Kashmir Roadmap: Congress In Danger Of Losing Its Way
30 July 2004
The Times of India
New Delhi: The Congress-led UPA government has certain advantages over its political predecessor in dealing with the situation in J&K state. Since the Congress, unlike the BJP, not only has a presence in Kashmir valley but also other Muslim-majority parts of the state, it can provide a far better link between the Muslims of the state and the people elsewhere in the country. The party has a similar advantage vis-a-vis other regional Valley-based political outfits, since it exists in all parts of the state and can thus be a fit instrument of emotional integration between its three regions. However, the UPA government has somehow failed to press home its obvious advantages. Instead, it has managed to further strain its state-level coalition with the PDP. While the Congress is competing with the BJP in catering to the populist sentiment in Jammu, the PDP is competing with the National Conference in the Valley. Two recent instances show how the coalition partners are divided along regional lines. First, a PDP minister supported the public protest against the decision of the State Public Service Commission to reduce the share of the Valley in state administrative services. Second, Congress ministers resigned in opposition to the reduction of the period of Amarnath yatra from two months to one. Indeed, all recruitments, promotions and development activities are now being viewed by the coalition partners from the narrow viewpoint of their respective regions. That the state cabinet has not met for almost five months is an eloquent commentary on the way the government is functioning. While Jammu's politics has always centred round the issue of regional discrimination or 'Kashmiri domination', such issues have received a fresh impetus even in the Valley due to two factors. First, as the role of militancy and secessionist politics in articulating popular discontent shrinks, the latter is getting diverted into regional claims and complaints. Second, the presence of the Congress-led government at the Centre has enhanced the weight of the predominantly Jammu-based party in the state coalition. The first task of the Congress is, therefore, to restore normal governance, and ensure a cohesive and smooth functioning of the cabinet as well as the coordination committee. The latter end is hardly possible in the current situation when a non-resident PCC president also doubles up as president of the coordination committee. Then there is the need to replace the present highly centralised and unitary constitution of the state by a federal and decentralised system to remove the root cause of regional tensions and consequent misgovernance and other complications in state politics. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first national leader to appreciate and accept my plea for regional autonomy in the state, to prevent what I believed was the explosive potential of regional tensions. On July 24, 1952, he, in the presence - and with the consent - of Sheikh Abdullah, declared at a press conference that 'the state government was considering regional autonomies within the larger state'. The Praja Parishad, a Jana Sangh-affiliate, rejected the suggestion with a powerful agitation which instead sought the solution of the Jammu problem in the abrogation of Article 370. Later, the outline of an internal constitution for the state, drafted by me and unanimously adopted by J&K People's Convention - called by Sheikh Abdullah during his days of estrangement with India in 1968 - provided for regional autonomy and a further devolution of power to districts, blocks and panchayats. This convention had the representation of the entire political spectrum in the Kashmir region. The idea of regional autonomy was also backed by Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and the Left parties. But the Jana Sangh strongly denounced the move for 'it would benefit only the supporters of Sheikh Abdullah and pro-Pakistan elements'. Before agreeing to handing over power to Sheikh Abdullah in 1975, Indira Gandhi wanted to ensure that he would be acceptable to the people of Jammu. On his part, Abdullah reiterated his commitment to regional auto-nomy at a convention of representatives from Jammu and Ladakh. But when Rajiv Gandhi moved the 73rd constitutional amendment, aimed at ensuring the decentralisation of power from district to the village level, it was not made applicable to J&K state. The Congress- led UPA government should pick up the thread where Nehru, Indira and Rajiv left it; so that power is shared among the three regions of the state and is further devolved to districts, blocks and panchayats. By now, the people of Jammu are convinced that the abrogation of the Article would not safeguard their interests. Likewise, the people of Kashmir have also learnt that their autonomy and identity cannot be protected until the autonomy and identity of Jammu and Ladakh are guaranteed. The support in the NDA manifesto for the creation of autonomous regional councils in J&K state, at the obvious behest of the BJP, and the evasive reference to Article 370 in the party's manifesto - after vilifying the idea of regional autonomy and its sponsors for over 50 years - should facilitate the task of the Congress-led government in federalising and decentralising the state administration. The committed support of the Left on the issue will, if anything, make things easier. It's time for the Congress to act.