Kashmir: Toeing the line

Toeing the line By Luv Puri
Dawn, 06 Jan, 2010

On February 28, 2007, Barkat Bi, 70, living in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir was united with her husband, Niaz Mohammad, 72, after a gap of 42 years. Her husband had crossed over to Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir during 1965 Indo-Pak war and could never return. The couple could not meet until Niaz Mohammad got permission to cross the Line of Control (LoC) three years ago.

Jammu and Kashmir remains the root of India-Pakistan tensions in South Asia. Notwithstanding the constraints that bind the policy making elite in New Delhi and Islamabad, there had been tangible progress as the two countries facilitated interactions between the two sides of the LoC: points were opened along the LoC and a process initiated to end the pain of divided families living on both sides. Last year, trade began between the two sides creating an economic stake for peace process.

The mistrust which developed between the two countries after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 reversed some of these gains. On December 21 last year, the number of passengers traveling through the Poonch LoC point hit its lowest since it was thrown open for civilians in November 2005. Only 26 civilians from both sides crossed the LoC to meet relatives on either side. The trade between the two parts of the state has also been hit due to on-going protests by traders demanding flexible rules of engagement and calling for an end to the barter system and restrictions imposed on certain trade items.
Despite these setbacks, there are some recent significant political developments on both sides of the LoC, which if understood and facilitated can go a long way in evolving an amicable solution. A working group appointed by the Indian prime minister and headed by former Supreme Court Justice Saghir Ahmed recently issued a report recommending the restoration of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. The report also called for doing away with the constitutional provision of appointment of governor by the federal government and invoking Article 356 to dismiss popular government in the state.

The working group was one of five appointed by the prime minister to deal with various aspects of Jammu and Kashmir. The report of the fifth group – addressing political dimensions of the issue – was delayed owing to major differences within the group. The group stated that it should be left to the people of Jammu and Kashmir to decide the fate of Article 370, which guarantees special status to the state.

The report is short on specifics, but has re-opened an old debate. The idea of federal autonomy is cited as one of the political solutions to the problem of Jammu and Kashmir. The debate revolves around the pre-1953 status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

The July 24, 1952, Delhi agreement between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah laid the foundation of a constitutional relationship between New Delhi and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The pre-1953 status to the state means "the matters in the Union List not connected with the three subjects of Defence, External Affairs and Communications and/or Ancillary thereto but made applicable should be excluded from their application to the State."
This is not the first time that autonomy would be discussed with a Congress-led dispensation at the federal level. Kashmir desk handlers would just have to re-open the old records to understand the complexity of the issue. In 1974-75, talks between Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Abdullah reached a dead-end as the two sides had divergent views on the pre-1953 status of the State.

Ultimately, a mediator saved the situation by suggesting a via media - that is, the two sides "agree to disagree" – paving the way for Abdullah to assume power in the state. The differences over the issue have not been ironed out since. After coming to power, Abdullah appointed a committee to look into the issue, but little progress was achieved as members developed differences between themselves.

A political idea’s worth lies in its feasibility, and no resolution of the Kashmir problem is possible unless political consensus is evolved within the state. In the past, opposition to the idea of federal autonomy proposal has come from within the state, as it is felt it would lead to further centralisation of powers with a section of the political elite. Therefore, the feasibility of the idea of federal autonomy depends on how far the state is able to satisfy diverse political, regional, ethnic and religious groups within Jammu and Kashmir.

The working group’s report does not take the state’s political complexities into account. Still, it has created a space for debate and initiated a process to institutionally resolve the differences within the state and carry forward the principle of federalism and grassroots decentralisation.

There are already enough feasible proposals from within the state to give a practical shape to the idea. The idea of regional autonomy is one, which seeks to give political powers to the three regions with legislative and executive powers and grant political reservation to scheduled tribes such as the Bakerwals. Further decentralisation of power at district and village levels is also possible. The idea can be stretched by incorporating Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir into this formulation.

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