The Kashmir Autonomy Resolution And India’s Integrity
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.
12 October 2000
Conference on South Asian Politics University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA
Even though furor over the Autonomy resolution passed earlier by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) State Legislature has subsided and its news worthiness overshadowed by recent events pertaining to the ill fated cease-fire and initiation of a political dialogue with militants, there is a need to put the Autonomy debate in a proper context. The purpose of my presentation is to provide a fresh look at this issue and bring forth a new perspective that may provide some clues for the future.
First a brief statement about the issue itself. The State Government, led by Dr. Farooq Abdullah of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), came to power in 1996 with a demand for “greater Autonomy” in J&K. How the Autonomy plank restored Dr. Abdullah’s credibility with the U.S. Government (primarily, Ms. Robin Raphel, Clinton administration’s point person on Kashmir affairs at that time) is addressed in one of my earlier papersIn November 1996, within a month after the resumption of power,Dr. Abdullah’s government constituted a State Autonomy Committee (SAC), headed by Dr. Karan Singh to prepare recommendations. Dr. Karan Singh resigned from the SAC in July 1997, and thereafter the SAC had an “all JKNC membership”, and was headed by G. M. Shah, a State cabinet minister and a loyal confidant of Dr. Abdullah. The SAC submitted its report to Dr. Abdullah, who sent the report to the J&K Assembly on April 15, 1999 in the final moments before the adjournment of the Assembly session. There was no action on the report (by either the Chief Minister or the Legislature) until January 2000, when it was submitted (or resubmitted) formally to the J&K State Cabinet for endorsement. The SAC report was finally debated in the J&K Assembly in a special session that began on June 20, 2000 and ended with a controversial voice vote in favor of the report on June 26, 2000.
The SAC’s main recommendations revolve around the restoration of the pre-1953 status in the relationship between the federal government and the State. In effect, the SAC Report limits its endorsement to the following: the “Delhi Understanding” of May 1949 that formed the basis for Article 306-A (subsequently becoming Article 370) of the draft Indian Constitution, the ?Delhi Agreement? of April 1952 that was used primarily to terminate monarchy in J&K, and specific decisions of the State Constituent assembly from October 1951 until August 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah, Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s father and predecessor to his post, was dismissed for undermining security and integrity of India. In general terms, some of the recommendations of the SAC are that certain federal laws extended to the State should be removed, and in some cases the State Constitution should be revised to incorporate comparable features. The point that many miss is that the federal laws in question are not mere imperialistic oddities, but the very essence of Indian plurality reflecting its steadily evolving political maturity from 1947. We are talking about laws pertaining to fundamental rights, due process of law, elimination of rigged elections, affirmative actions and protection of minorities, and financial accountability and transparency in public expenditure. Also, while the SAC Report welcomes direct federal role in matters of defense, foreign affairs and communications, it demands that the State have the final say on role of the Central government in J&K in case of external aggression, internal security or national emergency. In a State that is among the most corrupt in the country, the SAC rejects the need to bring high caliber bureaucrats from all India services (IAS, IPS, etc.) to the State, preferring instead to rely on one of the pillars of Article 370 that denies State jobs to non-Kashmiris or even to highly qualified long time Kashmiri residents that are not deemed as State subjects. Another noteworthy feature in Article 370 is that it also denies non-Kashmiris from buying real estate in J&K, even though Kashmiris are free to buy real estate any where in India.
To sum it all, the State that (a) has far greater autonomy and power than enjoyed by any other State in India, and where (b) Center’s jurisdiction within the State is more limited than what it has with respect to other States, simply wants more. It wants more not to supplement the improvements made over the last 50 years of Indian polity that is serving as a new benchmark for revitalization of democracies in South Asia, but to replace this progress by some vague promises that will do more harm than good to the State. After all it the same J&K government that has questioned the jurisdiction of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) over the State which was however rejected by the Supreme Court, and is currently in dispute with the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) for denying minority status to Kashmiri Pandits.
