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THE AUTONOMY DEMAND

Print edition : Jul 08, 2000 T+T-

Political India appears to be sharply divided on the autonomy demand raised by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly with the backing of the National Conference government. The Hindu Right regards it as something bordering on separatism, while some oth er parties are sympathetic to the demand though they differ with Farooq Abdullah's party with regard to the scope and extent of autonomy.

THE polyphonic polemic on Jammu and Kashmir's autonomy is perhaps inscrutable even to those generating it. Predictions of an imminent disintegration of the Union of India, allegations that the June 26 adoption of State Assembly resolution accepting the S tate Autonomy Committee (SAC) Report was an act of treason, and counter-claims that autonomy alone can prevent the secession of Jammu and Kashmir have all produced a cacophonous crescendo. Added to this bizarre welter of noises are unlikely counterpoints : witness the visit of Shankaracharya Swami Adhokshjanand of Puri as the self-appointed mediator between India and the secessionist All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

Somewhere along the way, aided not a little by reportage that might be best described as dissociated, the meanings and implications of the resolution have been lost. History was perhaps made in the Assembly, but the outcome of the events surrounding the resolution is still fluid and full of possibilities.

The resolution is not a radical manifesto; it could be described as curiously cautious in tone. Addressed to the Speaker, the document, moved by Law Minister P.L. Handoo, records that it is a "substantive substitute motion for two motions moved on April 8, 2000 along with the amendments moved thereto by Sadiq Ali, Mohammad Shafi Bhat and G.M. Bawan" (all National Conference members of the Legislative Assembly). The earlier motion, also moved by Handoo, had suggested the setting up of a committee of Mini sters to liaise with the Union and State governments as part of a process of building consensus. The June 26 motion, however, merely records approval of the SAC Report, which was tabled on April 13, 1999, "and its acceptance of the recommendations made t herein; and, further, demands that the Union Government and the government of Jammu and Kashmir take positive and effective steps for implementing the same."

What this means in practice is that the Assembly has demanded of the Union government that it move a number of constitutional amendments in Parliament, spanning a wide area. Contrary to assertions on at least one television channel, the SAC Report is not a simple re-assertion of the 1953 Delhi Agreement between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru on the constitutional relationship between the State and the Indian Union. It seeks to restore as the basis of legitimacy for this relationship the t erms of Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India, leaving Defence, External Affairs and Communications alone as subjects on which Parliament can legislate for the State.

Understanding the SAC Report demands an engagement with history. Jammu and Kashmir, unlike any other State of the Union, did not merge with India. It joined the Union, through the Instrument of Accession, on negotiated terms guaranteed by Article 370 of the Constitution. In 1950, a Constitution Order was issued by President Rajendra Prasad, affirming this relationship. The State's Constituent Assembly went about its work in October 1951, with Sheikh Abdullah acutely conscious of the need for a legal fra mework to realise his agenda of land reforms and social change. In July 1952, the Delhi Agreement fleshed out what had been agreed upon earlier, but no consensus could be arrived at on issues such as a separate chapter on Fundamental Rights for the State , the eventual jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Emergency powers.

Things began to go wrong not long after this historic order. Sheikh Abdullah, detained on August 9, 1953 after Nehru came to believe, correctly or otherwise, of his collaboration with imperial interests hostile to India, was replaced by Syed Mir Qasim. T he constitutional order of 1954 extended the jurisdiction of Parliament to legislate for Jammu and Kashmir on almost all subjects on the Union List. Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution were made applicable to the State. The position, the SAC Report notes, was "quite wide and still left a great degree of autonomy with the State". But between 1953 and 1986, 42 constitutional amendments further undermined the State's powers. "Not all these orders can be objected to," the SAC Report accepts, "( but) it is the principle that matters." The Assembly itself amended its Constitution, depriving itself of the right to elect a Governor, for example, and changing the nomenclature of the Prime Minister (Wazir-e-Azam) of Jammu and Kashmir to Chief Ministe r.

In February 1975, exhausted by over two decades in jail, Sheikh Abdullah re-emerged on Jammu and Kashmir's political terrain. He assumed power again, and signed an agreement with Indira Gandhi, which accepted much of the constitutional changes that had t aken place. The SAC Report skips the period from 1975 onwards in just three pages. Its authors believe that the agreement has no real moral authority. The issue had lain dormant until 1995, when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao issued a statement from B urkina Faso promising that "the sky was the limit" as far as autonomy was concerned. His effort to bring the N.C. on board for the Lok Sabha elections the next year proved unsuccessful. But the party won the Assembly elections held subsequently after the United Front government promised "maximum autonomy".

