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Interrogating autonomy in J&K

There is far more to the idea than frozen political postures would lead us to believe....

Written by Rekha Chowdhary |
January 21, 2010 3:22:56 am

With the working group on Centre-State Relations headed by Justice Sageer Ahmed recommending the restoration of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir,the political divergence within the state have come into focus again. While the Kashmir-based political parties have welcomed the recommendation,the separatists have rejected it on the ground that it assumes the finality of state’s accession with India and places the Kashmir issue within the paradigm of Centre-state relations. It has also evoked a negative response from the BJP and like-minded local parties and organisations on the ground that “autonomy” promotes a secessionist agenda.

These responses are similar to the ones articulated in 1999 when the autonomy issue was last highlighted following the recommendations of the State Autonomy Committee constituted by the NC government. This pattern emphasises the need to address political divergence and to evolve a consensus before any concrete proposal for conflict resolution can be pursued. As things stand,there can be no alternative to this consensus-building around conflict resolution mechanisms,since the other possibility of dividing the state has been declared outright dangerous and rejected even by the BJP.

But is consensus possible,given such polarised approaches? Can there be a dialogue between the pro-azadi and pro-autonomy positions? It may be a difficult exercise — one seeking to renegotiate the state’s relation with the Centre within the existing framework,and the other contesting this framework itself. However,in the complex reality of Kashmir’s politics,the understanding that the two concepts of “autonomy” and “azadi” overlap at many points and that the idea of “azadi” has come into vogue only when the space for “autonomy” had totally shrunk,may give us some hope for the reversal as well,provided the idea of autonomy is pursued in an earnest manner.

However,the divide between those demanding the restoration of autonomy and those opposing Article 370 itself seems far more intractable. Rather than a reasoned debate,the issue of autonomy has remained wrapped in rhetoric and emotion. Is autonomy really opposed to integration and does it actually lead to secessionism? This is an important question because two opposite arguments are built around the same political fact. While the opponents of autonomy argue that Article 370 has led to secessionist forces,those in its favour argue that it is the erosion of autonomy which has led to alienation and,consequently,separatist politics. And this leads to a related question: What is Article 370 about? Does it have a federal context or a nationalist context? How does the concept of asymmetrical federalism affect the unity and integrity of the Indian nation? This debate may help clear the confusion created around the article and shift the discourse from nationalist to federalist context,and thereby create a space for dialogue and consensus.

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It is also important to raise the question about the nature of autonomy itself — how inclusive or exclusive is this demand? It is important to note that besides the urge for autonomy for the state,there is also an urge for regional and sub-regional autonomy,and no essential contradiction between these urges. One of the major reasons why the concept of state autonomy is vigorously opposed in Jammu is because it does not essentially incorporate the idea of further extension from the state to region and from regions to sub-regional levels. In the discourse therefore,state autonomy is placed in opposition to the concept of regional autonomy,the former catering to Kashmiris and the latter to the regions of Jammu and Ladakh. With the idea of autonomy shedding its exclusive nature,there is no reason why the space for dialogue would not be available.

Related is another set of questions: how static or dynamic is the concept of autonomy? Presenting autonomy in a very static manner — as a concept representing the ideology of a particular party (National Conference) or a concept located in a particular period (pre-1953),the dynamism of the concept of autonomy has been taken away. In the current conceptualisation,it places itself in opposition to various pro-people institutions and processes merely on the ground that these are “Central” and erode the “autonomy” of the state. The fact that the state still has to implement the 33 per cent reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj insitutions,that there is a time lag in the institutionalisation of RTI,that the jurisdiction of the National Commission of Women is not extended to this state,that the provision of political reservation for STs is not implemented — all this makes a case for looking afresh at the concept of autonomy. Once the debate is opened,and the stakeholders are involved,it may be possible to go beyond the rigid positions and evolve a consensus.

The writer teaches political science at Jammu University

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