Before, we attempt to answer what led to such a vote in the State Legislature, we must address why did it happen at all? Why would anyone wish to turn back the clock on human and political development in J&K by 50 years? After all, if the Indian system of governance is bad, why should not the JKNC demand total independence rather than stop gaps changes here and there? The answer lies in the manner by which the Abdullah dynasty has maintained its hold on Kashmir through a contrived “love-hate” relationship with the Central government. The family rule has been fostered by a ?carrot and stick? approach. On one hand, it engages in demagoguery to affirm Muslim identity of the State (in the secular Indian union) at the expense of State minorities, and on the other it goes to great lengths to shift the blame for gross mismanagement of the State administration to the Central government. The bottom line is simply to ensure longevity of the dynasty rule where the mantle has already passed from the father to the son, and one day may pass on to the next generation. Such examples abound in the sub-continent. In pursuing such an agenda, the dynasty has indeed exposed the soft underbelly of the Indian State, which is unable to match politically its wits with the cunning of the ruling patriarch. Indeed, the Central government?s inability to censure the Abdullah government for obstructing the working of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) is very revealing. Similarly, the State has been singularly indifferent to the problems of internally displaced Kashmiri Pandits. Both Ladakhi and Pandit identities are being seriously undermined by the State government that is bent on eroding secular values to appease the Islamic extremists within the JKNC. If this is happening right now, imagine the consequences under additional autonomy.
But the State has even larger problems. In spite of receiving significant grants, loans and write-off’s over the last 50 years from the Central government, the State has a dismal record of performance. The literacy rate is the lowest in India (26.17%), stands 22nd among India’s 25 states on per capita income (Rs. 6,658), stands lowest in gross industrial output per capita (Rs. 1,215), and has the highest unemployment in the country. The reasons are not hard to find. While militancy has been around for a decade, J&K problems have been compounded in the last 50 years by opportunistic politicians, a complex patronage system, highly inefficient bureaucracy, a liberal personal income tax scheme (however the Article 370 limits excludes this benefit to non-Kashmiris), poor tax incentives for developing industrial infrastructure, and practically zero accountability and transparency in government dealings. No industrialist in his right mind would want to invest in Kashmir, and furthermore if no outside investor is allowed to own real estate or is treated as a normal citizen, it is no surprise that there are no takers. As the trickle-down benefits progressively diminish from top down and a common Kashmiri openly wanders why India is treating it as a stepchild, guess where the finger is pointed by the State government?
The solution to Kashmir’s economic and political morass lies in true democratization of its people and removal of artificial fetters like the Article 370 that have held back its growth and sapped its vitality. There is no reason why the economic tiger unleashed in India cannot roam freely in Kashmir also. This must be obvious to an astute person like Dr. Farooq Abdullah. But he has a Hobson’s choice – either liberalize the Kashmiri society and educate people on economic and political matters thereby risk losing control or maintain the grip on power by staying aloof and indifferent, thus allowing anti-national and Islamic fundamentalists a free rein to pursue their nefarious deeds. Thus, it is no surprise that at the very first signs of a thawing relationship between the Center and militant groups, including the Hurriyat, the JKNC led by Dr. Abdullah pulled out its trump card. How Dr. Abdullah managed to package the Autonomy debate in J&K Legislature concurrently with the secret talks that India held with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, is a testament of his political prowess. But his shining moment, and perhaps his legacy, will be the autonomy resolution that he railroaded through the legislature on June 26, 2000.
So where do we go from here? The Indian Cabinet in a unanimous decision on July 4 rejected the State assembly resolution. Stating correctly that “the SAC recommendations sought to reverse the application of constitutional provisions that would not only adversely affect the interests of the people of the State but would also tantamount to removal of some of the essential safeguards enshrined in the Indian Constitution.” Furthermore, the Central government pointed out that the State had already moved past the 1953 position when Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s father negotiated a new Agreement with the Central government in 1975. While the outcome of the Autonomy issue cannot be speculated at this time, it is clear that Dr. Abdullah will not get his wish, though in the real sense his personal wishes may still come true. Many of his own followers believe that he is seeking the post of the President of India, and indeed if he is assured of such an outcome and also if his son’s political career is protected, most informed observers believe he is ready to turn over the reins of the State to others, including Hurriyat, Hizbi or whosoever emerges from the political process underway in Kashmir.
Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.