History appeared to engage few in the Assembly. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah focussed on the narrow issue of terrorism. If autonomy was denied, he claimed, "you will have one border along the Chenab river and another between Kargil and Leh". Abdullah p roceeded to assert that had he not "saved Kashmir", "God only knows what might have happened". In fact, Abdullah had ensconced himself in London until 1993 after insurgency gained momentum in the late 1980s in Jammu and Kashmir, leaving the task of savin g the State to others. Education Minister Mohammad Shafi Uri insisted that armed struggle was inevitable since "people are subjugated politically and economically, and whenever they are not given democratic rights," forgetting that his party has been in power since 1975.

Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs responded with allegations not dissimilar in their absurdity. "Instead of discussing autonomy," the leader of the party in the House, Shiv Charan Gupta, insisted, "we should have been discussing the situation arising out of mi litancy." The MLAs charged that the demand for autonomy amounted variously to secession or an enterprise of carving up the State along communal lines. Characteristically, no one mentioned that senior members of their own party have repeatedly called for a sundering of the Jammu and Ladakh regions. Some BJP leaders in New Delhi, notably M. Venkaiah Naidu, proclaimed that while their party supported the demands for greater autonomy in all States, the Jammu and Kashmir proposals would fail "because all maj or parties were against them". There was no explanation about why the party would hold negotiations with secessionists but not initiate dialogue with an elected government.

Appearances apart, it is probable that both parties are not serious about their stated positions. Purely local concerns appear to have shaped the dialogue in the Assembly. The BJP, with its core constituency spread across Hindu-dominated Jammu and Buddhi st Ladakh, had obvious reasons to oppose the N.C. agenda. Interestingly, it was joined in its protests by the MLAs of the Janata Dal (United), a party which was a constituent of the United Front government in 1996-97. Similarly, N.C. MLAs from Jammu, wit h the exception of Information Minister Ajatshatru Singh, remained silent in the course of the Assembly debate. The Congress(I), for its part, first backed the demand for autonomy and then modified its position to ask for the 1975 status to be respected, a move to secure its flanks in the Jammu area.

The N.C. leaders saw similar short-term tactical gains to be had from the debate, much of which seemed intended to advertise the party's seriousness of purpose to its mainly Muslim constituency. This enterprise, by most accounts, has had more than a litt le success. Significantly, the debate was liberally interspersed with attacks on counter-terrorist forces like the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group. The Chief Minister followed this up with a visit to the family of a victim of an alleg ed police execution, a privilege most of the dozens of N.C. workers targeted by terrorists had not been accorded. Then, on June 28, he announced State funding for the founding of an Islamic university and criticised regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia for their failure to promote the faith.

Ironically, for an idea that claims to be born of an inclusive Kashmiriyat, the autonomy debate has sharpened communal chauvinism. The most serious impact has been in Ladakh, where the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAC) adopted a resolution on June 30 demanding that the region be separated from Jammu and Kashmir and made a Union Territory. All three N.C. members of the 30-member General House of the LAC supported the resolution. The LAC resolution described the autonomy motion as "mischiev ous and aimed at gradual secession of the State from the Union of India". Although the resolution has no legal force, its adoption followed sustained mass protests demanding Union Territory status for Ladakh. Gey Lobzang Nyantak, president of the right-w ing Ladakh Buddhist Association's youth wing, threatened armed struggle, while the organisation's chief, Tsering Samphel, warned of a "mass appeal by the Buddhists of Ladakh for asylum in a Buddhist country". While Jammu did not see similar protests, the re is a clear hardening of anti-Muslim feeling in the region's Hindu majority areas.

While the BJP has had nothing to do with this communalisation, the fact is that the N.C.'s reinvention of itself as a Muslim party has accelerated the process. One reason for discontent over the autonomy proposals lies in the N.C.'s blithe disregard of p romises to devolve powers to the State's constituent regions. The Regional Autonomy Committee (RAC) Report, finalised along with the SAC Report, consists of plans to sunder the State into ethnic-religious provinces, breaking existing regional arrangement s. The RAC Report, the implementation of which has been assigned to one-time academic Riyaz Punjabi, is scheduled to be discussed at a conference in early July. Just what Punjabi's plans are is unknown, but should the report be implemented in its origina l form the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu would be split into separate provinces. Muslim Kargil and Buddhist Leh, too, would be divided into two provinces, although each would constitute only a single district. This would formalise the division put in pl ace by the formation of the LAC in 1993, since the body represents only Ladakh, not Kargil.

