On Saturday, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah spoke at a rally in Jammu but also seemed to be addressing a national audience as he resurrected the issue of Article 370, the constitutional provision which provides special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
The rally took place just days after the BJP walked out of the coalition with the People’s Democratic Party, which had held for three uneasy years in Jammu and Kashmir. The parties had forged an agenda of alliance which was to be a meeting ground between two political extremes, Hindu nationalist BJP and the “soft-separatist” People’s Democratic Party. With the alliance over and the agenda buried, BJP seems to have abandoned the middle ground altogether.
Saturday’s speech signposted the BJP’s core agenda once more: Jana Sangh leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee and his efforts in the early 1950s to abrogate Article 370 that affords the state a degree of autonomy; Kashmir as an “atoot ang” or “integral part” of India; a rather dubious invocation of the Praja Parishad founded by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Balraj Madhok in November 1947 as the “first national movement of independent India”; chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. A diatribe against the Congress was also slipped into the speech.
Despite Shah’s denials to the press, the BJP seems to be using Kashmir to signal its Hindutva credentials in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It could be a dangerous path to go down.
Shah’s immediate objective may have been to placate the BJP’s workers and constituencies in Jammu, post coalition. Once again, he trotted out the BJP’s stated reasons for walking out of the government and blamed the People’s Democratic Party for the failure of developmental projects, including the proposal for an All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which never got off the ground, for the Kashmir Valley’s spiral into violence and for the neglect of Jammu and Ladakh.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has since refuted Shah’s charges, claiming the state government had been committed to the agenda of alliance all along. Whatever the truth of her statements, Shah’s portrayal of a BJP powerless in the face of an obdurate People’s Democratic Party does not quite ring true either.
As the Centre bears down on Kashmir, it is clear that most decisions, from security to development, flow from Delhi and not the state government. Besides, surely the BJP, with a large number of legislators and a deputy chief minister in the state government, had a say in governance? Shah’s claim of the Centre generously doling out Rs 80,000 crore to the state after the floods of 2014 also needs to be questioned. As of March this year, a parliamentary panel found that only 22% of these funds had been released to the state government.
But Shah was addressing other political grievances among the BJP’s hardline constituencies, which have been dissatisfied ever since the Kathua case involving the rape and murder of a minor girl and the thwarted saffron mobilisations around it to protest against the arrests of Hindu men for the crime. Back in April, this had led to the resignation of two BJP ministers who had participated in the Kathua rallies defending the accused. It ended in the mass resignation of all BJP ministers and a cabinet reshuffle.
If the BJP had seemed to abandon its hardline constituencies at that time, it is actively wooing and enabling them now. It may be no coincidence that on the very same day that Shah made his speech, Choudhary Lal Singh, one of the BJP two ministers who had been active in the Kathua mobilisations, threatened Kashmiri journalists that they could meet the same fate as Shujaat Bukhari, the Rising Kashmir editor who was shot dead in Srinagar earlier this month.
Shah’s invocation of the Praja Parishad would also have assuaged the wounded pride of the Dogra Hindus, the dominant group in Jammu, which took a hit in the outrage over Kathua. The Praja Parishad had been a mainly Dogra Hindu group which pushed for the “full integration” of the state with India before it merged with the Jana Sangh, merging with mainstream Hindu nationalism.
Speaking of Article 370
But Shah switched deftly between the local narrative and broader national narratives, between the interests of the state and a so-called national interest. So the Praja Parishad and its links with Mookerjee silently conjured up the BJP’s old desire to bury Article 370.
This is a volte face from the statements that the Centre had made recently. As recently as March, the Centre was clarifying that there was no proposal to scrap the constitutional provision granting autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Back in 2015, the BJP had admitted that they did not have the mandate to repeal Article 370. In the agenda of alliance signed with the People’s Democratic Party, it was agreed that there would be no tampering with the special provision, an assurance Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reported to have repeated last year. Now, Shah emphasises greater integration of the state with the rest of the country and claims the BJP tied up with Mufti because they agreed that Jammu and Kashmir would be “part of India”.
While the BJP’s manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 said it would work to have Article 370 repealed, political contingencies had moderated its stand. Now, as elections approach, the party seems to have returned to the old dogma, helped by a cheerleading squad of commentators and supporters.
Article 370 and the story of Mookerjee, who died after being imprisoned in Srinagar as he protested against autonomous status for the state, form one of the founding myths of the BJP. Over the decades, the BJP has made dark allegations about a conspiracy to kill Mookerjee even as it campaigned against Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Abandoning the demand for the provision to be repealed would mean an existential threat for the BJP.
In other matters too – such as returning to a hardline security approach in the Valley and effectively giving up on talks with separatists or Pakistan – the BJP has used Kashmir to display its favoured brand of militant nationalism. It is not yet clear how much of a political dividend such posturing will yield. What is certain is that attempts to tinker with Article 370, a provision that recognises the state’s distinct history and identity, at least on paper, if not in practice, would be disastrous for Jammu and Kashmir. It will push the Valley further into a maelstrom of violence and anger.
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