As the government broke the ice with the political leadership of Jammu and Kashmir, the three-and-a-half hour meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and attended by Home Minister Amit Shah on Thursday saw a free and frank exchange of views. Several opposition leaders told The Indian Express that there was no bitterness and that they could speak their mind even as the Centre unveiled the roadmap for delimitation, holding of Assembly elections and restoration of statehood.
After the meeting, Home Minister Shah said, “We are committed to ensure all-round development of J&K. The future of J&K was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in Parliament.”
He, however, gave no time frame for holding polls.
While the roadmap has been laid for delimitation, how the process will happen remains a challenge. The National Conference, for instance, reiterated its opposition to delimitation but said it would consider taking part in the exercise. The Congress said statehood should be restored first before holding the Assembly elections. The CPM too questioned the need for delimitation before elections.
Broadly, the one demand on which the entire opposition appeared on the same page was restoration of full statehood to J&K.
The meeting saw opposition leaders venting their unhappiness over the manner in which J&K was split, downgraded into two union territories as also the events that unfolded since August 5, 2019, including incarceration of the political leadership.
Most of them referred to the abrogation of Article 370 but did not demand its restoration since the matter is now in the Supreme Court.
“The unconstitutional, illegal and immoral way in which Article 370 was abolished… it is not acceptable to the people of J&K. The way the BJP struggled for 70 years to abolish Article 370… the people of J&K will democratically, constitutionally and peacefully struggle to reinstate it… because this is a question of our identity,” PDP supremo Mehbooba Mufti said after the meeting.
“We told the Prime Minister that the trust between J&K and the Centre has been broken. We said it is the responsibility of the government to regain that trust,” National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said.
He said “almost all the speakers were unhappy with the move to single out J&K for delimitation”. “If the whole exercise of August 5, 2019 was to bring J&K on par with the rest of the country… then by having a delimitation exercise independent of the rest of the country… you have set us apart from the rest of the country. Delimitation exercise is something that has led to a lot of suspicion. We want it to be relooked at,” he said.
“Delimitation will be conducted in the rest of the country in 2026. Why single out J&K. It is also strange that when delimitation for Jammu and Kashmir was announced… delimitation was announced for Assam too…. The delimitation process was stopped in Assam and elections were held. But the delimitation exercise for J&K has been kept alive. So we have told the PM that there was no need for this [delimitation],” Abdullah said.
He, however, said his party will consider taking part in the delimitation exercise if a fresh invitation is sent by the delimitation commission.
Speaking to The Indian Express, senior Congress leader and former J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said he told the government that once the delimitation process is over, statehood should be restored and then elections should be held.
Echoing Abdullah’s concerns, CPM leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami told The Indian Express that the government’s focus was delimitation and elections. “The Home Minister said all of us… should give suggestions… whatever the delimitation commission report is… it will carry your recommendations and suggestions. That means that apprehension that they will change… for Jammu… they will do that… I think he was addressing that,” he said.
“I said the notification for delimitation was issued for other states as well, including West Bengal… I said you held elections in spite of the announcement of delimitation… you postponed the exercise and held elections… why are you insisting about Kashmir,” Tarigami said. He said Shah reiterated that statehood will be restored at an appropriate time. “He did not mention that after completion of delimitation, we will go for restoration of statehood and then hold elections.”
National Conference president and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah urged Prime Minister Modi to work towards building trust in J&K by ensuring that its full statehood is restored. Like Mufti, he said his party would continue to challenge through legal and constitutional means the scrapping of Article 370.
“There is a loss of trust which needs to be restored immediately and for that, to begin with, the Centre should work for restoration of complete statehood to J&K,” Abdullah told PTI. “I conveyed to the Prime Minister that statehood means reverting even the IAS and IPS cadres of J&K. The state has to be in totality,” he said.
People’s Conference leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig said, “The Prime Minister has assured that he will do everything to make J&K a zone of peace rather than a zone of conflict.”