Modi’s Dare on Article 370 Is an Opportunity for Congress to Rebuild

Article 370 represents the principles that made the party a torch-bearer of the Indian freedom struggle.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dared the opposition, especially the Congress, to commit in their manifesto for the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections that they will restore all the provisions of Article 370.

This is obviously an astute polemical point: Modi calculates that such a commitment would damage the electoral prospects of the Congress across at least the Hindi heartland, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has, to a great extent, succeeded in consolidating a “nationalist” vote bank. That such consolidation is covertly grounded in an anti-Muslim stance needs hardly a mention.

The historical fact that the impugned Article was vigorously piloted in the Constituent Assembly by none other than his hero, Sardar Patel, when Nehru was in the US, having been drowned out by insidious propaganda, Modi consistently means to charge Nehru with the grant of “special status” to Kashmir.

It may be recalled that the first meeting of the delegation from Jammu & Kashmir, which comprised Sheikh Abdullah and three other colleagues with Central leaders in Delhi to negotiate the terms of the state’s accession, was held on May 15 and 16, 1949, in Sardar Patel’s house, with Nehru present.

Also Read: Congress Backed Article 370 Decision But Opposes Govt’s High-Handedness, Says Manmohan

Negotiations over five subsequent months resulted in the formulation of the Gopalaswamy-Patel draft, which was eventually to become Article 370.

At a time when Nehru was away in the US, Iyenger suggested to Patel that he indicate to Nehru his concurrence to the measure that had been evolved between them and the Abdullah delegation. Thus, it on November 3, 1949, Patel wrote to Nehru saying how, in the teeth of opposition in the AICC, he had “prevailed” in obtaining assent to the “special status” provision (see Sardar Patel; Selective Correspondence 1945-50, ed., V. Shankar).

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shyama Prasad Mookerjee also did not object

Equally, there was no objection to the measure in the interim cabinet from Shyama Prasad Mookerjee when the matter came up there. Just as, in passing, Mookerjee had not objected to the proposal to refer the Kashmir situation, post the tribal attack, to the United Nations. When asked pointedly why he was propagating a contrary view after events in the state had moved to the Naya Kashmir proposal to acquire surplus lands and pass them on to the tillers, and whether it was not a fact that he has assented to the United Nations referral, Mookerjee said “yes I did” (see Parliamentary Debates, 1952).

As to the offer of plebiscite, it may be noted that this idea was not specific to Jammu & Kashmir.  Referenda were in fact held in the North West Frontier Province, in the Sylhet region of Assam, and most significantly at Patel’s suggestion, in Junagarh as well. An attendant irony that votaries of plebiscite in Kashmir may especially note is that whereas the AICC was in principle wedded to the idea of referring to the people the question of accession of those states which had yet not acceded to either Dominion and where the rulers and the populace belonged to differing communities, it was Jinnah who turned down the idea, holding that only the will of the ruler be taken into account. What had weighed on his mind, of course, was the case of Hyderabad, which he had wanted to remain “Independent” as per the will of the Nizam.

Nor may it be forgotten that Patel had made an offer of Kashmir to Liaquat Ali Khan (November 8, 1947) in exchange for Hyderabad rather than Junagarh, and reiterated this offer in his public speech on November 11 at Junagarh.

Be that as it may, Modi’s dare recalls thus a history and vision that informed the making of the Indian Constitution and the principle of federation that underlined its pluralist philosophy. This involved crucially respecting the will of state’s peoples in formulating the new republic – a fact that explains why, wisely, Article 371 A-J also became a part of the Constitution, inscribing “special provision” for ten other states—provisions that remain in place to this day.

A call for the Congress to own its original principles

Whereas Modi may be making only a canny electoral point, his call to the Congress to own back Article 370 is, unbeknown to him, a call to own the very principles on which the Congress then sought to forge a Union with the democratic concurrence of the peoples involved.

Also Read: From Kashmir and 370 to Partition, BJP’s Hatred of Nehru is Fuelled by Falsehoods

The conundrum then, is whether the Congress of today should simply jettison those principles or boldly acknowledge their continued relevance to reuniting a divided country on secular and democratic ideals.

This goes to the heart of so much agonising about what the Congress especially should now do to recover its place in the life of the nation. Clearly, the praxis of simply voicing its own diluted proforma of cultural nationalism, or tinkering with contingent issues of the day has not only not yielded electoral success but deformed the ideological profile and credibility of the Congress.

Modi’s challenge, thus, may indeed be an opportunity to face the dare thrown at the party and rebuild itself and its political base again on those inclusive and devolutionary principles which had made of the Indian freedom movement a torch-bearer to the erstwhile colonised “third world”, and indeed to liberatory movements in parts of the world far and wide.

Members of the Constituent Assembly sign the Indian Constitution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Article 370 did not hinder integration

What eventually may or may not happen to Article 370 will have to await the deliberations of the Supreme Court’s constitution bench that will consider the validity (or not) of the Centre’s measure. The moment, nonetheless, invites a courageous and ethical rethink based on the role played by the Article in the life of the concerned state. For example, let not the obvious fact that disquiet, both civil and militant, in the valley began not because of the Article but because of its hollowing out, especially at the juncture of the Sheikh-Indira accord of 1975. Let it be recognised that until then, there was no militancy in the state, and that the separatist Hurriyat organisation also was a later phenomenon. Syed Ali Shah Gilani was twice an elected member of the Jammu & Kashmir assembly, and the head of the terrorist organisation, the Hizbul Mujahideen, Syed Salahuddin a candidate on behalf of the Muslim United Front in the watershed elections of 1987 under his original name of Yusuf Shah.

Also Read: Murder of Insaniyat, and of India’s Solemn Commitment to Kashmir

The case that everything began to come crashing in the state with the incremental hollowing out of the Article in question is indeed irrefutable, repudiating the “nationalist” propaganda that it had in fact been a hindrance to integration.

If, therefore, the Congress truly remains wedded to its commendable pluralist vision of nation-building and national advancement, in opposition to the authoritarian-homogenising project of the rightwing, it must continue to see its commitment to the Article as pivotal to a larger politics—one that it will jettison at grievous cost both to itself and to the republic.

Badri Raina has taught at Delhi University.