Cracks appear in Kashmiri political class as govt seeks middle ground

Former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti's detention will continue for three more months.
On August 5, the first anniversary of the abrupt revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, media attention will be focused on the foundation-laying ceremony of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya on the site where the Babri Mosque once stood. The Kashmiri people may be forgiven for assuming that the date was deliberately chosen to underline yet again that the juggernaut of ‘Hindu cultural nationalism’ rolls on; that reasonable voices, unable to counter the religious nationalism of the ruling dispensation, have fallen silent; and there is no one to share their pain.

Within J&K, cracks in the ranks of the mainstream political parties are evident. The so-called Gupkar Declaration signed by 18 leaders of seven political parties promising to work together is in tatters. They had resolved that the parties will “remain together and stand united in their struggle for safeguarding the identity, autonomy and special status of the State.”

The motto of “one-for-all and all-for-one” has been thrown to the winds as two of the musketeers have broken rank. The National Conference (NC) leaders, father-son duo of Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, have made their political intentions clear. They have supported the demand for restoration of statehood for the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir but left the fundamental issue of restoring the special status of the erstwhile state--through revival of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution--to the judiciary. Omar Abdullah has even indicated individual willingness to contest elections once statehood is restored. For the rest, Farooq Abdullah says the party’s working committee will decide “when the situation comes”.

These positions diverging from the common agreement are being taken even as another signatory, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, remains under arrest. Regardless of what National Conference leaders say in public about releasing Mehbooba Mufti, her arrest suits the party politically. Once released she would spell trouble for their agenda.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre had dangled the carrot of restoration of statehood for the truncated Union Territory of J&K before its political class. However, the Centre’s own attempts to build a King’s Party afresh in J&K failed. The J&K Apani Party led by Altaf Bukhari has not taken off. Accommodation with previously existing mainstream political parties has therefore become necessary to restore a political process in J&K.

It is not only the Abdullahs but the Congress party too is legitimising that framework by asking for statehood but keeping silent on Articles 370 and 35A. The party had after all supported their revocation in Parliament, only questioning the manner in which they were operationalized.

Not surprisingly, when Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 25 to discuss the pandemic in J&K, he also demanded restoration of statehood and assembly polls thereafter. If statehood were to follow along the lines suggested by the statements of the NC and the Congress, then nullification of Article 370 and 35A can be taken as fait accompli. From the Centre’s point of view then only two major issues would remain on its political agenda: implementation of the domicile law and the delimitation of assembly constituencies.

On the domicile issue, the central government is already on the back foot. It had to amend it to reserve all government jobs for domiciles of the Union Territory. A similar domicile order was not issued for the Union Territory of Ladakh perhaps sensing the anger of the local population against any threat of diluting its religious majority. With the Muslim population of J&K already upset, the Centre could not afford to put the Buddhists of Ladakh on the warpath also.

The traditional base of the BJP is among the Jammu Hindus, especially the Dogras, who feel more threatened by the domicile policy of the government than those in the Valley. According to some estimates about 25,000 applications for domicile certificates have been received in Jammu and far fewer, about 5,000 in the Kashmir Valley. In Jammu, refugees from West Pakistan, Dalits and Gurkhas are also likely to get domicile certificates. Cumulatively, the Dogras feel that they would be weakened in the region.

The Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of J&K has promised that “land laws will be made separately.” It remains to be seen how local land ownership will be protected. If statehood is eventually restored, both the domicile and land ownership issues made in the time of President’s Rule will revert back to the State. The State Legislative Assembly will have to deal with their fallout as they will cease to be the Centre’s headache.

The delimitation exercise, which has already begun in J&K, is working with the outdated population figures of the 2011 census. Many political observers of J&K expect an allotment of a greater number of assembly constituencies to the Jammu region and redefinition of the boundaries of some constituencies in Poonch and Rajouri in a way that could increase the number of ‘Hindu-dominated’ constituencies. Such manoeuvres could, in principle, pave the way for a Dogra-Hindu Chief Minister from the Jammu region for the UT or of the state, when statehood is restored.

However, while some of the local mainstream parties may be in agreement over the restoration of statehood, they may not play ball with changing the boundaries of the Muslim-dominated constituencies of Jammu. They may not therefore agree to restart politics on the Central government’s terms.

As for ordinary Kashmiris, while the trauma of that fateful day last August may have receded the loss of their political autonomy and the humiliation accompanying it is not forgotten. The middle ground in Kashmiri politics has disappeared as people see the futility of a dialogue with the rest of India, which seems to be on an ideological high. Their economy is so completely destroyed that rephrasing US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage’s threat to Pakistan after 9/11, a Kashmiri intellectual exclaimed bitterly, “Without any bombing, you have thrown us into the Stone Age.”

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