In his first direct engagement with leaders of Jammu and Kashmir in almost two years, many of whom were detained for long spells following the stripping of the erstwhile state’s special status and its division into two Union Territories, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured them Thursday that his government was committed to reviving the democratic process through Assembly elections as early as possible and sought their participation in the delimitation exercise.
Separately, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the Centre was bound by its assurances on elections and statehood to J&K. He also promised a review of detentions through a committee under Lt Governor Manoj Sinha.
Former Chief Minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah later told The Indian Express that the meeting was “a first step in the right direction”.
He said some of the participants at the meeting pointed out that it would have been good had an exercise like this been carried out before August 5, 2019.
But the main takeaway, Abdullah said, is that “the Central government is keen to restore an elected government in Jammu and Kashmir at the earliest. The Prime Minister has talked about an early delimitation process. That means they are looking at following that up with Assembly elections”.
Meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence for three-and-a-half hours, the leaders – the 14 from J&K included former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah (National Conference), Ghulam Nabi Azad (Congress), Mehbooba Mufti (PDP), former Deputy CMs and heads of all parties in J&K – spoke without reservations. One of the leaders later said there was “no flare-up” during the talks.
While the issue of reinstating Article 370 was raised at the meeting, especially by Mehbooba Mufti, the government, sources said, took the stand that the matter was sub judice and the Supreme Court would take a decision on it.
The Prime Minister told the leaders he wanted to meet them earlier, but could not do so due to the outbreak of Covid-19. He was keen that the delimitation exercise be completed at the earliest so that elections could be held soon. The PM, sources said, underlined that he wanted to reduce both “Dil ki Doori” and “Dilli ki doori” – the distancing of hearts and the distancing from Delhi.
In Twitter posts after the meeting, Modi said: “Today’s meeting with political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir is an important step in the ongoing efforts towards a developed and progressive J&K, where all-round growth is furthered.”
“Our priority is to strengthen grassroots democracy in J&K. Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected Government that gives strength to J&K’s development trajectory. Our democracy’s biggest strength is the ability to sit across a table and exchange views. I told the leaders of J&K that it is the people, specially the youth who have to provide political leadership to J&K, and ensure their aspirations are duly fulfilled,” he said.
Sources said the Delimitation Commission too is likely to call a meeting of all J&K parties to hear their views and suggestions on the delimitation process.
A decision on the timing of the meeting will be taken at the next meeting of the Commission where the feedback received from the J&K Deputy Commissioners will be discussed.
Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the PMO, said: “There was a detailed discussion in the meeting regarding the participation of everybody in the process of delimitation. All the parties present in the meeting have agreed to participate in this process.”
Sources said Ghulam Nabi Azad spoke first — Farooq Abdullah was asked to speak first but he said that he would like to hear others before him. He was followed by Mehbooba Mufti, then Farooq Abdullah and former J&K Deputy CM Muzaffar Hussain Beig. The Prime Minister, sources said, made his comments at the end of the meeting.
People’s Conference chairman Sajad Lone said he left the meeting with a “sense of optimism” and from what he could gauge “this meeting may start a new phase of reconciliation in J&K. It is tough, but we will all have to check our words and facilitate deliverability”.
Ghulam Nabi Azad said his party presented five key demands: early statehood, Vidhan Sabha elections at the earliest, guarantees to local people on government jobs, property and domiciles, rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, and release of all political prisoners. “On Article 370, most parties felt it would be appropriate to wait for the outcome of the case being heard in the Supreme Court,” he said.
Omar Abdullah said: “We said delimitation was not needed. When the rest of the country will have delimitation in 2026, why is Jammu and Kashmir being treated differently? If the purpose of the August 5 (2019) decisions was to integrate Jammu and Kashmir with the Union, then a separate delimitation for J&K defeats the whole aim of those decisions. We will, however, consider the (Delimitation) Commission’s invitation to us for participation.”
Mehbooba Mufti said she raised the issue of Article 370 and underlined that people were angry about the way it was abolished. “This is a question of our identity. We didn’t get it from Pakistan, but were given by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It assures us rights on land and jobs. There will be no compromise on this. Apart from this, I said you are talking to China, where there is no involvement of people. There are people involved in Jammu and Kashmir. I complimented the PM on talking to Pakistan and achieving ceasefire and decrease in infiltration. Now if for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, you have to talk to Pakistan, you should. I said LoC trade should be started. The iron hand being used in Kashmir must be stopped.”
Muzaffar Hussain Beig said: “The Prime Minister has assured that he will do everything to make Jammu and Kashmir a zone of peace rather than a zone of conflict.” He said though there was an assurance on elections, no timeframe had been given.
Apni Party’s Altaf Bukhari said: “That the PM gave a patient hearing for over three hours is itself a big thing. He spoke about elections and sought participation of all parties. On statehood, he said it will happen in due course.”
BJP’s Nirmal Singh, who was Deputy CM in the Mehbooba Mufti government, said: “PM said you have spoken from the heart and this is the spirit of democracy. The PM said that for establishing democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, I believe delimitation and elections must happen and an elected government must take forward the process of development. There was consensus among all parties on this.”
“On delimitation, the Home Minister and the PM said that it will happen only with your cooperation. The issue of statehood was raised and the parties were told that it will be given at the appropriate time,” he said.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, in a statement, said Amit Shah “emphasized that the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in Parliament”. — With ENS, New Delhi