In medical science, you can’t be partly pregnant; either you are pregnant, or you’re not. In politics, can a state be partly part of one country, and partly not part of it?
This question has once again been raised in India in relation to Jammu and Kashmir and once again become the subject of an impassioned – and inevitably inconclusive – debate. This time around, PM-hopeful Narendra Modi’s remark that Article 370 of the Constitution – which provides special status for J&K – needs to be subjected to public debate.
Immediately, Modi’s own party, the BJP, and other members of the sangh parivar clarified that the PM candidate’s remark did not in any way compromise the long-held saffron demand that Article 370 be scrapped; there was no question of debate about this.
On the other side of the political fence, J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah challenged Modi to a debate on Article 370, which according to Modi had effectively kept the state out of the national mainstream and hampered its development.
Article 370 is like one of those theological riddles that monks in medieval Europe endlessly discussed to help pass the time, a typical example being: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? As angels are insubstantial beings, the answer could be anything from one to an infinite number.
Article 370 is rather like that imaginary pin acting as a dance floor for angels. Constitutional experts, jurists, historians and scholars have endlessly argued about its validity and its implications.
Shorn of jargon, Article 370 gives J&K special status in that, barring defence, foreign affairs, finance and communications, other laws passed by Parliament will be subject to ratification by the state Assembly. This was part of the deal, the Instrument of Accession, by which the pre-independent ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh, agreed to join the Union of India.
Kashmiri leaders have always argued that if India does away with Article 370, it simultaneously does away with the constitutional umbilical cord that links it with India. Critics of Article 370 have contended that it is discriminatory between residents of Kashmir and other Indians in part because non-Kashmiris cannot acquire immovable property in the state. Moreover, the state is not necessarily subject to the same laws to which other Indians might be. This is the political equivalent of part-pregnancy: being part of a nation, and yet not being part of it.
Other Indian states – Nagaland, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh – also have special constitutional provisions which, among other things, bar other Indians from acquiring property there. But what makes the special status of J&K particularly controversial is the centre of the 60-year old dispute between India and Pakistan which continues to occupy what it calls ‘Azad Kashmir’.
Pakistani’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, rekindled the smouldering embers of the dispute by reportedly saying that the unresolved Kashmir issue could lead to a another war between the two nuclear nations, a statement later denied by Islamabad.
New Delhi’s stand on Kashmir is clear: the state is an indisputable part of the Indian Union. Fine. The ambivalence arises because of the slippery nature of Article 370, which can – and has – been variously interpreted by various viewpoints to suit their own purposes. Just how much ‘autonomy’ can the state enjoy without jeopardising its relationship with the Indian Union? While politicians wrangle over this and similar points of constitutional law, the ground reality in Kashmir is grim.
Thousands of Kashmiri pandits are in enforced exile in other parts of India and the world. While power-brokers and middlemen thrive on misappropriated Central funds – the ex-Army chief raised a furore by saying that the defence forces routinely gave Indian taxpayers’ money to Kashmiri politicians to ‘win hearts and minds’ – the plight of the average Kashmiri is miserable, often caught in the deadly crossfire between cross-border terrorists and Indian security forces which have virtually become an army of occupation in the state.
Even those who do not otherwise agree with Narendra Modi will agree with him on this. We do need to have an open debate not just on Article 370 but on the entire shambles that the ‘Switzerland of the East’ has been reduced to by being used as a pawn by a succession of exploitative politicians on both sides of the border.