The case for regional autonomy

Print edition : November 22, 2002

A significant outcome of the Assembly elections is the emergence of the secular identity of Jammu.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THE loudest expression of the feeling of disappointment in the Jammu region over the failure of the Congress(I) to get Ghulam Nabi Azad chosen as the Chief Minister of the State is being made by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and parties that were demanding statehood for Jammu.

The new-found support for Azad may not be entirely for partisan reasons. It must be partly due to his newly acquired status as a symbol of Jammu's urge for identity and empowerment. Under his stewardship, the Congress(I) won 15 seats in the region. The BJP's score was reduced to one whereas it led in 31 of the 37 Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha election in 1999.

The consolidation of the secular identity of Jammu is one of the least noticed but most significant outcomes of the elections. It was this consolidation that enabled Jammu to aspire for the post of the head of the government, for the first time.

Whatever be the considerations that influenced the Congress(I) president to offer the chief ministership to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and whatever be one's view on that, the unmistakable lesson of the recent experience is that secularism alone can ensure Jammu's unity and share in political power. Moreover, a secular and friendly Jammu is in the best interests of the Kashmir Valley.

The question of chief ministership aroused regional sentiments mainly because in the present set-up, too much power is concentrated in that post. While a truce has been brought about this time by an agreement on rotating the post between the two regions, a long-term solution requires a systemic change. Towards this end, the Congress(I) proposal for a change-over to a federal system from the present unitary system provides a way out, provided the party is able to get it implemented.

A unitary constitution, wherever it has been adopted, has led to disintegration. In Pakistan, it caused the split of the country, and in Sri Lanka, it led to a prolonged civil war. Federal constitutions, on the other hand, have established their superiority in ensuring unity among diverse communities. Even a unilingual and uni-religious country like Britain had to switch over to a federal system by granting regional autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Jammu and Kashmir, which is the most diverse State of India, can remain united only under a federal Constitution. Some of the provisions of the present unitary Constitution have the potential to create regional tensions, which is the root cause of what is termed the Kashmir problem.

Anticipating this eventuality, this writer reminded Jawaharlal Nehru during a meeting with him on April 14, 1952, in a written note, that "the greatest problem of the State is to maintain cordial relations between its constituent units". Again on the eve of the Nehru-Sheikh Abdullah agreement (the Delhi Agreement) on Centre-State relations in July 1952, I reiterated the need for regional autonomy within the State as it was the logical corollary of the autonomy of the State within India. Both leaders agreed to my submissions and Nehru announced at a press conference on July 24, 1952, in the presence of Sheikh Abdullah, that "the State government was considering regional autonomies within the larger state". Later the Sheikh gave an assurance separately to the effect that "the Constitution of the State, when completed will give regional autonomy, particularly in cultural matters, to Jammu and Ladakh".

Again, during a meeting with Nehru on January 6, 1953, this writer sought his intervention to prevent the dangerous implications of the unhappy situation in Jammu and suggested "political and constitutional changes to remove the present unrest..."

An announcement for the grant of some sort of autonomy to the region would considerably ease the situation. It is the logical extension of what is called "limited accession". The memorandum emphasised that "autonomy to each region would act as a unifying force between peoples of all regions".

As was to be expected, the clash of regional passions culminated in first emotional rupture between Kashmir and the rest of India, which is by now regarded as one of the major causes of the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah, the architect of the State's accession to India, from power and his detention on August 9, 1953, which was followed by a movement he launched for self-determination under the aegis of the Plebiscite Front. India lost its moral legitimacy on the Kashmir issue and most of the international support it earlier had on the issue.

The Jammu and Kashmir People's Convention, convened and presided over by him and inaugurated by Jayaprakash Narayan, "to discuss the future of the State" unanimously accepted a draft submitted by this writer on an outline of the internal Constitution of the State. It envisaged regional councils, headed by chief executive councillors assisted by executive councillors with executive and legislative powers, limited to the subjects transferred to the regions. The convention was attended by about 300 delegates, mostly from the Kashmir Valley, representing almost the entire spectrum of its population, including Jamait-e-Islami, Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq's Awami Action Committee, G.M. Karra's pro-Pakistan Political Conference and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed's National Conference, besides the Plebiscite Front. Releasing the constitutional document to the press, Sheikh Abdullah said that "it was aimed at putting our own house in order before deliberating on the future of the State... The present outline on the internal constitutional set up is our humble effort aimed at assuring the people that their regional interests would be safeguarded."

Regional autonomy was also an unwritten part of Indira Gandhi's accord with Abdullah Sheikh which brought the latter back to power in the State in 1975. On the eve of his swearing-in as Chief Minister, he told the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Legislature Party, on the support of which he resumed office, on February 24, 1975: "I will make sincere efforts to ensure that all the three regions have equal opportunity of development and participation in the political affairs of the State."

The main political resolution adopted at the first session of the revived National Conference in Jammu on April 24, 1976 asserted that it stood for stable unity of the State on the basis of decentralisation of political power among its three regions and at other levels. As the Chairman of the Reception Committee, this writer stated in the welcome address: "The National Conference is committed to a federal constitutional set-up of the State; according to which political power would be decentralised through a five-tier set up (at State, regional, district, block and panchayat levels)."

Reiterating the commitment of his father, Farooq Abdullah, in early 1987, appointed a five-member commission to work out the details of regional autonomy with this writer as its chairman, and those such as N.K. Mukerjee, Prof. Upendra Baxi, Prof. Bashir-ud-Din and Prof. Mathew Kurien as members. Somehow the formal order for the formation of the commission could not be implemented.

In fact, almost every Chief Minister, before coming to power and after relinquishing it, has made a commitment in favour of regional autonomy.

The chief merit of regional autonomy is that it reconciles the genuine aspirations and interests of all regions and communities of the State. While "the integrationists represented by the BJP have badly failed the Jammuites" as eminent Canadian Professor Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay concludes in her essay on "Jammu: Autonomy within an Autonomous Kashmir?" in their attempts to achieve a fair share in the State's political and economic life, "except to make Kashmir Muslim population distrustful and suspicious of anyone beyond the Pir Panchal range," regional autonomy has become increasingly relevant in view of a present global disenchantment with the centralised federal structures."

The Times, London, had similarly observed: "Mr. Puri argues with justice that until Jammu and Kashmir draw closer, settle their differences and agree to operate as equal partners, there will never be a stable basis upon which relations with India can be satisfactorily settled."

Thus regional autonomy emerges as the only answer to the grievances of Jammu and Ladakh and as a solution to the alienation of Kashmir. For it ensures protection of regional identity of Kashmir and the spirit of Kashmiryat. Without recognition to the identity and autonomy of the regions, they and their valuable composite heritage would be swamped by the rising tide of communalism and fundamentalism. Broad principles of regional autonomy, based on the report the writer submitted to the Chief Minister, as working chairman of the Regional Autonomy Committee, may be the basis of a discussion on the subject. The report was prepared after the widest possible discussions with and after studying the interests and aspirations of various communities and parts of the State and experiments in other parts of India and elsewhere. Leading scholars in relevant disciplines were also consulted.

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