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Neither the Constitution of India is set in stone. Nor the Article 370. Nor, what happened on 5 August 2019.

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IPRI # 86, 31 July 2020

Friday Backgrounder
J&K: Omar Abdullah complains, there is no space for mainstream leaders. Should there be one?

  D Suba Chandran

I
Facts on the ground

Three major developments took place in J&K this week.

The detention/release of mainstream leaders
The first one is related to the detention of mainstream leaders in Kashmir Valley. Sajjad Lone, leader of the Peoples Conference (PC), was released this week on 31 July 2020.

Sajjad Lone was one of the lone wolf leaders in Kashmir, with a small pocket as his support base. His father Abdul Ghani Lone was one of the leading separatists, but moderate, who got assassinated in 2002 by the militants. Sajjad Lone took over the reins of his father’s party; got elected from their home constituency in Handwara, and served as a minister in the previous government, before he was placed under detention post-August 2019.

The J&K government, however, decided to continue with the detention of Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister and the leader of the PDP, with whom the BJP had formed a coalition until June 2018. Mufti is under detention since August 2019. Her detention is it to end by 5 August; however, the government on 31 July decided to extend “for a further period of three months.”

Saifudin Soz, a Congress leader and a former federal minister and a member of Rajya Sabha (2002-08 and 2009-15) claims that he is still under detention, though the government says otherwise. The Hindu (31 July 2020) quoted him, “I confirm the fact that I am under house-arrest and I cannot go out, at all. The government version that I was a free man is wrong. I do not know why the government has resorted to such underhand means. I have not violated any law of the land, yet I am under detention.”

PDP’s Foundation Day joint statement
The second development during the week was related to the PDP’s foundation day. The party was founded in by former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Mufti served as the Chief Minister of the State twice (2002-2005 and 2015-16); he passed away in 2016, after which Mehbooba Mufti, his daughter took over the party and also became the first woman Chief Minister of the State. In 2015, the BJP formed a coalition with the PDP; the former decided to withdraw its support to the latter in 2018, following which the PDP government had to resign.

On 28 July, observing its 21st year, the PDP with its leader Mehbooba Mufti in detention, issued a statement. According to the Hindu, it said: “5 August marks a black day in the constitutional history of J&K when the solemn commitments made by the Parliament and the Constitution were annulled for a majoritarian goal of bulldozing the country into one saffron colour. We reiterate to fight for the restoration of honour and dignity of people of J&K.” The PDP statement also said, “Enforcing the peace of a graveyard and calling it normalcy is an illusion.”

Omar Abdullah’s interview on shrinking space to the mainstream leaders in Kashmir
The third major development was related to Omar Abdullah, leader of the National Conference, one of the leading mainstream political parties, and also a former Chief Minister. He was also placed under detention along with other Kashmiri leaders; but, was released earlier, along with Farooq Abdullah. He gave a detailed interview to the Hindu, that was published on 29 July 2020.

Some of the major points from his interviews include the following:
“One year later, we are forced to ask what has changed? Are those people who were alienated, feeling any less so? Is violence any lower? Has investment suddenly started flowing in? Is corruption any less and is governance any better? Has there been a reverse exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, whom we were told had been held back because of Article 370? The truth is, not a single claim stands the test of scrutiny.”
“Except for a few stray exceptions, including the DMK, Mamata Banerjee, the Left Parties, and one or two individuals in the Congress party, the polity of the rest of India effectively forgot about us.”
“I am a lot more cynical, a lot less trusting, I have every reason to be. We were taken away and locked up for no reason at all, and had the Public Safety Act thrown at us. [The government] used the fact that I ensured people came out to vote in elections against me, to justify my detention. [The government] quoted fake news websites in Parliament. My party lost thousands of lives after 1990 because we refused to be a separatist political party and we identified ourselves with the mainstream polity. How do you expect me not to be cynical and bitter?”
“It is short sighted to believe that Kashmiris have quietly accepted what happened. If Ladakhis could dance on the streets, why did Kashmiris not celebrate? Look at the sheer numbers of paramilitary forces the government had to bring out…Just because you cannot see protests don’t confuse it to mean there is no anger and a sense of hurt that prevails here over what happened on 5 August. Don’t punish and demean Kashmiris further”
“We were reduced to objects of ridicule. People said we were served right for saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. They said Mehbooba Mufti and I were being served right for putting down protests in 2010 and 2016…this is the sentiment towards mainstream leaders, and that this has left no space for mainstream leaders”
“Article 370 is a bridge between J&K and the rest of the country and if you remove it, it will reopen the chapter of the Instrument of Accession.”