It is also far from clear what impact the debate on autonomy would have on the Union government's ongoing not-so-covert dialogue with the APHC. In an effort to contain the N.C. from consolidating its position in the Kashmir Valley, the APHC initiated a v igorous mobilisation against alleged human rights offences by Indian security forces. At a June 19 press conference, timed to coincide with the beginning of the autonomy session, APHC chairman and Jamaat-e-Islami political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani cal led for talks without preconditions, which would be "result-oriented and meant for peaceful and permanent resolution of the long-standing dispute". This formulation was part of a series of remarks by APHC leaders, abandoning their traditional rejection o f negotiations without Pakistan.

Just what this dialogue will lead to, however, is as unclear as the possible outcome of the autonomy resolution. For one, the APHC appears to be deeply worried that abortive dialogue could lead to the erosion of its constituency. Then, it has made clear to intermediaries that it will not be able to guarantee a ceasefire should dialogue begin. Informed sources told Frontline that the APHC representatives whom Senator David Bonier of the United States met in late April said they may be able to exer t some influence with elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen, but none over the Lashkar-e-Taiba or Harkat-ul-Ansar. Other U.S.-based figures, including the Kashmir Study Group's (KSG) Farooq Kathwari and investment banker Mansoor Ijaz, have made little progre ss in furthering dialogue. Swami Adhokshjanand's initiative is unlikely to have any greater success. Nor is it clear just how far the Union Government could run with these proposals, given its own political constraints.

Sheikh Abdullah understood the relationship between national-level communal politics and the State better, it appears, than do most contemporary observers. "Certain tendencies," he said in 1951, "have been asserting themselves in India, which may in the future convert it into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised. This would happen if a communal organisation had a dominant hand in the Government and the Congress' ideas of equality of all communities were to give away to religious intolerance. The continued accession of Kashmir to India should, however, help in defeating this tendency." Instead, the N.C. was forced to transform itself into a regional communal formation and ally itself at the Centre with precisely the ten dencies Sheikh Abdullah had warned against.

The N.C.'s eroded credibility perhaps explains why Abdullah's demands for autonomy have had only cautious endorsement from political formations otherwise sympathetic to the idea. Former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, neither of them an o pponent of federalism, expressed reservations about the specific demands of the SAC proposals. The Congress(I), for its part, has taken a similar position, arguing that the restoration of the 1975 status, far short of the position taken in the SAC Report , is the maximum that Parliament can concede. The Communist Party of India (CPI) has also been critical of the sheer magnitude of transformation the N.C.'s proposals envisage. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders have been warm to the idea, but are still cautious. "There is no dispute Jammu and Kashmir has the right to autonomy," says party Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat, "but the details, just how much autonomy can be conceded and in what areas need to be discussed."

Within the BJP, top leaders appear at odds with the rank and file. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, for one, has defended Abdullah, pointing out that his proposals are "within the framework of the Constitution". Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, known to be less than happy with Vajpayee's willingness to make concessions on this front to meet U.S. pressures, has been muted. But the fact is that several party leaders are bitterly opposed to autonomy, making the kind of dialogue Karat has spoken of unlikely. B JP president Khushbhau Thakre, for one, has demanded "outright rejection" of the SAC Report. After a meeting with Vajpayee on July 1, Thakre told reporters that "return to the pre-1953 status would lead to the disintegration not only of Jammu and Kashmir but would also create instability in the rest of the country". Many within the BJP, particularly its regional leadership in Jammu, have been demanding the dismissal of the N.C. government.

Perhaps ironically, the BJP's reactionary rejection of the very idea of greater federal autonomy could bring about precisely the kind of disintegration Thakre opposes. The fact is that successive governments have promised greater autonomy to the State, a nd the BJP's willingness to reverse over five years of consensus on the issue is certain to legitimise those in the State who claim New Delhi is not serious about its promises. Thus, the State's Muslim community has real concerns about Hindu fundamentali sm, which need to be addressed. While the precise content and details of what legislative and constitutional changes are required remain to be discussed, and with considerably greater care than they have been until now, the fact is that the people of the State need hard guarantees that their faith and culture are safe in India.

Greater autonomy will not solve all of Jammu and Kashmir's problems. What it will achieve, however, is to restore the credibility of democratic politics in the State. The issue is not whether the pre-1953 constitutional status of the State is restored, o r the 1975 status brought back. The central purpose of a dialogue ought to be to arrive at a creative contemporary solution to build mass confidence in the political system. With States across India asking for greater powers, there appears to be no reaso n to deny Jammu and Kashmir's exceptional and coherent claims. Whether the Hindu Right allows such a discourse to come into being is another matter.