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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 20

Choice for Kashmiris: Independence, Autonomy and Freedom

Friday 9 May 2008, by Balraj Puri


What sustains the separatist movement in Kashmir is a certain measure of popular alienation among Kashmiri-speaking Muslims of the State; this is not a result of external factors alone but for which internal causes are also responsible.

The exceptionally long recorded history of the land locked Valley of Kashmir and its proverbial beauty had created a strong urge for Kashmiri identity. According to the popular perception of history, Kashmir had been enslaved by outside rulers for the last four centuries, since 1586 to be precise, when Akbar annexed it to the Mughal empire. This was followed by the rule by outsiders like Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras.

Since 1931, when the modern phase of political movement started under Sheikh Abdullah’s leadership, azadi has been the popular slogan. Abdullah welcomed the role of the Indian Army in 1947, which could come only after the State’s accession to India, since it had come to defend the azadi of Kashmir threatened by Pakistan-sponsored tribal raiders. Since then the popular leaders of Kashmir have used independence and autonomy interchangeably as synonyms for azadi.

Federalism Vital for Unity of State

TWO vital considerations must be kept in view if the demand for independence or autonomy is to be made achievable. First, will it be confined to the Kashmiri-speaking Muslims? Or will it cover the other two regions of the State on the Indian side, namely, Jammu and Ladakh, which do not share Kashmir’s historical background and pride in its unique identity? Second, how far will independence or autonomy being demanded ensure freedom to the people? Azadi is the Urdu translation of two distinct concepts of independence and freedom. Independent countries do not necessarily provide freedom to their people.

To maintain the unity of the State, an idea to which most of the leaders of Kashmir region are still committed, autonomy has to be extended to the other two regions within the State. The commitment to provide for regional autonomy in the Constitution of the State made by Nehru and Abdullah in July 1952, and reiterated by the latter numerous times hence, could not be implemented, the autonomy of the State gradually eroded. This erosion is the major cause of popular alienation in the Valley. Otherwise too, unity in as diverse a State as J&K can only be maintained in a federal set-up.

Autonomy versus Freedom

FOR instance, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, granting Panchayati Raj in the rest of the country, is not applicable to the State. Thus, it is deprived of institutions of democratic decentralisation at district, block and panchayat levels. The Prime Minister had set up five working groups to recommend measures for dealing with some major problems of J&K State, after the Second Round Table Conference, representing most of the ethnic groups of the State, held in June 2006. Out of them four submitted their reports which were discussed at the Third Round Table Conference in Delhi in April 2007. These reports are at various stages of processing and implementation.

But the fifth working group on the crucial question of Centre-State and State-Centre region relations, headed by Justice Sagheer Ahmad, has so far not submitted its report. Justice Sagheer Ahmad had pointed out sharp divisions in the working group on the issue before it as the reason for his failure to finalise its report and asked for the services of a senior political scientist to assist him.

The sharp divisions within the State on its status are, in fact, responsible for many complica-tions in the Kashmir problem. Mainly these centre on the sharp regional divide within the State. In 1947 when the Hindu and Muslim leaderships of Jammu were supporting the Maharaja’s desire for independence of the State, the Kashmiri leadership opted for India. The reason for their diametrically opposite stand was their attitude to the Maharaja. While Kashmiri leaders had launched a movement against what they called the Dogra Raj, the Jammu leaders were, by and large, loyal to the Maharaja.

After 1947, their roles were reversed. While the Kashmiri leaders were keen to preserve the autonomy of the State, their Jammu counterparts demanded full merger of the State in a bid to end what they called the Kashmiri Raj. The controversy over full and limited accession eventually made the issue of accession itself in doubt which was mainly responsible for the crisis of August 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah, the acknowledged leader of the Kashmir region, was dismissed and detained. Since then Article 370, which guaranteed autonomy of the State, has further eroded and thus increased the alienation of the people in the Valley.

A via media was found in July 1952, when Pandit Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah declared, at a joint press conference, that the Constitution of the State would provide for regional autonomy. The agitation of the Praja Parishad, the Jammu affiliate of the Jana Sangh, for full merger of the State was withdrawn on a specific assurance of Nehru to its leaders, who were called to Delhi, after their release from jail. Somehow the commitment of the Kashmiri leaders could not be implemented. They must realise that autonomy of the State would be better guaranteed, if its logic is extended to the regions. Otherwise, too, the unity of as diverse a State as J&K can only be maintained in a federal set-up. Another reason that has caused confusion on the question of autonomy of the State is that it has so far been debated as Kashmir versus India. Let it first be discussed in terms of the interests of the people of the State. It must be ensured that Article 370 is not used or misused by the rulers of the State to curb the freedom of the people.

The author is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

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