Autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST

TRUE to form, political India appears to be dividing sharply on a crucial national issue - in this case, the autonomy demand raised by the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly with the backing of the National Conference State Government headed by Dr. Farooq Abdulla h. At one extreme stands the Hindu Right which regards the autonomy demand as something close to treason, bordering on separatism and threatening to bring about the disintegration of India. The national executive of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has publicly denounced the State Assembly's resolution as but "a step short of actual secession" and demanded that the Vajpayee government should keep all options open, including dismissal of the State government, in dealing with the challenge. In an eff ort to keep on the pressure, an RSS spokesman has publicly criticised the Vajpayee government for "compromising" on the issue of abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution for the sake of staying in power, and even suggested that this spineless stand ha d led to the near-secessionist autonomy resolution. Following a consultation among the party's top leaders, the President of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Kushabhau Thakre, has declared his party to be "totally against" the Jammu & Kashmir au tonomy demand, which needed to be "rejected outright". He has warned that any return to a pre-1953 status for Kashmir would lead to disintegration and instability because, in addition to Jammu & Kashmir, various States were bound to seek autonomy. Not t o be outdone, the Shiv Sena's supremo, Bal Thackeray, has characterised Dr Abdullah's advocacy of autonomy as ``traitorous,'' in fact a move towards "another partition" of India. Not surprisingly, the Congress(I), which had much to do - while in power a t the Centre for decades - with making a mockery of Article 370 in practice, has announced its opposition to the Jammu & Kashmir autonomy resolution. It is only the Left parties and some of the constituents of the former United Front who are in sympathy with the autonomy demand, even if they differentiate themselves soberly from Dr. Abdullah's party with respect to the scope and extent of autonomy. As for the regional party constituents of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), their current po sitions express opportunism and contribute little of substance to a debate that cannot be dodged.

The democratic debate that needs to be conducted in response to Dr. Abdullah's challenge has a general as well as specific aspect. The general aspect relates to the question of what kind of nation India is and whether it must be developed along federal or unitary lines. The specific aspect concerns the troubled recent history of Jammu & Kashmir but, even more vitally, the question of its future within the Indian Union. The experience of half a century of Independence has demonstrated that tendencies of over-centralisation and authoritarianism weaken the fabric of Indian unity and that there is a clear need for federalism and de-centralisation. The demand for State autonomy arose in a context where people and political parties in various States felt cr ammed in and even oppressed by the Centre's relentless aggrandisement in the legislative, executive and financial spheres and by the notorious misuse of Article 356, which empowers the Centre to dismiss State government it does not like as well as to dis solve elected State Assemblies. Several regional political parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party and the Akali Dal, which find themselves within the National Democratic Alliance, have in the past raised the autonomy dem and. While the Congress' long-term record on this issue has hardly been edifying, it is the Hindu Right that must be recognised as, way and ahead, the most anti-federal political formation in the system. To the RSS and the BJP, State autonomy is a red r ag at all times.

On the Kashmir issue, anti-federalism combines with outright communalism to guarantee vicious opposition to any democratic and progressive position that presses Jammu & Kashmir's special case for genuine autonomy. The Report of the State Autonomy Commit tee (SAC) has been around for over a year; "in essence", it has been observed, it advocates "a series of constitutional and legislative measures to restore the political autonomy that Jammu and Kashmir was guaranteed at the time of its accession". It is no more 'extremist' or 'treasonous' than that. On the other hand, the Report of the Regional Autonomy Commission (RAC), which is in line with the Hindu Right's thinking on Jammu & Kashmir and has the dubious backing of some U.S.-based think tanks, notabl y the Kashmir Study Group, seeks to restructure the State along dangerously divisive lines - by creating eight new artificial units expressing adherence to the communal principle.

Article 370, as it stands, assures Jammu & Kashmir a very special autonomous status in the Indian constitutional scheme. Owing to the special circumstances in which the former princely State was able to negotiate its accession to India, severe limitatio ns were placed by the Constitution itself on the Centre's powers vis-a-vis Jammu & Kashmir. However, over the years, a series of undemocratic measures and practices beginning with the 1954 Constitution Order eroded the rights and vital powers devolved by Article 370 on the State. The SAC Report and the resolut ion adopted by the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly represent a flamboyant attempt to reverse this situation, by pressing the exaggerated demand that the State be returned to its pre-1953 constitutional status. The politics of the National Conference and Dr. Ab dullah can justly be criticised for its opportunism, but there is absolutely nothing secessionist or extremist about it. No reasonable person can, in the year 2000, go along with the SAC's recommendation that all areas of constitutional authority other t han Defence, External Affairs and Communications should be restored to Jammu & Kashmir. Nor can it be held that autonomy as demanded by the National Conference is the natural antidote to extremist, secessionist and terrorist activities in the State. But the re-institution and expansion of autonomy for the troubled State within the framework of Article 370 - on a freshly negotiated basis, without mechanically bringing back the pre-1953 features - is the democratic imperative. From the standpoint of natio nal interest too, it promises the best way of handling an acute problem left over by history.

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