Federalism for J&K?

At a time when India’s states are asserting themselves, extend the debate to the unique history of J&K. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: May 25, 2012 22:36 IST

If there's one thing that I have learnt in the course of reporting from Jammu and Kashmir for the past 16 years - through some of its most-violent phases to the present environment of relative peace - it is that everyone has an opinion on the state. And perhaps more than any other debate this one has often been trapped in over-simplistic binaries of 'For' and 'Against', making it a sharply polarised argument that sheds more heat than light.

It is also a conversation that is sometimes undermined by a deep historical illiteracy. An articulation, for instance, of the fact that J&K has its own constitution and flag, can evoke an extreme response of rage and wonderment at how this can even be possible. A few years ago while reporting on the National Conference's internal report on greater autonomy for the state, I was startled at how few people were aware of this basic historical fact. I was even more taken aback by the assumption among some readers that I was advocating radical ideas when, in fact, these laws have been in existence for decades and were mandated by the Indian Constitution.

Equally - since history is not static and keeps acquiring new layers with time - if you cite the 1975 accord signed by Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah that decided, among other things, that provisions of the Constitution already applied to Jammu and Kashmir are "unalterable" - you are likely to confront fierce denial of the accord's validity from Kashmiri politicians who will chronicle the "betrayals" by New Delhi.

So the question for J&K in 2012 is this - does its healing lie in history? Does the state need to look back to look ahead? The government-appointed interlocutors - while promising a "new compact" - have urged the correcting of historical wrongs and the mending of broken promises, while simultaneously ruling out any simple stepping back into a Time Machine. But how does India find this delicate balance? We need to be sensitive to the genesis and history of people's grievances. But we don't want to be prisoners of the past either.

Ironically - and as it often happens with issues where extremity of thought steers the conversation - the criticism of the report released by the Kashmir interlocutors has come from groups that have nothing in common ideologically. The BJP and the separatist Hurriyat Conference have both been scathing in their appraisal of the interlocutors.

The BJP - which doesn't fully appreciate what a hero AB Vajpayee is in the Valley for his innovative peace efforts - has called the proposal to review all central laws on J&K after 1952 "disastrous". Given that the UPA has been unable to reach an internal consensus on amending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the state, with the home ministry and defence ministry on opposite sides of the trenches, it's hardly likely that the Centre will have the gumption to set up a constitutional review committee for J&K.

But there might be another prism through which one could view the issue - the growing assertion of the states in the Union of India. When the interlocutors argue that the mandate of Parliament over J&K should be restricted to matters of internal and external security and economic issues, the idea is termed preposterous. But don't we forget that we now live in the age of chief ministers? Recently, the assertion of federalism stalled the Centre's much-vaunted anti-terror body - the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) - from taking off. Now imagine if the CM of J&K - not the CM of West Bengal - had been instrumental in steering the anti-NCTC agitation first. The criticism of him would have been of a different order and no one would have accepted federalism as an explanation in the context of J&K.

It is this hypocrisy of public response that we must review. Yes, of course, two decades of militancy locates J&K in a different context from the other states. But then the circumstances of its history make it what the home minister admitted was a "unique problem" searching for a "unique solution." If we are able to accept the declaration of regional independence by a multitude of state satraps, why not try and extend the same width of mind here?

Article 370 - which gives J&K its special status - has always been a point of political confrontation. But the rhetoric sidesteps the fact that our Constitution sanctions what has been called an "asymmetric federalism". Specific privileges have long been given to 'unequal' but unique states through a slew of special status measures or fiscal incentives. Article 371 contains special provisions for states as diverse as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and others. So why single out J&K?

I'm aware that the rebuttal to that poser would be that Kashmir has an external dimension of Pakistan-promoted terrorism that has bled India for years. And while we must battle cross-border violence on our own uncompromising terms, our most-effective antidote to the Kashmir problem is to strengthen our internal institutions of democracy. While I'm not among those to conflate the summer flood of tourists and over-booked hotels with political peace, the improved records of free and fair elections - whether for the assembly or panchayats - is an important development.

In the meantime, the interlocutors' report - even if disagreed with or rejected substantially - should start an important public conversation. By not tabling the report in Parliament, the government ducked a crucial political debate. If it is indeed the past that we are seeking to break free from, isn't it ironic that our MPs had the time to debate a 60-year old cartoon but not how to build on the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir?

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: May 25, 2012 22:33 IST