While Kashmir Is Silenced, Jammu and Ladakh Are Muttering Anxiously

While the media has sold the story that Jammu and Ladakh are happy with the abrogation of the special constitutional status and state reorganisation, there are many concerns and apprehensions in these regions as well.

On October 31, the 173-year-old state of Jammu and Kashmir has been dissolved and replaced by two union territories – J&K, and Ladakh. How are people in each of these two newly-nominated UTs responding to the change, as well as to the August 5 evisceration of Article 370 giving special constitutional status to J&K?

There is a general impression that while this has generated a lot of resentment in the Kashmir Valley, in Jammu and Ladakh there is a celebratory mood. The reality on the ground is much more complicated.

It is true that there are political differences within J&K. Article 370 emanated from the logic of Kashmiri identity politics, and therefore the sentiments around this Article are very strong in the Valley. Over the years, despite the compromises with the ‘autonomy’, ‘negotiability’ and ‘popular consent’ that Article 370 symbolised, Kashmiris were psychologically attached to it, seeing it as linked to their dignity and identity.

However, in Jammu and Ladakh, Article 370 had no similar symbolic importance. On the contrary, in the context of the binary politics that had been voiced by dominant groups in Jammu, where everything ‘pro-Kashmir’ had come to be seen as ‘anti-Jammu’, the Article was seen purely as a Kashmir issue with no implications for popular aspirations in Jammu. Similarly, within the dominant politics of Ladakh there was a strong feeling of antipathy towards Article 370.

The news that the special constitutional status was withdrawn and the state had been ‘constitutionally integrated’ was, therefore, initially received with approval in these two regions. There were street celebrations in Jammu city, Leh and many other towns of Jammu region.

However, both in Jammu and Ladakh, there were pockets of difference. There were some voices of protest (as in Kargil in Ladakh) or significant silences (as in the Doda belt and Poonch district of Jammu).

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The change came in a package. Besides the reading down of Article 370, and the downgrading of the state into two UTs, there was a withdrawal of Article 35A which restricted sales of land to non-state residents, and gave preference in government jobs and educational places to state residents. Once the implication of all these changes started sinking in, anxiety has begun to replace celebration.

Article 35A by the backdoor?

Surprisingly, in Jammu’s mainland where there was a vociferous demand for the repeal of Article 35A, there is now suddenly fear of outsiders flooding the region, of a growing land mafia, of competition with job seekers from outside and small traders and business people being subsumed by big corporate houses. Maharaja Hari Singh introduced the law originally defining ‘State Subjects’ in 1929 in response to the ‘Kashmir for Kashmiris’ agitation led by Kashmiri Pandits. Later on, this was protected by Section 6 of the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Article 35 A in the constitution of India.

However, with Article 35A and the Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) gone, Jammu and Ladakh residents are also becoming nervous. With limited job opportunities, state employment has been the most sought after, a reality that explains not only the disproportionately overloaded state employment sector but also the inter-regional friction over the distribution of state jobs. Educated youth are now especially nervous about outside competition.

Therefore, a demand for a special domicile law has come up. The Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party has been the most vocal about this demand but many other local groups have joined them. Gulchain Singh Charak, a prominent Congress leader and one-time cabinet minister, has demanded that some kind of arrangement under Article 371 should be made for the new UT of Jammu and Kashmir, involving restrictions on outsiders getting jobs. Others are seeking to invoke the Himachal Pradesh model to provide job security and protect the local culture.

Downgrading the state into UT

In Jammu, there has been no public outpouring of popular sentiments against the idea of UT status. Much of this has to do with the political impasse that has captured the whole state, including Jammu. Except for the BJP, which is appreciative of all the changes, other political actors are still constrained in their responses. A common refrain in conversations, however, is that while it was fine to abrogate Article 370, what was the need to downgrade the state into two UTs.

In Jammu’s Dogra heartland, this is also a sentimental issue since the state was established by Gulab Singh, the Dogra ruler, and this development has hurt their ‘Dogra pride’. Many point out that the state was one of the largest princely states during British rule and had succeeded in maintaining its autonomy even during that time.

In Jammu, residents feel that they were treated unfairly in comparison to Ladakh in the reorganisation. While both regions claimed ‘neglect’ and ‘discrimination’ vis-à-vis the ‘Kashmir-centric politics’ of the state it is only Ladakh that got separate UT status. Jammu residents therefore continue to feel neglected, and now feel additionally betrayed, with their nationalism yielding nothing.

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Following an interactive session of intellectuals organised by the All Jammu and Kashmir Kisan Union, a statement was issued: “downgrading of state into two UTs is a matter of great concern and award of punishment to the people of Jammu province against their continued loyalty towards the nation and working as a bridge between the volatile Kashmir and Indian Union.”

As against ‘autonomy’ from India, the demand in Jammu has been for ‘regional autonomy’ and political parity vis-à-vis Kashmir. This demand has been more or less accepted by all the political parties. It was in acknowledgement of this demand that in 1996 the National Conference government constituted a Regional Autonomy Committee under the chairmanship of Balraj Puri.

What was important about the constitution of this committee was that it was formed parallel to the State Autonomy Committee and its recommendations could have led to empowerment of the regions within the overall context of state autonomy. However, even before the Regional Autonomy Committee could complete its tenure, its chairperson was removed and a new Committee came up with a report that negated the very existence of Jammu as a ‘region’ by suggesting the division of Jammu into three regions.

