When Spring arrived in Kashmir, there was apprehension that another summer of unrest lay ahead, of the kind seen after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last July, which led to violent protests, clashes with security forces and close to two months of curfew. Reassuringly, as the months passed, despite recurrent stand-offs between militants and security forces, relative calm seemed to prevail in Kashmir. But a different battle was in store.

In July, the Centre called for a “larger debate” in response to a petition filed before the Supreme Court challenging the Constitutional validity of Article 35A , which allows the state government to define the “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir, who are entitled to certain benefits. The petition will now be heard by a three-judge bench later this month.

Since then, tempers have been running high in the state and alarm bells have set off among the leadership, the Opposition and the separatists. This is because Article 35A, which protects the rights of permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir over property, jobs and scholarships – along with Article 370A that grants special status to the state – safeguards the relative autonomy of Jammu and Kasmir, which forms the very basis of its accession to the Indian Union. A major concern is that dilution of this Article would allow outsiders to settle in the state, eventually changing its demography.

Circuitous route?

However, these two Articles have been a bone of contention for the Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates, whose long-term stand has been to abrogate the Articles and completely integrate the state with the Indian Union.

But to fulfill its ambition of holding power in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP had to tie up with the ideologically opposite Peoples Democratic Party to form the government in 2014 and agree to a document called the Agenda of Alliance. Among other things that were typically not palatable for the BJP, such as talks with Pakistan and the Hurriyat, the Agenda agreed to protect the special status of the state as guaranteed under the Constitution.

Since the party made a public political commitment, its long-standing position on Kashmir became questionable. Political analysts believe that it therefore encouraged the judicial route to tinker with the special status. Significantly, one of the petitioners in the special status case, a think tank called the J&K Study Centre, is reportedly backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

That is why the Government of India’s position with regard to the petition in the Supreme Court is at odds with that of Jammu and Kashmir’s state government. Instead of backing the state government’s affidavit seeking a dismissal of the petition challenging the constitutional validity of Article 35A, the Centre sought wider discussion on it, reigniting a debate on the emotive subject. In response, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti warned that any change to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status would destroy India’s fragile relationship with it and no one would “shoulder the national flag” in the state.

Change of track

By reigniting the 35A debate, BJP and its affiliates have certainly succeeded in changing the discourse in Kashmir from the larger demand of azadi to the protection of the state’s Constitutional status. However, this is a risky affair for the BJP, since it has brought regional forces in Kashmir closer. On August 9, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufit of the People Democratic Party called upon arch rival National Conference’s President Farooq Abdullah, purportedly to discuss the challenge to Article 35A.

Smaller parties are also echoing the sentiment of protecting the special status at any cost, but more significant is how the separatists are upping the ante on the issue, taking the same line as the mainstream (and pro-India) political parties of Kashmir.

Kashmir’s civil society too is on the same page and also sees other moves, such as the extension of the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest or SARFAESI Act, the Collection of Statistics (Amendment) Bill, 2017 and the Goods and Services Tax to Jammu and Kashmir, as ways to erode the state’s special status.

Even academicians and intellectuals who would talk about nothing less than Kashmir’s right of self determination are today throwing their weight behind the growing revolt against the move to do away with Article 35 A. They say abolishing the law would dishonour the Indian government’s promise to protect Kashmir’s special status.

Also interesting are the rapid developments in Supreme Court on Article 35A. On Monday, a bench which had, among other, Justice Dipak Misra, who is set to take over as the Chief Justice of India indicated that the issue may even be referred to a five-member bench.

Tight embrace

The government’s refusal to back the state’s affidavit seeking dismissal of the petition challenging Article 35A comes against the backdrop of the BJP government pursuing a hard-line in Kashmir. The party seems unable to think beyond a military approach in the Valley. Moreover, they have tightened the noose around the separatist leadership, by ordering raids by the National Investigation Agency at properties of Hurriyat leaders in Delhi, Kashmir and Haryana, purportedly in connection with investigations into terror funding and even arrested separatists for allegedly funding terror groups. This has demoralised the separatist leadership and has succeeded in delegitimising them in the eyes of the average Indian.

In so far as it has lowered the discourse in Kashmir from secession or freedom to saving its special status within the Indian Union, the row over Article 35A has suited New Delhi. However, a political realignment in Kashmir may not augur well for the BJP, and if Delhi succeeds in denting the special status of Kashmir, that could mean the end of pro-India forces in the Valley. Separatists could then occupy a bigger space, changing the political game in Kashmir to an extent that may not be easy for the BJP to deal with.

The increase in the number of youth turning to militancy in Kashmir and the growing frustration among the Valley’s citizens over Delhi’s high-handed approach in the state has a potential to aggravate the situation in Kashmir and could even lead to revolt. Simmering tensions in Kashmir may suit New Delhi in the short run, allowing it to take a hard line, but could prove counterproductive over time. Kashmir is an issue that grabs international attention and a further deterioration of the situation here could damage India’s global reputation.

If Delhi was unwilling to negotiate on the demand for azadi, the least it could have done is not tinker with whatever is left of Jammu and Kashmir’s Constitutionally gauranteed autonomy.

Shujaat Bukhari is Editor-in-Chief, Rising Kashmir