On June 26, the resolution adopted by Jammu and Kashmir Assembly asking for greater autonomy as it existed before August 9, 1953, completed 14 years but without any substantial movement forward. The culmination of six-day-long debate on the issue in the specially convened session with this resolution was in itself a historic development in the battered political history of the state. The National Conference government passed the resolution with two-third majority in the House. But it was summarily rejected by the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On July 4, the Union Cabinet rejected it as “unacceptable”.
After the cabinet rejected it the then Union Home Minister L K Advani pointed out that the State Autonomy Committee report (which the June 26 resolution recommends) questioned the very constitutionality of the post-1953 developments, including the 42 Presidential Orders passed since then in exercise of Article 370 of the Constitution of India. If the SAC report were to be accepted, these Presidential Orders would be deemed, as per Mr. Advani’s understanding, as “illegal”. So the chapter was closed there and then and there was no possibility of re-opening the case of autonomy.
The ruling NC, which was part of the NDA with Omar Abdullah as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, was in shock not just because they had lost the battle for “their people” but it was a challenge for the party to snap ties with the NDA. It took the party at least six days to come to terms and then decide to meet on July 10 that year to deliberate upon the rejection of what it called the “political bible” of the party. But the party made it clear that the meet was only to decide about whether to remain in NDA or not. I remember the nervousness with which the top brass of the party converged at the then General Secretary Sheikh Nazir’s residence to take the final call. The old guard comprising veterans like Mohiuddin Shah, Mohammad Shafi Uri and Abdur Rahim Rather were vociferous in calling it a day as far as relations with NDA were concerned. The option of recalling Omar Abdullah was the only one on table though many suggested that Farooq Abdullah and his cabinet should resign en masse to register the protest. This really sent alarm bells ringing in Delhi, as after lot of efforts which included the “services” of dreaded pro-government Ikhwan, they had managed to conduct elections in 1996 and now the Assembly was sold to the world market as the “representative body of people of Jammu and Kashmir”.
Farooq’s resignation or at least recalling Omar at that time would have given a jolt to New Delhi’s projection of “return of democracy to Kashmir” at the international level. Following the death of Farooq’s mother Begum Akbar Jehan just a day after the crucial working committee meeting had begun, it was postponed till July 14. In the meantime Vajpayee and Advani arrived in Srinagar for condolences. Vajpayee’s visit to her grave and then to Hazratbal shrine changed the course and thus rescued Farooq and his party from the most difficult test of his political career. Farooq, as I remember, was very keen to see some journalists at the shrine only to create a space for Vajpayee to say “I have invited Farooq Saheb for talks to Delhi (on the issue)”.
This is how the resolution and the report that was painstakingly prepared by his team were buried forever. Though Vajpayee maintained that it was not rejected but even during the remaining four years of his tenure it was never picked up.
“I have invited Dr. Abdullah to Delhi for further dialogue (on autonomy). Union Cabinet had not rejected the autonomy resolution outright but it was not accepted,” he told the journalists outside the shrine. But NC never followed it with seriousness. The autonomy found a routine mention in 2002 and 2008 Assembly manifestos. Till date we don’t know anything about the dialogue talked about by Vajpayee in the backdrop of the rejection and NC’s bid to part ways from the NDA.
NDA with Vajpayee as its face had rejected something that was within the ambit of Indian Constitution. This was done in spite of the fact that Vajpayee had set a different course in dealing with vexed Kashmir problem. He not only walked extra mile with Pakistan over the issue but also recognized political discontent on the ground by engaging with the separatists.
Now that a new NDA rather a Bhartiya Janta Party government is in power in Delhi, the intentions are almost clear. Though BJP has gone slow on the contentious issues it has been flagging strongly during the election campaign, its stand on Article 370 has caused fear among the people in the state.
People have a reason to be concerned about this last thread of autonomous character the state has. While in last 25 years, people have been agitating for political rights outside the Indian Constitution such as “Independence” or a section for “merger with Pakistan”, the BJP’s move to complete integration is not only to negate the aspirations of the people but also to go back on the numerous promises the leaders have made with the people since 1947. One thing is clear that people in Kashmir don’t want to live a sense of defeat and New Delhi must recognize the fact that pushing them against the wall is not the answer to the alienation on the ground, which is found more among the youth.
AUTONOMY AS A SOLUTION:
BJP’s oft repeated response to Kashmir is that solution could be found within the constitution. Taking that on its face value then the Autonomy does fall under that ambit. Vajpayee is believed to have been in favour of discussing autonomy but for the hawks he could not move forward. With Narendra Modi being the strong PM, and having liking for Vajpayee’s policy on Kashmir, he should not fall prey to rhetoric but should follow realism in addressing the issue.
NC also needs to come clear on the issue. At a time when it has faced poll debacle and its style of governance has no takers, NC could reenergize its efforts on something what its president Farooq Abdullah had told me on June 29, 2000 in an interview: “It does not mean separation from India but is a way the people of State can live with dignity and honour.”
The forthcoming elections to Assembly are an acid test for both NC and People’s Democratic Party as to how they would project the aspirations of people besides giving a model of governance on which they can rely more for prosperity and development.
By arrangement with Rising Kashmir