It’s almost a year since the tectonic changes of August 5, 2019, were forced on the people of Jammu and Kashmir without so much as a by your leave. It’s still impossible to come to terms with what I saw being rolled out on my television set that morning. Hours earlier, at the stroke of midnight, I had been placed under house arrest, and would be shifted to a government guest house by the end of the day. The nominated representative of the Union government usurped powers, that should have been vested with the legislature and a popularly elected government, to rewrite J&K’s constitutional relationship with the rest of India. The Parliament of India spent less than a day each in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to change more than 70 years of history, to undo the sovereign commitments made to the people of J&K and to dismember the state.
After the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rumours started to float about the intentions of the BJP to use its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha to implement its poll promise of abrogating Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution. Fears reached a fever pitch when plane loads of central para-military forces where flown in to Srinagar and dispatched all over the state.(Read here in Tamil)
The people were treated to categorical denials by the occupant of the highest office in the state, the Governor, that J&K’s special status faced no threat. He debunked the rumours, explained away the additional forces suggesting they were required for Assembly elections later in the year. So what does one conclude from this? That the occupant of such a high office deliberately lied to the people or that he wasn’t kept informed? I know what I believe but you can draw your own conclusions. Some of us, senior office-bearers of the J&K National Conference, had a meeting with the PM just days before the August 5 developments. It’s not a meeting I will forget in a hurry. One day I may write about it but propriety precludes me from saying more than that we left the meeting with a completely different impression about what was going to unfold in the next 72 hours.
In one fell swoop, everything we had feared came to pass.
J&K’s special status, an important, perhaps even indispensable, part of the state’s accession to the Union, was revoked. With it, went the framework that determined who a bonafide resident of J&K was. Truth be told, the BJP pushing this wasn’t a complete surprise — it was part of its poll agenda for decades. What came as a shock was the humiliation heaped on the state by downgrading it and splitting it into two Union Territories. Over the last seven decades, Union Territories have been upgraded to states but this was the first time a state was downgraded to a Union Territory.
To this day, I fail to understand the need for this move, except to punish and humiliate the people of the state. If the reason for carving out a separate Union Territory for Ladakh was the public demand among the Buddhist population of the area, then the demand for a separate state for the people of Jammu is a much older demand. If the demand was conceded on religious grounds, then it ignored the fact that Leh and Kargil districts, which together make up the Union Territory of Ladakh, are Muslim majority and the people of Kargil are vehemently opposed to the idea of being separated from J&K.
Many reasons were given to justify the complete dilution of Article 370 when it was being rammed through Parliament, none stands the test of basic scrutiny. It was alleged that Article 370 has fuelled separatism and allowed militant violence to thrive in Kashmir, an end was supposed to herald the end of terrorism. If that be the case, then why is it that almost a year later the same Union government is forced to tell the Supreme Court that violence in J&K is increasing? Article 370 has kept the people of J&K in poverty was another claim. Even a cursory glance at poverty figures would show that J&K has some of the lowest levels of poverty in the country. Article 370 was alleged to have denied J&K investment. Prior to the outbreak of militancy in the state, J&K was amongst the most progressive states with a growing industrial base and impressive investment in manufacturing. Tourism was a sector that was coming in to its own as far as investments were concerned. What has stopped J&K from attracting investment is the security environment and that’s why a year after the momentous changes there has been no investment worth the mention.
It was also claimed that J&K has remained backward because of Article 370. In fact, a comparison with a “developed” state like Gujarat would show that we compare far more favourably in a number of human development indices. Finally, it was suggested that Article 370 was always meant to be a temporary provision. What they forget to add to this sentence is that it was temporary because of the little matter of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1947 of 1948, but that’s an entirely different op-ed in itself.
Even the Supreme Court, as recently as 2018, has held that Article 370 “had acquired a permanent status by virtue of its years of existence making its abrogation impossible”. Anyway you wish to look at it, other than the political justification of an election promise being fulfilled, there is no constitutional, legal, economic or security justification for what was done to J&K on August 5, 2019. This is what forms the basis of the National Conference’s case in the Supreme Court.
The special constitutional status enjoyed by J&K was not a favour done to the state. It formed the basis of the state’s accession to India. At a time when states were asked to choose between acceding to India or to Pakistan, religion was the overwhelming determinant. For Muslim-majority J&K to accede and then fight alongside Indian forces to push back Pakistani invaders in 1947 was without parallel. It allowed India to proudly stamp its secular credentials for all to see. All that J&K asked for was to have certain safeguards built in the Constitution to protect this unique status. There was no time stamp on these safeguards.
It was understood that so long as J&K remained a part of India, the special status enjoyed by it would remain. This is what makes it all the more distressing to see what was done last year. J&K has kept its side of the promise by remaining a part of the Union, the last 30 years of militancy notwithstanding. It has participated in the democratic processes and tried to share in the nation’s development, but the promise made with it was not kept. This is one of those moments when it’s important to ask whether it is better to be popular or to be right. Removing J&K’s special status may have been the popular thing to do but going back on a nation’s sovereign commitments is never going to be the right thing to do.
We, in the J&K National Conference, do not agree with what has been done to J&K nor do we accept what has been done. We shall oppose this, our opposition will continue in the highest court in the land in the form of the legal challenge filed in the Supreme Court last year. We have always believed in democracy and peaceful opposition. Sadly these very democratic rights were trampled on a year ago. Dozens of mainstream politicians were placed in “preventive arrest” and many more under illegal house arrest. In fact, a number of these leaders are still under illegal detention a year later. The National Conference has lost thousands of workers and office-bearers to militant violence because of our choice to remain a mainstream political party while opposing the separatist politics that grew in the late 1980s. Given the orchestrated campaign against mainstream political parties in most of the national media, particularly at the hands of the ruling dispensation, it’s easy to find oneself asking whether the sacrifices were worth it.
As for me, I am very clear that while J&K remains a Union Territory I will not be contesting any Assembly elections. Having been a member of the most empowered Assembly in the land and that, too, as the leader of that Assembly for six years, I simply cannot and will not be a member of a House that has been disempowered the way ours has.
With almost all of my senior colleagues still detained in their homes, the NC is yet to meet to decide its next political course of action and I will work diligently to strengthen the party, carry forward its agenda and continue to represent the aspirations of the people while we fight against the injustices heaped on J&K in the last one year.
Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Union Minister in the Vajpayee Government and vice president of JKNC, was detained by the J&K administration on August 4-5, 2019, and, subsequently, under the Public Safety Act. He was released, after 232 days, on March 24.
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