On Thursday, Union home minister P. Chidambaram sought an informed debate on the report of the group of interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The group had submitted its report last week. The minister said the government had not taken a view on the report.
The heart of the report is in its second chapter that deals with relations between the state and the centre. In its recommendations, the group has tried to balance the aspirations of the people of J&K without harming the national interest. But such is the pernicious legacy of the constitutional thread that binds the Union and the state—Article 370—that short of undoing it and making J&K a “normal” state, matters there will not improve. In this respect, the report is a let-down as it wants the word “temporary” in Article 370 to be deleted. (The Article is listed in that part of the Constitution which deals with temporary and special provisions.)
Most political parties in the state desire “autonomy”, the substance of which, roughly, includes (as the interlocutors report it on page 43 of the report):
• The state having its own flag and its own constitution.
• An elected governor and limits on the President’s authority to impose governor’s rule.
• Ending the run of All India Services (the Indian Administrative, Police and Forest Services).
• Making Article 356—that spells the provisions in case of the breakdown of constitutional machinery in the state—inapplicable to the state.
There is no reason why these demands should be accepted or, more importantly, what good will come from them. The fact is that a special status was accorded to the state under difficult circumstances. This was done to instil confidence among the people of that state that their identity will be respected. But instead, this identity transformed from being a mere special identity to a separatist one. The constitutional provision that created this mischief—Article 370—has been a contentious subject for long. The interlocutors have tried to chart a “middle path”. Most of their suggestions are meaningful, save this one. The fact is that J&K has to be a full-blooded part of India if the problems there are to end. And ending this constitutional anomaly has to be a key part of any solution.
These matters are, however, not simple to resolve.
Consider, first, the problems in removing Article 370. It is less than clear how this can be done. The Article itself— clause 3 to be precise—requires the recommendation of the constituent assembly of J&K before it can be removed from the Constitution. The constituent assembly of J&K was dissolved on 26 January 1957 and obtaining a recommendation is not possible now. In effect, this provision is “frozen” in the Constitution.
Then, consider the other, “autonomy”, view. Here the opposite case is made: that of a return to a pristine Article 370 sans the various orders made under it by the President that vastly extended the executive and legislative powers of the Union. In some of the drafts of this “pristine” Article, the word “temporary” is sought to be removed. How is this to be achieved: by the use of a constitutional order issued by the President with the “concurrence” of the “state of J&K”.
This is dishonest. After decrying the use of the state government’s “concurrence” (basically the allegation of the state government being a “rubber stamp”) to extend the Union’s powers, the same provision is to be used to achieve autonomy for the state. If the goal is autonomy, then recourse to a constitutional order under Article 370 is fine, otherwise abuse it is, plain and simple. And the desire to stamp out the word temporary suggests they fear that removal of Article 370 may indeed be possible.
Resolving these difficult constitutional questions is not an easy task, and hence the suggestion of creating a constitutional committee. But these issues should not be left to such a committee—which is bound to be political, as it will be appointed by a government which will hold a certain view on the matter. It could very well be in favour of restoring the original Article 370. Instead, it is better to refer the matter to the Supreme Court by a presidential reference where it is likely to be deliberated upon in a calm fashion and where national interest will be kept in view.
As to the broader issue of autonomy, some harsh realities need to be faced, especially by Kashmiris: What matters is good governance and the ability of a government to create conditions for economic prosperity. The link between these goals and autonomy is not obvious, if it exists at all. If, hypothetically, the state is made autonomous, it will not change the politicians who run the government. Autonomy (including the points listed above) will not turn them into saints, and it is quite possible matters will get worse. In state after state where such demands have been raised—Assam, Punjab and Tamil Nadu are good examples—the very champions of autonomy have turned out to be corrupt. J&K will not be any different.
And as to Article 370, it has created serious mischief in the past six decades. It has only created a wedge between the people of J&K and the rest of the country. It will be good if the Article is removed—and there surely will be ways and means to do so—and the poisonous politics it has spawned is slowly removed from India’s polity.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint
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