By Brig Anil Gupta (Retd)*
As and when the Kashmiri leaders visualise any threat to their power they raise the bogey of “Article 370” to arouse Kashmiri sentiments in pursuance of their finely mastered craft of vote-bank politics. The recent statements of Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti on the floor of the state assembly have once again sparked the controversy regarding the future of the said article of the Constitution of India that grants autonomous status to the border state.
Article 35A has been inserted in the Constitution through a Presidential Order invoking the authority vested by Article 370. This article defines the “Permanent Resident” of the state and enables grant of special privileges to the “Permanent Residents.” Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has gone to the extent of terming those opposed to Article 370 as “anti-national”, thus in one stroke glorifying the stone-pelters, secessionists and separatists as “nationalists”. The prophetic statement of noted Urdu poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani, made before the Constituent Assembly of India on October 17, 1949 that “The grant of special status would enable Kashmir to assume independence afterwards” appears to be proving true.
Col (Dr) Tej Kumar Tikoo, in his book titled “Kashmir: Its Aborigines and their Exodus”, has stated, “To the gullible people of Kashmir, the abolition of Article 370 is projected as a catastrophic event that will sound the death knell of Kashmiri Muslim culture, but in actual fact, this argument is a ploy to prevent assimilation of Kashmiris into the national mainstream. That way, these power brokers continue to expand their fiefdom, perpetuate their hold on political and economic power and build a communal and obscurantist mind set, which in due course serves as a breeding ground for creating a separatist mentality.”
Thus, Article 370 is not only misused by these power brokers to further their political fortunes but also to fuel the psychological isolation of the Kashmiris from the rest of the nation and encouraging fissiparous tendency. The vested interests in Kashmir, be it the politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen or professionals, have used Article 370 to further their own business/political interests at the expense of poor and down-trodden people of the state who do not enjoy any political patronage. A few influential families have also amassed huge wealth due to lack of competition and virtual monopoly assisted by state machinery that frames laws and statutes to suit their interests misusing Article 370. They are the most vocal and ardent supporters of Article 370 in addition to the political power brokers.
However, the common Kashmiri and the people of the other two regions of the state who perceive themselves as ‘denied and deprived lots’ due to the misuse of Article 370 form the silent majority who question its continuation but lack the political and economic muscle to make their angst public. Let the power brokers give a chance to the majority to decide the future of article 370 rather than them continuing to use it as a tool of political blackmail to further their agenda.
Article 370 was inserted in the Constitution of India at the behest of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to please his friend Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who nurtured the ambition of ruling the ‘riyasat’ (state). In fact, it facilitated the transfer of power from the Dogra rulers to Kashmiri Muslim rulers. Sheikh Abdullah hailed the insertion of Article 370 as a victory for the Kashmiri Quom (people) while the Indian nationalist leaders like Sardar Patel, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee vehemently opposed it.
Unfortunately, Nehru was so enamoured with Sheikh Abdullah that Jammu and Ladakh regions figured nowhere in his thinking as Hindus and Buddhists were in majority there. Sheikh Abdullah, on the other hand, followed the policy of “Muslim precedence” and supported ethnic exclusion by using Muslim majority character of Kashmir as a leverage with the union government. His practice of phony secularism marginalised the Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs and encouraged the emergence of Kashmiri Muslims as a dominant community in all spheres — a practice that continues till date.
Our political leadership in Delhi made the cardinal mistake of ignoring the people and patronising a few individuals to run the affairs of the state. These political power brokers practised phony secularism and exploited religion and Kashmiri identity to blackmail the central leadership. Their communal actions were camouflaged by concept of phony secularism and their hunger of power never prevented them from using religion and anti-India rhetoric as their pet themes during elections. They mastered the art of soft-separatism to use it as part of power game while dealing with the central leadership. The successive governments in Delhi resorted to the policy of appeasement and pampering to keep these political leaders in good humour. In turn, the Kashmiri leaders misled the innocent Kashmiris to believe that they are the sole custodian of their interests. Some people argue that erosion of Article 370 is responsible for the alleged ‘alienation’ of the Kashmiris. The fact is that continuous bad governance, rampant corruption and systematic erosion of composite Kashmiri culture under the garb of Article 370 are the major causes of dissatisfaction among the people of the state.
The people of the state need to discuss the pros and cons of Article 370 to decide whether its continuation is in their interest or in the interest of power brokers. In my view, continuation of the article denies the people of Jammu & Kashmir the benefits of economic, social and cultural development of India. It also hampers the economic progress of the state. The rich have consistently used the article to ensure that no central financial legislation that hurts their interests is introduced in the state and they are thus able to continue their financial plunder without the fear of law. Some of these include the Gift Tax, Wealth Tax and Urban Land Ceiling Act. The recent opposition to SARFAESI Act and GST are also intended for that purpose.
Through the misuse of “Roshni Act”, the influential politico-bureaucratic nexus has amassed vast land resources at the expense of the deprived and downtrodden, the targeted beneficiaries of the Act. Article 370 has also been misused by the political masters to further their political interests by preventing many people-friendly legislations being applied to the state. Some of these are “Anti-Defection Law”, Prevention of Corruption Act, and RTI-2005 — non-application of these promotes corruption and poor governance.
Article 370 is being unfairly used by valley-based Kashmiri leaders, who have monopolised political power in the state, to perpetuate regional discrimination. Hindus and Sikhs are minorities but do not get any benefits. Insulting the Indian Flag and other national symbols is not a crime.
The weaker and vulnerable sections of the society have been rendered voiceless by Article 370. Despite 20 per cent population of the state belonging to the SC/ST category, centralised welfare schemes and constitutional safeguards meant for them have not reached to the SC/ST category of the state. There is no political reservation for the ST. The hapless West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis and Gorkhas are glaring examples of deprived communities.
Article 335 of the Constitution of India that safeguards the interests of SC/ST is not applicable in the state. The vulnerable segments like children and women have also been deprived benefits of central acts protecting their interests. Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2000 and Domestic Violence Act, 2005 are a few examples. There is no surprise then that intellectual and oppressed classes are clamouring for abolition of Article 370.
Unemployment, lack of employment-generating industry, poor health infrastructure and defunct higher institutions of education are also the outcome of Article 370. All of these affect the common man who has no other alternative unlike his influential counterparts who can easily afford these abroad or in other cities of the country.
The youth of Jammu & Kashmir, though highly talented and ambitious, is plagued with the problem of unemployment. Recent figures given in the state assembly bear testimony to the fact that there is glaring lack of private jobs. The restrictive nature of Article 35A discourages private investment in the state leading to dearth of jobs. Kashmir’s major chunk of youth is struggling for jobs. Despite the salubrious climate of Kashmir, no business house is willing to establish IT industry there. There is tremendous scope for investment in tourism and hospitality, health and education sectors to generate employment. But there are no takers. The reason is no secret but the youth needs to decide if Article 370 is to their benefit or it serves the interests of the separatists or political power brokers or both of them.
The continuation of Article 370 will gradually erode the bonding between the state and rest of the country while continuing to deprive the vast majority of the fruits of economic boom enjoyed by their counterparts in other states of the union. The time has come to have a rethink on continuation of the article. The people need to decide between isolation and integration, between phony secularism and equal opportunities for all, between exclusion and inclusion — and last but not the least status quo and a bright future.
*The writer is a Jammu-based political commentator, columnist, and security and strategic analyst. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]