Repealing Article 370: Why J&K's special status is a political tinderbox

Even potential BJP allies such as the PDP agree that loose talk about abrogating Article 370 could be potentially dangerous in the Kashmir valley.

Sameer Yasir May 28, 2014 17:48:00 IST
Repealing Article 370: Why J&K's special status is a political tinderbox

It was the very first statement by any minister of the newly elected Narendra Modi government about the state of Jammu and Kashmir. And not only has it not gone down well with political parties in the state, but common people in Kashmir too were shocked at the apparently unplanned, off-the-cuff comments about Article 370 made by Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Jitendra Singh.

Repealing Article 370 Why JKs special status is a political tinderbox

Omar Abdullah. AFP.

Singh, a first-time BJP MP from Jammu who was unexpectedly appointed MoS in the PMO, suggested on Tuesday evening that a debate should be held on whether Article 370, which grants Jammu & Kashmir special autonomous status, should be revoked. In fact, he said stakeholders had already been consulted on the matter.

“We are speaking to the stakeholders. Article 370 has done more harm than good. Having a debate doesn't mean we have deviated from what we promised. It just means convincing those who are not convinced,” Singh told CNN-IBN. By "what was promised", he was referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party's stated position on Article 370, that it has harmed integration of the state with the rest of the country and that a debate on its abrogation is due.

If more loose talk on abrogating Article 370 continues, as Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the Opposition PDP in the state pointed out, there could be serious repercussions in Kashmir, including the potential disruption of a delicate peace.

So it's not surprising that Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah reacted swiftly, warning the newly elected government that any attempt to revoke the special status to Jammu and Kashmir (read Article 370), could break the relationship between the state and the Union of India.

“Mark my words and save this tweet-long after Modi Government is a distant memory either J&K won't be part of India or Article 370 will still exist,” Omar tweeted in his response to Singh’s statement.

Omar said Article 370 was the "only constitutional link" between Jammu and Kashmir and rest of India, a stand many senior Kashmir scholars and historians concur with.

“He (Omar Abdullah) is right,” said noted Kashmiri legal luminary Syed Tassaduq Hussein. “It means they want to break the constitutional link between the state and the Union. Even if they want, it won’t be easy. They have to first pass a resolution in Lok Sabha, then in Rajya Sabha, with two-thirds majority. Then it would come to Kashmir Assembly were they need to pass it again with two-thirds majority, which is not possible. It will be the demise of any political party if they dare to do that in Kashmir. Kashmir will be in flames if they attempt it," Hussein said.

What is Article 370?

Going back in history a little, when India become independent, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was not part of its territory. Following a tribal invasion by Pakistani raiders on October 22, 1947, Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir Hari Singh asked for troops from India to assist.

It took five days for the raiders to cover the distance between Muzaffarabad and north Kashmir's Baramulla town. When they finally reached on October 26, there was mayhem. By then, the Maharaja had made up his mind and signed the Instrument of Accession shortly thereafter, and thus the state acceded to the Dominion of India.

This instrument of accession, however, was limited to a number of matters, including Defence, External Affairs, Communications and some other issues, with respect to which the Indian legislature could make laws for Jammu and Kashmir.

Article 370 of the Indian Constitution is thus the reflection of this status of relations between India and Jammu and Kashmir. The powers of the Parliament to make laws in the state were limited to those matters in the “Union List” and the “Concurrent List”, the latter in consultation with the government of the state.

Historians say Article 370 was a “temporary” and “transitional" provision of the Indian Constitution, limited to the provisions of the Instrument of Accession, because the time was not ripe for complete integration of the state.

Kashmiri scholars now believe that as time passed, the autonomy of the state has actually thinned. “With passage of time, New Delhi eroded the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir slowly. The President become the Governor, Prime Minister become the Chief Minister,” says Mohmmad Shafi Bhat, a Political Science researcher at Kashmir University.

Political reality today

“Only after obtaining the concurrence of the state government by virtue of Article 370 can Parliament legislate for J&K on matters other than those mentioned in the instrument,” Bhat adds.

Sensing trouble that the debutant Minister of State Singh's statement could evoke in Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti said she has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein in the newly appointed minister before his utterances cause serious damage.

“It is an established fact that Art 370 has acquired a permanent status in the Constitution of India, it is not advisable even to open a debate on it keeping in view its crucial nature in the relationship between the state and the union,” she said.

The BJP may be riding high on its recent successes in Jammu and Kashmir, three MPs from the state being a first ever for the party. But these electoral successes have come in Jammu, which is not where the subject is contentious at all. In the valley, even potential BJP allies such as Mehbooba Mufti know discussions on abrogating Article 370 are political hara kiri.

Has repealing Art 370 been attempted before?

“He is taking about the abrogation of article 370, if he has guts, let him (Jitendra Singh) come to Kashmir and say this in public,” says Umar Altaf, a student of sociology in Amar Singh College, Kashmir.

In April 1950 Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerji, the founder of Jana Sangh, after resigning from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet as Civil Supplies Minister, founded the right-wing organization Praja Parishad which supported the rightwing leaders' demand to do away with what they called a “republic within a republic.”

Ek desh mein do vidhan, do nishan, do pradhan, nahin chalengay,” that used to be the dominant slogan of the Parishad.

During the peak days of the movement in 1952, the Sheikh Abdullah government in Kashmir reacted and police used bamboo sticks against Parishad activists and leaders, many of whom were arrested.

During one of these tours Dr Mookerji, in May 1953, appeared in the winter capital of the state Jammu. Since he lacked a permit, which was required those days to enter Jammu and Kashmir, the police arrested him on May 11, 1953 from the Lakhanpur frontier area. He was driven to Srinagar and lodged in a bungalow in Nishat, where a month later he died apparently because of a heart attack, on June 23, 1953. His death provided is understood to have given a chance for the Nehru government’s ‘policy of gradual assimilation’ of Kashmir into India.

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