The movement for ‘azadi’ – which Chidambaram rightly said was more about restoring autonomy than independence – is driven by the fact that many in Kashmir feel their political space constrained by Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be excused for harshly criticising former Union home minister P. Chidambaram for saying that when the people of Jammu and Kashmir talk of “azadi”, they actually seek autonomy. Modi is in election mode and is not known to be a particularly restrained person when it comes to politics. He chastised Chidambaram for “using the same language that separatists use in Kashmir and the same language used in Pakistan”. Modi then, somewhat immoderately, proceeded to wrap the flag around himself by declaring that Chidambaram’s remarks “were an insult to our brave soldiers” and arose from the Congress’s jealousy over the surgical strikes.
All this is coming from a prime minister who, after a year-long crackdown by the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, has decided to appoint former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma to find a political solution to the issue. It also comes from a prime minister who has signed a “framework agreement” with India’s longest run separatist insurgency – that of the Nagas – and may be close to working out a final deal with them. It is difficult to believe that the government of India will be able to work out an agreement with the Nagas without in some way addressing the issue of sovereignty. Howsoever they finesse it, it will call for more, rather than less, autonomy for the areas in which the Nagas reside.
So, why is Modi dead set against any kind of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, notwithstanding the fact that these rights flow from Article 370 of the constitution? Well, for one, he is the leader of a party that has a well-known position of wanting to delete this provision from the constitution.
This is an inheritance from the political progenitor of the BJP, the Jammu and Kashmir Praja Parishad, which began spearheading an agitation for full integration of the state to the Indian Union. Indeed, when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed in October 1951 under the auspices of the RSS and Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Praja Parishad became its affiliate in Jammu, though it only merged into the Jana Sangh in 1963. In 1953, Mookerjee led a renewed agitation in Jammu and Kashmir and died in detention. For the Jana Sangh and its descendants, this was an act of martyrdom. This has strongly coloured the views of the BJP towards any form of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir.
Article 370 was a solemn commitment of the government of India to the Kashmiris and it arose out of the special circumstances that confronted the Constituent Assembly as it wrote the Indian constitution in 1948. One-third of the state was under the occupation of Pakistan, and the United Nations Security Council had passed a resolution suggesting that accession of the state to the Indian Union needed to be ratified through a plebiscite.
So, the Constituent Assembly incorporated a “temporary” Article 370 conferring special status to the state. This meant the inclusion of a provision limiting the jurisdiction of the Union government over the state. For this reason, the Article has been called a bridge that links the state to India. Over time, circumstances and politics have eroded much of the autonomy Jammu and Kashmir once enjoyed. Some of the developments have been natural, arising out of political developments and a better understanding of the governance needs of the country which has only taken its present shape in the past 70 years. There are many institutions, for example the higher courts system, the RBI or the Central Election Commission, whose all-India character have been a boon rather than a bane even for the Valley.
Yet, the fact of the matter is that a significant section of the people of Jammu and Kashmir feel that their political and cultural space is somehow being constrained by New Delhi. This is what drives the movement for “azadi” which Chidambaram rightly said was more about restoring autonomy, rather than independence.
Unfortunately, the demand for autonomy has not played out only politically. Aided and abetted by Islamabad, the state saw the start of a virulent insurgency in 1990. The fact that Muslims form the majority of the state complicated the issue because it came with a deliberate Pakistani strategy of trying to link it to the wider currents of jihadi Islam.
Tens of thousands of people were killed in the process. But in the end, the Indian state decisively defeated the gun. Having done so, it needs to move towards normalising the situation through political negotiation. Since a lot of the appeal of azadi is about a sentiment, rather than reality, what is needed is sensitive handling and creativity. But the loud clamour coming out of Jammu, demanding the abrogation of Article 370 – or 35A – undermines this possibility.
That New Delhi needs to address this sentiment may appear to be a simple task, but actually it is so much more complicated. Sentiment is what makes Brexit or the Catalonian developments so vexingly difficult to deal with.
When the BJP and the PDP formed a coalition to run the J&K government in 2015, it was an extraordinary moment. The former vehemently opposes autonomy and the latter equally passionately supports it. Both sides hold long established positions and it should have been their unique responsibility to work out a solution. Unfortunately, they have chosen to separately converse with New Delhi, rather than with each other.
The Union government has always had a special responsibility to work out ways of resolving such issues. But perhaps the BJP needs to pressure its state unit, rather than be buffeted by pressures from them. By now all of them – the BJP Jammu unit, the PDP and the Union government – should have realised the huge opportunity costs that the state of Jammu and Kashmir has paid for this continuing political division.
Modi spoke about the army, surgical strikes and the like. Perhaps a more sober approach would have been to acknowledge that through their hard work, the security forces have defeated the insurgents, and the best tribute that can be paid to the memory of those who have laid down their lives in the process is for the politicians to use the enormous authority entrusted to them to work out a durable political solution.
Indian federalism remains a work in progress. Too many things are still run out of Delhi, rather than being left to the states or even the districts of the country. The fact that this country has defeated every separatist challenge it has faced since 1947 should make the Union government more, rather than less, inclined towards promoting decentralisation and autonomy to all parts of the country. Diversity is India’s special gift and if nurtured it could well prove to be the well-spring of good governance and prosperity.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.