J&K and its discontents

A day after Home Minister Amit Shah announced far-reaching changes to the structure of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the government needs to move swiftly to ensure that the process is managed with sense and sensitivity. In his Rajya Sabha speech, Mr Shah said abrogating the provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted special status to the people of J&K, would ensure the economic development of the state. He was correct to point out that J&K’s economic development lags the national average by a significant margin. But in an otherwise detailed speech, he did not explain how the twin moves of scrapping J&K’s selective autonomy and creating two Union territories (UTs) would facilitate better development.

Doubts were raised because of the skewed nature of the erstwhile state’s resource mobilisation; the Centre already accounts for 71 per cent of the state’s resources. Since the Centre has significant fiscal pressures of its own, it would not have been in a position to fund the needs of J&K because it will no longer remain a state and would not be eligible for allocations through the Finance Commission. That problem has been addressed through The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019, which enables the President to make a reference to the Fifteenth Finance Commission to include the UT of J&K in its terms of reference. This will enable the Commission to make allocation to J&K. The President will also make a reference to Union Territories Finance Commission to make a separate award for Ladakh.

However, this will still not solve all the problems. For a state that has been under a security lock-down of unprecedented proportions, it is imperative for the government to elaborate the precise nature and scope of its promise of rapid economic development. Having achieved a key objective of an explicit Hindutva project, it is vital for the government to ensure that the more malign fallout of this move is contained. In the public debate around Article 370, much attention has focused on how the scrapping of Article 35A would now enable Indians outside the state to own land and property in J&K. Ordinarily, this would have been an unexceptionable change. But apprehensions of encirclement and disenfranchisement by mainland Hindus remain a potent source of unrest — Gaza and the West Bank present ominous examples. The government, therefore, should explicitly commit that no attempt will be made to re-engineer the demographic profile of J&K.

The manner in which a state has been converted into two UTs, with New Delhi taking control of police and land, has implications for all states of the Indian Union. It is technically possible to repeat in other states the constitutional coup that has been done in J&K by having President’s rule in a state after dismissing the state Assembly, and then having the governor act for the state, and Parliament for the state legislature. Should the Supreme Court find that this action is in order, new constitutional safeguards must be created to prevent repetition. Finally, the failure to engage politically with the state and its political system before Monday’s action was a lapse that must be compensated by broad-based discussions to build confidence and trust, as far as possible. In turn, state political leaders must have the wisdom to recognise that a page in history has been turned, and they must focus on what is best for the people of the state in the new arrangements.

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