Dipping political fortunes amidst an economic downturn in the run-up to the 2014 general election and the fear of Narendra Modi galvanising the majority community with charges against the Congress Party coalition government of softness towards terrorists led to the jettisoning of considerations of votebank politics and the hanging of Afzal Guru.
Sixty-six years after Partition there’s still little recognition in the country that the problem of Kashmir is actually sustained by Article 370 of the Constitution, which accorded the erstwhile “princely state” of Kashmir a special status within the Indian Union. This article was based on the faulty premise of retaining for the state its territorial and demographic exclusivity, contravening all principles of federalism. It has kept the militancy oxygenated.
Getting rid of this mischievous provision in the Constitution — there’s nothing sacrosanct about it — will, once and for all, change the entire discourse about Kashmir. The mollycoddled Yasin Maliks and Ahmed Shah Geelanis will have the choice of abiding by the fait accompli, or availing of a one-way bus ticket to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), where they can cry hoarse about Indian perfidy for all the good it will do to them. The complication is the wilful conflation of Article 370 with the interests generally of the Muslim community in India by political parties to milk electoral profit even though it drags out the Kashmir issue and hurts the nation.
It must be recalled that the offending article was only a transient political contrivance, an expedient device conjured up by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the Constituent Assembly debates to bring the potentially dissonant politics of Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference within the nation’s fold. It is not some holy covenant to keep Kashmir forever separate and should have been discarded as soon as its utility had ended, certainly by the time the second province-wide elections were held in 1956. Nation states adhere to undertakings only so long as their interests are served. All that Article 370 does is afford the permanently disaffected minority among the Kashmiri population legal and constitutional cover for their violent dissidence.
It is ironic that the ruling Congress Party, which did not flinch from violating the fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution during the Emergency in the 1970s, is in the forefront of preserving this article that offends the basic principles of federalism cementing the Indian Union for sentimental reasons — because Article 370 was a sort of a compact Nehru made with the land of his forebears. The lack of political and strategic foresight is such that the main Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, instead of campaigning for the abrogation of this article, has been shouting about the delay in carrying out the death sentence, and now that Afzal Guru has been hanged, finds itself outflanked.
Courtesy Article 370, the belief that Kashmir is not like other states and is not a part of the Indian whole has grown apace with rising discontent, convincing the separatists about the righteousness of their cause. The special status of the state has prevented the social and economic integration of Jammu and Kashmir, with Indians from other states barred from legally purchasing property, establishing businesses, settling down there and obtaining voting rights. Cocooned in this way, many Kashmiris have a heightened sense of grievance against the Indian state, mistakenly believing they are sovereign. The sooner they are disabused of this foolish notion the better for everybody, and for peace in the region.
While New Delhi’s approach to Kashmir is trapped in a mush of minutiae regarding the United Nations resolutions, and confused ideas of legal and moral obligations — factors that are completely extraneous and irrelevant to assimilating Jammu and Kashmir into India — the Pakistan government has from the start exercised common sense. As early as 1953, when the issue of the status of the “Azad Kashmir Forces” came up, the then Army Chief, Gen. Ayub Khan, ordered these to be merged into the Pakistan Army. Other measures followed — reducing the government in Muzaffarabad to a paper Assembly, permitted to do no more than make appropriate noises propping up the fiction of “Azad Kashmir”.
There’s never going to be a plebiscite, so why persist with Article 370, which basically amounts to a standstill policy that only India hews to pending a UN-adjudicated process of self-determination? Indeed, there’s as much chance of Jammu and Kashmir being allowed to go to Pakistan as there is of Pakistan voluntarily merging their nation into the Indian motherland. That both New Delhi and Islamabad are reconciled to the division of Kashmir is evident from the Indian government’s astonishing reluctance to make claims on PoK and the Northern Areas. Islamabad, lately, has sought formalisation of the partition of Kashmir along the present lines, to wit President Pervez Musharraf’s 2006 plan for resolving the Kashmir dispute. The trouble is as long as there is a constitutional impediment such as Article 370, the cementing of the Line of Control (LoC) as an international border cannot proceed, nor normalisation of relations with Pakistan.
Voiding Article 370 should be the first order of business of the Indian state, a necessary step to bring closure to this dispute. It has to be followed up with a comprehensive resettlement policy that prioritises land grants to communities of retired soldiers in order to firm up continuous habitations in depth on the Indian side of the LoC. These armed communities, like the kibbutzes on Israel’s borders, meshed into the Army’s defence grid, will have vested interests in safeguarding their properties, consolidating the border and minimising cross-border infiltration. It should be part of an unapologetic national policy aimed at changing the demographic of the state in the manner Pakistan is changing the demographic profile of Gilgit-Baltistan in the Northern Areas, for instance, by encouraging Sunni settlers from the plains. Those opposing such a policy ought to recall world history — “self determination” has never been a factor in building a composite nation, and Kashmir is no exception.
[Published Feb 14, 2013 as “Article 370 must go” in the ‘Ásian Age’ at http://www.asianage.com/columnists/article-370-must-go-855%5D