Strongly objecting to the Centre’s position in Supreme Court last month, when it sought a “larger debate” on Article 35A, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said the state’s accession to the Indian Union and its special status are “two sides of the same coin” and “if there is debate on (the legality) of the Article, you will have to debate the accession itself”. Speaking to The Indian Express on Sunday, the former chief minister said that NC patron Farooq Abdullah will hold an informal meeting on Monday with Opposition leaders in J&K to evolve a joint response to prevent any move to tamper with the state’s special status.
Omar said that “questioning the special status of J&K will in fact put a question mark on the accession itself”. “Like Article 370, Article 35A was negotiated between the princely state of J&K and the government of India and it is the bedrock of accession,’’ he said. “How can the Attorney General welcome a debate on Article 35A? Are they ready for a debate on accession? The special status of J&K is enshrined in the Constitution and it cannot be tampered with or removed. It is an article of faith,” said Omar.
“What you saw during the Amarnath land row was nothing in comparison to what will happen (if Article 35A is tampered with)… That (Amarnath land transfer) was a notional idea but this (tampering with Article 35A) will be a clear cut indication. You (Centre) are in effect altering the demography of J&K state,” he said. Article 35A is a provision in the Constitution that empowers the J&K legislature to define permanent residents of the state. It was added through the ‘Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 1954’, issued under Article 370.
The J&K Constitution, which was adopted on November 17, 1956, defined a Permanent Resident as a person who was a state subject on May 14, 1954, or who has been a resident of the state for 10 years, and has “lawfully acquired immovable property in the state”. The J&K legislature can only alter the definition of PR through a law passed by a two-thirds majority. The PR law replicated a state subject law promulgated by Dogra king Maharaja Hari Singh in 1927 following a strong campaign by Kashmiri Pandits who were opposed to the hiring of civil servants from Punjab because it affected their representation in the administration. The Kashmiri-Pandit agitation did not affect the Muslim majority because the Dogras largely kept the community out of the administration as a matter of policy.
In 2014, an NGO We the Citizens filed a writ petition seeking the striking down of Article 35A. While the J&K government filed a counter-affidavit and sought dismissal of the petition, the central government did not, despite pleas from the state government, especially the PDP. Last month, Attorney General K K Venugopal told the bench of Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justice D Y Chandrachud that the petition raised Constitutional issues after which the court referred the matter to a three-judge bench and set six weeks for final disposal.
The Centre’s decision to not come out in support of the J&K government’s position is seen as part of a series of moves to breach the state’s special status. The RSS and the BJP, which is part of the ruling alliance with PDP, are opposed to Article 35A because it bars non-state subjects from settling and buying property in J&K. Sangh groups are unanimous that the only way to permanently end the Kashmir dispute is to alter its demography by settling people from outside the state, with the right to acquire land and property, and vote in the assembly elections. The RSS claims that “J&K, with its oppressive Muslim majority, has been a headache for our country…”. The BJP manifesto for the J&K assembly elections had promised “land at cheap rates for establishment of Sainik colonies in major towns” for retired soldiers.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had warned the Centre last month that if the special status of J&K is tampered with, or Article 35A removed, there will be “no one to shoulder the Indian flag in the Valley”. She had said that J&K “would not exist” without the special status. Although the BJP’s central leadership has remained silent, its leaders in Jammu have sought the repeal of Article 35A, saying that it encourages a separate identity. The issue has started to generate a political storm in J&K. Omar Abdullah said that if the Centre removes Article 35A, its first impact will be felt in Jammu and Ladakh.
“The voices from Jammu ensured that this state subject law was enacted by the Maharaja,’’ he said, adding that this law wasn’t important only for Kashmir or its majority community alone but for all the state subjects. Omar said his party had contacted the PDP to discuss the issue. “We have spoken to them both inside the assembly and outside. But they are flying on the back of their own propaganda and are not ready to listen,’’ he alleged. On Monday’s meeting, he said, “We are trying everything to make the government understand the dangerous ramifications of their moves. We don’t want the state to burn.’’