However, restrictions on assembly remain largely in place, and hundreds, including two former Chief Ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, still remain in detention. Their staggered release could be the next step towards normalcy.

Mr. Modi’s moves have often been characterised by surprise and subterfuge, including on J&K. There could be justification for such secrecy in statecraft, but new beginnings in the Valley will require more openness as there is a considerable trust deficit between its people and New Delhi. The Centre should not try to orchestrate politics but engage with it as it organically evolves. Hard as it is, the Centre must try and undo the damage it did to mainstream parties such as the National Conference and the PDP. It must allow all opinions to be articulated. Coercive measures must be limited to combating violence. It must shun the baseless notion that communities will surrender political autonomy in return for material prosperity. Above all, it must end its perilous propensity to paint the demands for autonomy and separatism with the same brush. J&K’s instrumental status as a place for demonstrating the strength of the Indian nation in the current government’s imagination is not helpful. There is also an evolving international situation that could complicate the situation. With the long-expected U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan now imminent, Islamist forces in South Asia are feeling triumphant and are using the current communal turmoil in India to paint it as a Hindu theocracy. The Pakistani military establishment will exploit the situation to India’s disadvantage. India’s approach towards J&K must be people-centric and guided by a resolute commitment to its diversity and religious pluralism.

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