The timing of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s “thoughts” on Article 35 A, as articulated in a blog post, just as the country is gearing for the Lok Sabha polls, is fraught. Article 35 A of the Indian Constitution empowers the Jammu & Kashmir legislature to define the state’s permanent residents and their rights and privileges. Jaitley has written that 35 A “came as a Presidential Notification and is a surreptitious executive insertion in the Constitution”, and that it is discriminatory. The ideological position of the BJP and RSS for the abrogation of Article 370, and its derivative, Article 35 A, is well-known. However, it has been hoped that as a party in government, the BJP views the issue with more pragmatism and responsibility. A challenge to Article 35 A is before the Supreme Court, where the government has yet not made its stand clear. For this reason, if for no other, as a senior government functionary, Jaitley should have exercised restraint.
At its heart, the opposition to 35 A stems out of the desire to play with the demography of Jammu & Kashmir, particularly, the Muslim majority Valley. There seems to be an impression in the Sangh parivar that by doing this, the Kashmir problem will be “solved” immediately. Nothing can be further from the truth. There has been enough turmoil in Kashmir over the last four years, and a strong revival of militancy. More people have been killed since 2016, civilians, militants and security forces personnel in the Valley, than at any time in the last two decades. Meddling with constitutional provisions that guarantee J&K’s autonomy will only heighten this turmoil. For Delhi, it would be akin to scoring an own goal.
Article 370 — from which Article 35 A came — is the constitutional provision that governs India’s relationship with J&K, and safeguards its autonomy, while strengthening its accession to India. Almost from the beginning, though, the autonomy guaranteed by Article 370 has been undermined by the Centre through a series of presidential orders — one of the main reasons there has been a breakdown of trust between the Centre and Kashmir. Those arguing for doing away with Article 35 A should keep in mind that such a step could bring into question every presidential order passed to extend provisions of the Indian Constitution to J&K.