How Modi's Government Kicked Off A New Round Of Kashmir Debate

30 May 2014
The Wall Street Journal
Niharika Mandhana

New Delhi: In its first week in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration touched off a debate on an issue that few had predicted would be an early priority for the new government: repealing a constitutional provision that gives a measure of autonomy to the troubled and disputed northern state of Jammu and Kashmir that borders Pakistan. A junior minister in Mr. Modi's office, Jitendra Singh, said in a televised interview on his first day on the job that the government was aiming 'to convince the unconvinced' about the disadvantages of Article 370, which limits the powers of the Indian government to make laws for the state. Mr. Singh said the government had begun discussions with stakeholders to breakdown 'psychological barriers' that a repeal of the law would lead to tensions. Parts of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir are claimed by both India and Pakistan, and the two countries have clashed for more than a half-century along the militarized 'line of control' that bisects the region. Article 370, which dates back to 1950 when the Indian Constitution came into force, gives Jammu and Kashmir far greater autonomy than other states. It limits the central government's power to make laws to only a handful of areas, including defense, foreign affairs and communications. The much-debated constitutional provision has its roots in a document called the Instrument of Accession, by which the King of Jammu and Kashmir Hari Singh decided his kingdom would become a part of India in October 1947, two months after India won independence from British colonial rule. The document protects the state's autonomy and makes it difficult for future Indian governments to amend its terms to become dominant. As a result of its special status, Jammu and Kashmir has its own constitution, its governments are elected for longer terms and people who aren't from there can't buy land. When it was drafted, many saw the provision as a temporary one, that would be phased out as the state's residents grew more prepared to join India fully. And over time, a series of executive orders have diluted it, extending a number of central institutions and laws to the state. Still, more than six decades on, it remains a contentious emotive and legal issue. Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, and a Hindu nationalist group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that supports it, have long called for the law to be repealed, saying it stands in the way of Jammu and Kashmir's integration with India, allows separatism to bubble and plays into the hands of Pakistan. Others say a move to repeal the law would polarize residents and spark instability in a state that has been rocked in the past by militancy and separatism. The comments made by the minister in Mr. Modi's office, Mr. Singh - which he later said were misquoted - evoked a sharp response from the state's politicians, particularly chief minister Omar Abdullah, who said in a tweet that talk of revocation was 'not just ill informed, it's irresponsible.' Long after the Modi government is a distant memory, he tweeted, either Jammu and Kashmir 'won't be part of India or Art. 370 will still exist.' During his campaign, Mr. Modi, who started his political journey in the RSS and whose campaign was buttressed by the Hindu organization's network of support, spoke briefly about opening up a debate on Article 370. But he focused largely on his economic promise of creating jobs and spurring growth, avoiding polarizing issues. Mr. Modi's political opponents see his government's initiative on Article 370 as a nod to the BJP's core base of supporters. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a spokesman for the Congress party, said in a news conference that the statement was 'deliberate, orchestrated and intended to politicize and polarize.' The issue has also raised questions about how much sway the RSS will have over Mr. Modi's government. The RSS denies it plays any role in policy making, but its spokesman Ram Madhav jumped into the debate this week, asking in a tweet if the chief minister Mr. Abdullah thought the state was his 'parental estate.' Whether Article 370 exists or not, Mr. Madhav tweeted, Jammu and Kashmir would always be an integral part of India. Radha Kumar, one of three interlocutors appointed by the Indian government in 2010 to draw a road map for peace in Jammu and Kashmir state, said if the law is removed, it would need to be replaced with another agreement that spells out the new terms of engagement. 'The one thing you can't do is get rid of it and have nothing in its place,' she said in an interview. 'There has to be a conversation, a negotiation, otherwise you will have people talking about secession.' - Atish Patel contributed to this post.