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Political Masterstroke

The Central government’s decision to revoke Article 370, which gave Kashmir special status, couldn’t have come at a better time. Suicide bombing in Pulwama that killed 40 troopers set the tone for this momentous decision

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done what former PMs Indira Gandhi and VP Singh failed to do despite having an opportunity. The abrogation of Article 370 in Indian Constitution that gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir is being considered a political masterstroke of the Modi government by many, including Congress leaders and several regional parties, for a variety of reasons.

Many say Modi completed what India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru began: integration of J&K into India.

J&K became part of India 10 weeks after Independence when Maharaj Hari Singh was alarmed by the rapid advance of armed Pakistani tribesmen and hurried signed the instrument of accession on October 26, 1947. The Maharaja’s political nemesis, the radical Kashmiri nationalist Sheikh Abdullah, was also his ally in the decision.

Article 370 was part of a political accommodation between Delhi and Srinagar, giving J&K a great deal of autonomy, but it was a temporary arrangement and should have long gone.

But successive governments chose to maintain what they thought was a untouchable status quo.

In the past, at least on two occasions, time was opportune for Centre to revoke 370 but the governments of the day clung to a misplaced belief that the special status of J&K was a test of India’s secularism.

In 1972, after the Pakistan army’s surrender in Dhaka, Indira Gandhi could have made J&K’s accession to India non-negotiable as the price for the return of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers in Indian captivity. Secondly, in 1990, when the Valley was in turmoil and the Hindu minority was subjected to a vicious bout of ethnics cleansing, the constitutional arrangement could have been reviewed. But the VP Singh government became a mute spectator to the exodus of an entire community whose only fault was that it professed a particular religion.

In 1972, Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her power and Pakistan was devastated having lost its eastern wing. In 1990, the government of VP Singh in Delhi and that of Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad were fragile and economically vulnerable. So, the political situations in 1972 and 1990 were different but if there was political will, Article 370 may have gone.

In 2019, Modi managed to do what Indira Gandhi and VP Singh missed – create history by removing a 70-year-old Constitutional provision. It was not about BJP’s majority in Lok Sabha or how it managed to get it passed in Rajya Sabha where it didn’t have the numbers; it’s about fulfilling a dream of its forefathers.

The Bharatiya Jan Sangh, BJP’s political predecessor, passed a resolution in June 1952 to say that the provision on Kashmir was “of a temporary character” and declared why the state Constituent Assembly’s decision for a separate flag and autonomy were “in clear violation of India’s sovereignty”.

Removing Article 370 was in BJP’s manifesto when it went to polls in 2019. The party has not only delivered on its electoral promise, it has also fulfilled the dreams of Patel, BR Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Atal Behari Vajpayee, as Modi said in his address to the nation on August 8.

People critical of the decision question the inviolability of 370, saying the accession was predicated on the promise made at the time, and argue that the Central government did not follow correct procedure during the legal evisceration of the contentious constitutional provision.

Talking about the inviolability, we should keep in mind that the Article has been amended more than 40 times since 1954 by Presidential orders by successive central governments. Over the years, 250 of the 395 Articles of the Constitution have become applicable to J&K, and 94 of the 97 entries in the Union list and 26 of 47 entries in the concurrent list have been extended to the state. This means that the special status guaranteeing J&K autonomy has been diluted down the decades and in practice the state has enjoyed perhaps less autonomy than others because of Delhi’s persistent interference – at various times,

Now about the procedure. Constitutional experts say there’s nothing wrong in the procedure followed by the Modi government. The article itself defined how it could go. Presidential orders amended it, a Presidential order made it go.

The special status given to J&K has not benefitted its residents. It only became a badge of emotional separatism used by the regional parties for their own narrow ends. Therefore, while some political families became richer and richer, the average Kashmiri remained poor and unemployed.

J&K’s per capita income was Rs 65,615 during the 2017-18 financial year and this is well below the national average of around Rs 98,000. The urban unemployment rate is 70%, which is more than double the national average of 34%. According to the Economic Survey for 2018-19, youth unemployment is one of the major challenges in the state.

This is despite the fact that the state got almost 10% of all Central grants to states even though its population is only 1% of country’s population. In contrast, Uttar Pradesh makes up about 13% of the country’s population but received only 8.2% of Central grants. Even among the special category states, Jammu and Kashmir receives a disproportionate amount of Central assistance.

The erratic growth of J&K can be attributed to the armed militancy in Kashmir valley in the past decade. The economy is also marked by low productivity in agriculture and allied sectors that have affected employment generation and growth in per capita income. Also, poor infrastructure has resulted in the undeveloped industrial sector.

Modi in his outreach to Kashmir has argued that integration would be an economic inflection point leading to greater investments and employment in Kashmir. How that plays out will depend a great deal on how the security situation pans out. The road ahead won’t be easy. Large-scale protests can be expected once restrictions are lifted. Dealing with those protesters sensitively would be key to ensuring anti-India forces do not take advantage of local grievances.

Another reason why abrogation of Article 370 was needed was regional imbalance between Jammu and Kashmir regions. The Jammu region has a population is 53.78 lakh according to the 2011 census and is spread over 25.93% of the state’s area. Kashmir is spread over 15.73% of state’s area and has a population of 68.9 lakh.

The delimitation exercise, which is likely to begin after the J&K Reorganisation Act becomes operational on October 31, 2019, will fulfill BJP’s demand for a higher representation for Jammu region. The delimitation will also reserve seats for STs and SCs apart from revising the total number of seats in the House from 111 to 107.

Erstwhile J&K royal and senior congress leader Karan Singh backed the initiative and welcomed that “the long-awaited enfranchisement of West Pakistan refugees and reservation for Scheduled Tribes”.

Several Central laws didn’t apply to J&K because of its status under the Article 370; reservation of seats for SCs/STs in state legislature was one of them. The other prominent laws that didn’t apply here were the Right to Information, the women’s right to inheritance (does not apply to women of J&K who marry someone who is not a permanent resident of the state); SC and ST (prevention of atrocities) Act, law for protection of right of minorities and voting rights to refugees from West Pakistan who could exercise franchise in LS elections but not those for state assembly and local bodies.

These are welcome changes. Someone had to confront the political distortion. Modi and Amit Shah did it with clinical dispatch.

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