The government’s reply last month to the Supreme Court, saying that the questions raised in a petition challenging Article 35A require a “larger debate”, has predictably stirred a hornet’s nest in Kashmir. The Article was added by a 1954 presidential order issued under Article 370, the constitutional provision that mediates the relationship between the Union of India and Kashmir on conditions agreed upon during the state’s 1947 accession. Article 35A empowers the state legislative assembly to specify permanent residents.
The 1956 J&K Constitution defines a Permanent Resident as one who, apart from being an Indian citizen, was a state subject on May 14, 1954, or a resident of the state for 10 years, and owns immovable property in the state. The BJP-RSS aversion to J&K’s special status is well known; one of the RSS’s oft-stated objectives, reiterated by many in the BJP, is the abrogation of Article 370, which stands in the way of the demographic seen as the “permanent solution” to the problems in Kashmir. As the political party that rules India, and is in the ruling coalition in J&K, the BJP must ask itself if the new legal pro-activism against Articles 35A or 370 is in the national interest, or will lead to more alienation in the Valley.
Kashmiris are not far off the mark when they argue that had it not been for the steady erosion of Article 370 through the years, the situation in Kashmir would not have reached this pass. In the Valley, the government’s reply on 35A is being seen as paving the way for moves to do away with Article 370 that excludes J&K from most laws enacted by Parliament, except through presidential orders that have the concurrence of the J&K Legislative Assembly. Indeed, the court has also asked the Centre to respond to a petition challenging Article 370. All this has served to strengthen suspicions that the Centre is using the legal route to bring about the changes that it wants. That Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti decided to bury the hatchet with a bitter political rival and knocked at the door of National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah for discussions to hammer out a common political position on this matter speaks to the urgency it holds in the Valley. Other parties in Kashmir are joining the effort. The PDP-BJP alliance, frayed already by the Centre’s disdain for the painstakingly worked out Agenda for Alliance, can only come under more strain in the coming days, even though the BJP state unit appears to appreciate the importance of 35A better than its bosses in Delhi.
Chief Minister Mufti’s grim warning that there will be none left in Kashmir to shoulder the tricolour if 35A is struck down should be heeded. As also the statement of National Conference leader Omar Abdullah that opening up 35A for debate is nothing less than questioning the accession itself. The government would be making an akratic choice if it went down this road any further.