The Kashmir question

Article 35A: Is the perceived threat to special status realigning politics in Kashmir?

Arch rivals National Conference and People’s Democratic Party have joined hands to defend Article 35A. But will the unity last?

Fears that Jammu and Kashmir’s special status within the Indian Union could be diluted has had an unusual political effect. It has united the two main Valley-based parties that are arch rivals – the ruling People’s Democratic Party and the opposition National Conference.

Anxieties about special status are not new to Kashmir. This time, they were triggered by a petition in the Supreme Court, challenging Article 35A, a Constitutional provision that allows Jammu and Kashmir to define its “permanent residents”. Essentially, it is intended to preserve the state’s demography by barring “non-residents” from buying land or property. The Supreme Court has also sought the Centre’s response to another plea challenging the validity of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which grants autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir.

On Tuesday, Kashmir watchers were surprised when Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called on National Conference president Farooq Abdullah.

‘Rising above normal positions’

Ali Mohammad Sagar, a senior National Conference legislator, said the joining of forces was necessary. “These things happen,” Sagar said of Mufti visiting Abdullah. “Sometimes there are crucial issues where there is no other way but to unite and give a united flight.”

Sagar said the matter was not limited to any particular region – read, the Valley – but involved the rights and privileges of people across the state. “Naturally, people are concerned and so are political parties,” he said. “If the PDP is on the same page then they have to practically prove that. They have to prove their concerns are genuine.”

Senior People’s Democratic Party leader Naeem Akhtar said the two parties “agreed upon during the meeting the need for rising above normal political positions in the interests of J&K”.

According to a report in The Indian Express, the chief minister said, “It is a challenge for all political parties in J&K, who swear by the J&K Constitution and the Constitution of India. There is hardly anything left in our special status and if Article 35A is tampered with, we will cease to exist. It will be a death knell to the mainstream here. We will have nothing to tell our people.’’

Last month, Mufti had said there would be “no one to shoulder the Indian flag in the Valley”, if special status was tampered with.

State vs Centre

The threat to Article 35A has consolidated groups beyond the two major rivals. On Monday, the mainstream opposition parties held a meeting, presided by Abdullah, where the politician warned of an uprising. “When it will come to scrapping the Article, you will see this mass of people rising,” he told reporters after the meeting. “Don’t forget when Amarnath land row thing happened, people rose overnight. This Article 35A will be far greater a revolt and I wonder whether they [Government of India] will be able to contain it.” Abdullah also indicated the possibility of a “united front”, Greater Kashmir reported. His stand was endorsed by the senior Congress leader Saifuddin Soz.

The agitation has travelled beyond the mainstream fold now. The separatist leaders too have raised their concerns. On Monday, the three prominent separatist leaders, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, called for a shutdown to protest the “ongoing genocide of Kashmiris, onslaught on common people and attempts to change the state subject law in Jammu and Kashmir”. Their joint press statement read: “People of Kashmir will observe a complete shutdown on Saturday [August 12, 2017] and register their protest against these anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmir actions.”

On Tuesday, members of the Kashmir Economic Alliance, a traders’ body, held protests against the “proposed” abrogation of Article 35A. They also shouted slogans against the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in the state, reported Greater Kashmir.

In July, the Centre had expressed its reservation over responding to a petition in the Supreme Court that calls for declaring Article 35A “unconstitutional”, reported Hindustan Times. The report mentioned that Attorney General KK Venugopal told a bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar that the government was not keen on filing an affidavit, and wanted a “larger debate” on this “very sensitive” matter.

However, a month later, the attorney general said “a conscious decision has been taken not to file any counter-affidavit in this case because the issues which are raised for adjudication are pure questions of law”. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, took to Twitter to express his displeasure.

‘Issue-less politics’

Sunil Sethi, the chief spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, said the matter was being blown out of proportion. “I don’t understand, where is the Centre against Article 370 or 35A?” he asked. “Presently, there is no move by the central government to change or amend Article 370 or 35A, so what is the purpose of this coming together? This absolutely is no issue. It’s issue-less politics being done there.”

On the threat of agitation, Sethi said, “Dr Farooq...wants to influence the judgement of the Supreme Court of India by inciting people which is very bad and contemptuous. That will amount to politicising the institution of the Supreme Court of India.”

He was less critical of the People’s Democratic Party, the BJP’s partner in the state’s ruling alliance. The party’s position was justified because it had only spoken about defending special status, Sethi said. “As far as the Bharatiya Janata Party is concerned, so long as the agenda of alliance is there, we stand for maintaining status quo on Constitutional positions in the state,” he added.

“If the NC or any other political party from Kashmir thinks that the debate in the Supreme Court will not be up to their expectations, they should go and become a party in the petition and argue the case,” Sethi said. “NC can also go, PDP can also go, Congress can also go.”

‘Temporary unity’

Journalist and political commentator Mohammad Syed Malik said although the various parties have taken a similar position, they “may not have taken the same platform”. “The sentiment in the Valley cuts across party lines,” he said. “Therefore, there is a compulsion for every political party to fall in line.”

Malik noted that it was not “long-lasting political unity” being forged but a “strategic unity” for the purpose of defending special status. “This is a very temporary patch when everybody is on the same wavelength,” he said.

As for the possibility of an agitation breaking out, he said, “much will depend on the attitude” of the central government. “We can only react, not act.”

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