The first-ever meeting between political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir and the Centre after the abrogation of the erstwhile state’s special status under Article 370 ended on the expected lines, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging the parties to get on board with delimitation to enable Assembly elections. What clearly emerged after June 24 meeting in New Delhi is that there has been no change in the stance of the BJP government over its momentous decision of August 5, 2019.
On the day when Article 370 was revoked and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories – J&K and Ladakh – Union Home Minister Amit Shah while announcing the colossal move in Parliament said the statehood will be restored at an “appropriate time.” And since then, the Prime Minister and other BJP leaders have been repeating it, but without any time frame. At the June 24 meeting also, Modi again said that the Centre was committed to restoring statehood to J&K, but not before the delimitation of constituencies and Assembly polls.
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While the BJP government is firm over its August 5, 2019 decision, which it once termed as ‘final solution of Kashmir’ the only change since has been the latest meeting with Kashmir-centric leaders, who were jailed for months after the abrogation of Article 370. National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti – all former chief ministers of the former state –were arrested along with hundreds of other political activists’ hours before the abrogation of Article 370. For nearly two years, the BJP would taunt these leaders and hold them responsible for militancy, separatism and corruption in Kashmir. Even last year Amit Shah called them as “Gupkar Gang” when these parties came together to contest first-ever District Development Council (DDC) polls.
The question is what prompted the BJP to invite the same leaders - whom they not long ago claimed had been rejected by the people of J&K and were ‘gangsters’ – for talks. It seems this is because the international scenario has turned inimical to New Delhi compared to what it was in 2019. The defeat of Donald Trump in the US presidential polls last year and the Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh may have prompted the BJP leadership to make a climbdown from its earlier hardline posture. China specifically cited the reorganisation of the erstwhile state as a reason for its aggressive posturing. It also joined Pakistan to take up the issue at the UN General Assembly and Security Council very soon after the reorganisation of the erstwhile state.
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The Democratic Party, now in power in the US, is likely to be far more sharply focused on civil liberties and restoration of the democratic process in J&K, and less sympathetic to New Delhi’s point of view with regard to Kashmir than the previous Trump administration. The withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and the possibility of the Taliban returning to power in Kabul could be another worry for New Delhi. The BJP government wants to use the restoration of statehood to J&K as a bargaining chip, perhaps to ensure the legitimacy of the 2019 decision. This will not only help its cause at the international level but also in silencing voices of dissent within the country.
As far as leaders of the National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – the two main regional parties of J&K – are concerned, they have no alternative but to accept ‘small straw of generosity’ from New Delhi to keep themselves relevant and afloat. And when they got an invite from the Centre after two years, they wasted no time in reaching out to New Delhi. For several decades, the vote politics of the NC and the PDP revolved around ‘greater autonomy’ and ‘self-rule’, respectively. Now, they may have to add restoration of Article 370 to their election manifestos.
Since his release in April 2020, Omar Abdullah has more than once said that he would not contest any Assembly elections as long as J&K remains a UT. But he has never said he will stay away from the democratic process till Article 370 is restored. Even firebrand PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, who echoed Omar’s views recently, said that she told Modi the Centre ‘illegally’ abrogated J&K’s special status and conveyed to him they would get it restored legally through courts. Nowhere, Mufti has said or hinted that they will not participate in any election till Article 370 is restored. This is contrary to what Mehbooba used to say a few years ago. Not once but several times she warned the Centre that if J&K’s special status is not restored, ‘there would be no one in Kashmir to hold the tricolour.’
For public posturing, the leaders of both these parties may boast about how ‘boldly’ they put the demand of Article 370’s restoration before the Prime Minister to keep themselves relevant. For the time being, they may tell their voters that the 2019 decision has been challenged in the apex court. But in their hearts, they have accepted the post-370 reality and they are ready to recalibrate their politics accordingly. They can neither disagree with the Centre nor can they afford to boycott elections even if they are held with J&K as UT, with severely restricted legislative rights. Restoration of Article 370 is a readymade poll plank for them now.
However, the NC and the CPI(M) have challenged in the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the 2019 reorganisation Act that nullified J&K’s statehood and created two UTs. If they accept the PM’s roadmap of delimitation before polls, they will be abandoning their position. If they reject it, they leave the field open for the BJP and its proxies to be elected unopposed. In both scenarios, the BJP will be the gainer.
As far as the restoration of statehood is concerned, it is not only the regional parties of J&K, but national parties like the Congress also, which have upped the ante. Congress veteran from J&K and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also demanded the early restoration of statehood before holding assembly polls and protection of land and jobs for the domiciles. Most of the politicians have accepted that they can only bargain on statehood with the Centre rather than confronting and annoying it with the demands of restoration of special status.
The security situation in Kashmir, according to the army, has improved since the Indian and Pakistani Directors-General of Military Operations announced a ceasefire along the J&K borders on February 25 this year. The infiltration too has almost stopped and stone-pelting which was a huge issue for security agencies a few years ago has almost vanished. However, odd killings of political activists, like BJP Councillor Ajay Pandita in south Kashmir last month, continue. There is a likelihood that militants may target more political activists as and when the election process starts.
This was the Centre’s first major outreach since August 2019 towards political leaders who have been severely critical of the Article 370 decision. So what comes next? No reconciliation process is sustainable without both sides conceding ground. For J&K politicians, avoiding rhetoric like talks with Pakistan and militants, and for the Centre to give a timeline for its promise of statehood could be the key for the dialogue to move forward. If the Centre goes ahead with its plan of forcing J&K into UT elections, it will further deepen the alienation and public anger. Force has failed in the past and in all possibility will fail in future as well. The best way to go forward for both sides would be to accommodate each other’s views and aspirations.