II
Focus Questions in the background

One of the primary questions from the above three developments during the week would be related to the detention of mainstream leaders, and their political space and democratic function.

How important are the mainstream leaders in a conflict environment? What space do they occupy in a democratic and federal political environment? 
First, the point made by Omar Abdullah, that the Article 370 has been a bridge between J&K and rest of the country, and if you remove it, it would reopen the chapter of the instrument of accession. In any federal structure, it is the entire Constitution that would bind the federation and its federating units, and not just one or two Articles. While specific articles may provide a “special status” to the federating units, it cannot and should not be the only binding factor. Specific Articles of the Constitution, along with the Amendments and Schedules, should be addons to strengthen the bond between the federation and the federating units.

With any Special Provision in the Constitution – there is a letter and a larger spirit behind it. The letter is a written expression to strengthen the spirit. For political purposes, the spirit is more important than what is actually written on it. In Article 370, there is a letter and a spirit. Successive governments since the days of Sheikh Abdullah have diluted the letter, while kept the spirit going.

More than the Article 370, it is the mainstream political parties in J&K, that acted as a bridge between the State and the rest of India. The NC and PDP are two main political parties with a regional strength, while the Congress was the national party that had a substantial presence inside J&K – in all three sub-regions of the J&K State, as it existed before 5 August 2019. As a national party with a regional presence within J&K, the BJP was a late entrant. It has a strong presence today in the Jammu region.

The regional mainstream political parties in J&K – primarily the NC and PDP, along with a few minor parties such as the Panthers (in Jammu region) and Lone’s Peoples Conference (in Kashmir Valley) have a strong role to play, as a bridge between J&K and the rest of India. In this context, Omar Abdullah’s statement makes a strong point – the removal of Article 370 and the subsequent detention of the mainstream political leaders have made the latter as a subject of ridicule and this sentiment towards them has left no space for them to politic.

One year after their detention, should the government revisit its strategy towards their detention?
Since the above analysis makes a case – that the regional political parties and the leaders play a role, it is imperative to revisit the present strategy of keeping them in detention.

The government has already released the Abdullahs – Farooq and Omar. Recently, it has released Sajjad Lone. Lone, is small fry; Farooq and Omar Abdullah are big fishes. So is Mehbooba Mufti. It is unfortunate that the government has decided to extend Mehbooba’s detention by one more year.

The government has made a point by removing the Special Status of J&K, dividing the erstwhile State and placing the regional leaders in detention. Referred to as a muscular approach, the State has created a new Status Quo. One year later, the Status Quo cannot become a permanent fixture. Politics has to return to the State; it will not happen unless the political parties are allowed to politic. For the political parties to engage in politics, the leaders need to be released.

The fear and apprehension are – if the political parties are allowed to function, they would demand the restoration of Special Status. In the Constitution. Constitution of India. Such a demand would be a part of constitutional politics and federal politicking. India should welcome it.

Let there be a debate on the restoration in the Parliament. Even in Jammu and Ladakh, there are a few reservations on what has happened since August 2019, in terms of legal provisions. Let the Parliament revisit the debate; let the final outcome be not pre-decided. Let there be a political process.

Neither the Constitution of India is set in stone. Nor the Article 370. Nor, what happened on 5 August 2019.


Also in the series (Friday Backgrounder)

IPRI # 89, 7 August 2020
J&K: One year later, is it time to change gears?

IPRI # 86, 31 July 2020
J&K: Omar Abdullah complains, there is no space for mainstream leaders. Should there be one?

IPRI # 83, 24 July 2020
J&K: After the Hurriyat, is the PDP relevant in Kashmir politics today?

IPRI # 79, 10 July 2020
J&K: Four years after Burhan Wani

IPRI # 77, 3 July 2020
The Rise, Fall and Irrelevance of Geelani. And the Hurriyat

 

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