Post-reorganisation, the demand for regional autonomy has resurfaced in the form of demands for a Regional Council for Jammu, or division of all the funds and powers between the Kashmir and Jammu regions. Yet others have asked for the separation of Jammu from Kashmir and making it a full-fledged state. Although the politics of ‘trifurcation’ in Jammu were never as strident as the demand for UT status in Ladakh, the issue has now returned.

The idea of a ‘Jammu state’ has been floated from time to time as it appeals to the middle class urban Hindus of the region. In the early 1990s, a small organisation of Jammu intellectuals, the ‘Jammu Mukti Morcha’ was formed, and in 2000 an RSS supported organisation Jammu State Morcha (JSM) was established. Both these organisations were proponents of the idea that Jammu be separated from Kashmir and organised as a separate state.

While they could never elevate the issue to the level of a movement, the idea was quite popular at the level of middle-class drawing room discussions. Now, the constituency for this seems to be expanding, with people like Manjit Singh, the former minister and Congress party district President, Samba, or Choudhary Lal Singh, the Dogra leader who formed Dogra Swabhiman Sanghathan after leaving the BJP, voicing demands for a separate state.

In the period of transition, the people of Jammu have a lot of concerns, but no way to articulate them. Apart from the fact that the expression of dissent is problematic at the moment, there are also self-imposed restrictions. There is a regional pressure on the people not to take a position which would be seen to be ‘pro-Kashmiri’ or ‘anti-national’. Jammu feels it has the burden of being ‘nationalist’ and people here do not want to be clubbed with Kashmiris on any major issue.

Not in a position to delink the decision of bifurcation and downgrading of the state from the abrogation of the special constitutional status, they have generally maintained silence. Only once in a while, a statement coming from one or the other member of Jammu’s political class reflects the undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

There are also other ways to read this dissatisfaction.  For instance, a Toll Plaza in the Sarore area of Jammu, established soon after the August 5 decision, has crystallised resentment in the region. Almost every political party has had to take a stand on it, including the BJP. Harshdev Singh and other leaders of the Panthers party have blamed the BJP for its ‘deceptive’ policies and adding to the woes of common people. The Shiv Sena has described the plaza as the first gift to the people by the BJP government after abrogation of Article 370 and threatened that if the plaza is not removed, they would come to the streets and protest against the conversion of the state to a UT.

Another indication that things are not smooth for the government is the result of the recently held Block Development Council elections. Of the 148 blocks in Jammu, the BJP could win only 53 blocks, despite having an open field after the Congress and National Conference boycotted the election and only the Panthers Party and independents remained. Its performance in its predominantly Hindu strongholds – Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Udhampur and Reasi districts – was disappointing.

Ladakh’s response

Ladakh is apparently the only gainer in the process of reorganisation, with its long-standing demand for UT status having been accepted. People celebrated on the understanding that Ladakh will be able to enjoy the fruits of development without any interference or dependence on Jammu and Kashmir.

However, even Ladakh’s story has another side. Of the two districts of Ladakh, it is the district of Leh, which has been raising the demand for Union Territory status. The politics of Kargil, however, is about the relative backwardness of this district within the region of Ladakh. Leh is seen to be the dominant and powerful partner in Ladakh and therefore the politics of Kargil has been defined by the struggle to attain parity with Leh.

Political actors in Kargil have been quite vocal that they were never part of the UT politics and that they were quite happy to be part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Hence, Kargil is protesting rather than celebrating. A Joint Action Committee comprising political actors across party lines was formed, which gave a call for shut down. It was only on the assurance of the governor, Satyapal Malik, that Kargil will be treated at par with Leh that the agitation was withdrawn. However, apprehensions continue to be voiced and even on the day of formation of the UT, there is a call for bandh.

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Meanwhile, even in Buddhist Leh, there have been concerns linked to the withdrawal of Article 35A. Similar concerns about the land mafia are expressed as in the Jammu region. There are also concerns about the environment, heritage and culture of Ladakh getting affected due to the influx of outsiders. This is why the demand for some kind of protection to the area on the lines of the Sixth Schedule in the Northeast has been raised.

Besides these, certain concerns about political representation have also been raised. Since the UT of Ladakh has been designed without a Legislative Assembly and will be more like a centrally administered territory under the Lieutenant Governor, there is a feeling of loss regarding their representation in the state legislature and state ministry.

Till now, Ladakh sent four MLAs to the state legislature, had some representation in the Legislative Council and inevitably had a minister in the state government. This gave Ladakhis a lot of political leverage. With this leverage lost, people are concerned about the remoteness of Delhi and their lack of access to it.

In terms of representation, Ladakhis are left only with the district level Autonomous Hill Councils, one each in Leh and Kargil. They are not sure of the powers of these councils. So far these Hill Councils have had limited powers and cannot be seen as a replacement for the Legislative Assembly.

Political demands after the reorganisation

After October 31, all of these concerns will form the basis of politics of the two new UTs. Although it is going to be a long journey for Kashmir before electoral politics gets restored, in Jammu and in the UT of Ladakh, political demands are going to be articulated soon. The restoration of statehood is going to be the major political demand for every political party in Jammu; in Ladakh it is going to be the demand for a Legislative Assembly; in Kargil for parity with Leh. Meanwhile, in all these places there would be a demand for some kind of domicile law.

This will be an interesting phase of politics because for the first time in the two regions of Jammu and Kashmir there will be two common demands – the restoration of the state and a special domicile law.

Rekha Chowdhary, formerly professor of political science, University of Jammu, is currently Fellow, IIAS, Shimla. She is the author of Jammu and Kashmir 1990 and Beyond: Competitive Politics in the Shadow of Separatism (Sage, 2019) and Jammu and Kashmir: Politics of Identity and Separatism (Routledge, 2016).