For three decades now, the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has festered like a cancer on the Indian body politic. Every elected government has tried to resolve the so-called “Kashmir Issue”, but in the end has fallen back to hand-wringing.
Meanwhile, violence has ebbed and flowed, international attention has waxed and waned according to the geopolitical compulsion of the day and mainstream Kashmiri politicians in the name of holding the fort on New Delhi's behalf have made hay.
This comfortable paradigm has over time taken on the appearance of being unshakable. Yet, first impressions of the new government at the Centre suggest that major changes are afoot which are certain to challenge if not unravel the Kashmir knot.
The key man to watch this time will be the Prime Minister's political right hand man and confidant, Amit Shah, who has been appointed Union Home Minister with the tacit mandate of “fixing” the Kashmir problem. Kashmir will be his top priority as is evident from the first briefings he sought from the country's security and intelligence apparatus.
His appointment also suggests that New Delhi's police approach will be replaced by a political one. For 30 years now successive governments in New Delhi have approached the Kashmir issue as a policing problem. The emphasis has been on restoring law and order, normalcy and so on.
The country's security and intelligence agencies have played a forward role in the matter. It is not a coincidence that all Jammu & Kashmir governors appointed during the past 30 years have either come from the intelligence community, the administrative services or the military. The present governor, Satya Pal Malik, is the first political appointee in decades — the last was Jagmohan.
During the first tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and his formidable reputation as a former intelligence chief that shaped and guided Kashmir policy. Rajnath Singh was a good but largely clueless Home Minister.
This time round, it is clear that NSA Doval will not be top policy honcho where Kashmir is concerned. He was a policeman and henceforth will have to report to politician Shah, who will tell him what to do where policing and security issues are concerned. This is a bigger change than just a shift of personalities.
Three other pointers suggest the outline of an emerging policy. The BJP has dropped broad hints about making a few significant changes which would include the delimitation of constituencies in the state, dropping of Article 35A of the Indian Constitution and introducing reserved seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST) in the Kashmir Valley.
Jammu & Kashmir currently has 87 seats in its legislative assembly with 46 seats in the Kashmir Valley, four in Ladakh and 37 in the Jammu region. Reports suggest that the new Union home minister would like to increase seats in the pro-BJP Jammu region in line with the state’s current population profile.
The idea, as some political commentators have suggested, is to create conditions for the BJP to acquire a simple majority in the next J&K Assembly elections slated to be held later this year. This would effectively break the back of Kashmiri dominance in the state's politics.
The problem with delimitation is largely legal and stems from the fact that the state has a separate Constitution and laws to deal with such matters. In 2002, former chief minister Farooq Abdullah had amended the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, and Section 47(3) of the State Constitution to freeze delimitation until 2026. This amendment has been challenged without success in the courts and it is difficult to see the courts endorsing a delimitation exercise without attendant changes in constitutional provisions.
Article 35A is an equally contentious provision of the Indian Constitution that was inserted without Parliamentary approval to allow the J&K legislature to decide on the scope of state laws and most important to decide who should be conferred state citizenship. While this law is intended to protect state subjects and prevent demographic imbalance it has also served as an instrument to deny justice to large sections of the state’s people.
The worst affected are the so-called West Pakistan refugees, who currently number anything between 250,000 and 300,000. Sadly, this large group that was forced to flee Pakistan after partition have virtually no political, social or economic rights in J&K.
While they can vote in parliamentary elections, they cannot do the same in state assembly elections; neither can they buy property, apply for government jobs in the state or educate their children in state institutions. For all practical purposes, they remain stateless.
Kashmir Valley politicians would like to deport these former refugees and their families whereas dropping Article 35A would allow this large group to become lawful citizens of the state — and perhaps BJP voters.
Lastly, there is the issue of reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the Kashmir Valley. This section is believed to comprise about 11 per cent of the population of the Kashmir region but the rights available to this category in other parts of the country have been denied here. Extension of reservation benefits and perhaps the creation of reserved seats in the Kashmir Valley could pave the way for even greater political changes in the state.
All these attempts are bound to be stonewalled by Valley politicians across the board. For, as an opinion piece in the Valley newspaper, Rising Kashmir, declared: “The attacks on our special identity have mounted in past few years and all means are being formulated to scrap and do away with the same.”
The real danger perhaps lies in the likely impact of these moves on the section of the Kashmiri populace that is still ambivalent or favourable towards India. It is the goodwill of this section that allows the functioning of the state administration and facilitates the security forces in their endless battle against insurgents. Losing their trust would be both unfortunate and fraught with risk.
A good strategy therefore would seek to offset the losses arising out of diminishing political clout with tangible benefits for the average Kashmir Valley citizen. It would also be imperative to assure the populace of the long-term advantages of peace and the end of violence....