Former home minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram on Saturday reiterated his earlier stance backing greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, even as the party sought to distance itself from the controversial remarks.
In a statement issued late on Friday, Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala said, “Jammu-Kashmir & Ladakh is an integral part of Indian Union and will always remain so unquestionably…. “(The) opinion of an individual is not necessarily the opinion of the Indian National Congress. In our democracy, individuals are entitled to opinions.”
The BJP launched a stinging criticism, with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stating in Mumbai that the Congress’s position on “azadi or autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir goes directly contrary to India’s national interest”, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani calling it “shocking” and “shameful”.
Chidambaram had suggested last year that J&K should be accorded greater economy to defuse unrest in the Valley.
Asked by a journalist during Saturday’s interaction with businessmen and intelligentsia in Rajkot whether he still held that position, Chidambaram said: “Yes…. The demand in Kashmir Valley is to respect in letter and spirit Article 370. And that means that they want greater autonomy. My interactions in Jammu and Kashmir led me to the conclusion that when they ask for azaadi (independence), most people —- I am not saying all —- (an) overwhelming majority want autonomy. Therefore, I think we should seriously examine that question and consider on what areas we can give autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir.”
Stating that granting such autonomy will be “perfectly within the Constitution of India”, he said, “Jammu and Kashmir will remain an integral part of India but it will have larger powers as promised under Article 370”.
Chidambaram’s statement comes days after the NDA government at the Centre opened a window for dialogue with the stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir, with the government clarifying that it is ready to talk to even separatists if the latter come forward.
While in Mumbai Jaitley asked the Congress to “immediately clarify” whether the statement “from a prominent leader of the Congress party is the party’s official stand or not”, Surjewala said in the statement, “While individuals may have different personal opinions, Congress believes that the solution for lasting peace and prosperity in Jammu & Kashmir lies solely within the framework of India’s Constitution.”
The Congress, he said, has always believed that dialogue and discussion is the way forward for restoration of normalcy in the state but it can only be within the framework of our Constitution. “This is non-negotiable,” he added.
“Congress has always worked towards providing equal development, equal financial allocation and equal opportunities to the three regions of State of Jammu & Kashmir,” he said.
Jaitley told mediapersons in Mumbai, “It was the flawed policy of the Congress right since 1947 which is responsible for the Kashmir problem.” The Kashmir problem is the Congress’s legacy, he said, and “now, instead of learning from its past mistakes, the Congress wants to precipitate a crisis for this country”.
He said, “I think the Congress is deceiving the whole country, it is deceiving itself and it is encouraging separatism in J&K. It is hurting India’s national interest and this is a very serious issue,” he said.
In successive tweets, Union minister Smriti Irani said, “Shocking that PC bats for separatists & ‘azadi’ but then not surprising given that their leader supported ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ naara! Shameful given that PC spoke in Gujarat, the birthplace of Sardar Patel; a man who dedicated his life for the unity & prosperity of India.”
Railways Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted, “Now Congress wants Azadi for Kashmir? Time for Azadi from Congress. #CongressBatsForSeparatists”
(With PTI inputs)