ON the political front, 2005 for Jammu and Kashmir started with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre deciding to reopen the decades-old autonomy debate. Home Minister Shivraj Patil, after a meeting with National Conference (N.C.) president Omar Abdullah and his father former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah on January 17, announced that the Centre would start formal discussions on the specific issue of autonomy. The announcement came as a polite rebuke to the People's Democratic Party (PDP), with which the Congress has a power-sharing agreement in the State.
As for the N.C., the move has come as a shot in the arm. The N.C. has been lying low since its defeat in the Assembly elections in 2002. The State Assembly had passed the autonomy resolution in 2000, when the N.C. was in power, on the basis of the report of a nine-member State Autonomy Commission headed by G.M. Shah. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government rejected the resolution but tried to retrieve the situation by appointing Arun Jaitely as an interlocutor to hold talks on the issue. The talks, however, failed to take off owing to obvious differences as the BJP was in principle against autonomy.
The operative portion of the autonomy proposal is its thrust on the pre-1953 status of Jammu and Kashmir. The July 24, 1952, Delhi agreement between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah (then the State's Chief Minister was known as Prime Minister) forms the basis of the proposal. The N.C. demands the pre-1953 status to the State where "the matters in the Union List not connected with the three subjects of Defence, External Affairs and Communications and/or Ancillary thereto but made applicable should be excluded from their application to the State". Asked whether it would be in the interest of Jammu and Kashmir to do away with important federal checks, Omar Abdullah told Frontline: "In negotiations we start from the maximum, and whatever is in the interest of the State we would discuss as we believe in democratic principles."
This is not the first time that autonomy would be discussed with a Congress-led dispensation at the Centre. Kashmir desk handlers, whether at North Block or South Block, would just have to sift through the records to understand the complexity of the issue. Thirty years ago, talks between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah in order to bring the latter to the national mainstream had almost reached an impasse as the two sides had divergent views on the pre-1953 status of the State. Ultimately, a mediator saved the situation by suggesting a via media - that is, the two sides "agree to disagree", paving the way for Sheikh Abdullah to assume power in the State. The differences over the issue have not been ironed out since.
Also, it is still to be seen how far the N.C. is able to revive the idea of autonomy as a popular issue in the Kashmir Valley across the political spectrum, and at the same time handle the sensitivities of Jammu and Ladakh or even the non-Kashmiri-speaking Muslims so that the unity of the State is not threatened. In the past, opposition to the idea of autonomy had come not only from Hindus or Buddhists, resulting in extremist communal reactions, but also from Gujjars and Pahari-speaking Muslims, who felt it would lead to further centralisation of powers with a section of the Kashmiri-speaking political elite. Therefore, the real opposition to the negotiations on autonomy would come from within the State.
Only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has a clear way out. The party has supported autonomy to the State and at the same time emphasised the need for the decentralisation of political and economic powers to all the three regions (Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir) of the State, thus paving the way for the setting up of a truly federal state in order meet the aspirations of all the diverse sections in the State.
Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has often stated that "fiscal autonomy is more important than political autonomy". Autonomy-baiters have credited him with diverting the attention to other political issues. Contacted by Frontline prior to the Home Minister's announcement, Sayeed had little clue to the developments at the Centre on the issue. Political observers describe the sudden decision to discuss the issue of autonomy as a blessing for the State unit of the Congress. Under the power-sharing agreement between the PDP and the Congress, arrived at in October 2002, the two parties have agreed to hold the post of Chief Minister on a three-year rotational basis. (The State Assembly has a six-year term.)
The Centre's surprise move to engage the N.C. in the autonomy debate is seen as an indication that the Congress would not consider the N.C. untouchable if the PDP showed any reluctance to give up the post of Chief Minister after nine months. Coincidentally, Sayeed, after a studied silence, stated that he would pave the way for a Congress Chief Minister.