It was a controversy that the brand new Narendra Modi government could have done without. Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s office, put his foot in his mouth on the very first day of the new government on Tuesday when he told reporters that ‘the process of abrogating Article 370 had begun’.
Singh’s remarks drew a loud howl of protest from Kashmir’s two main pro-India parties, the ruling National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was particularly vocal, and used very strong language to react to Singh on Twitter: "Mark my words and save this tweet - long after Modi Govt is a distant memory either J&K won't be part of India or Art 370 will still exist."
By Wednesday, Singh had done the usual flipflop that a cornered minister does in such situations. He said the media had misquoted him.
As for the fracas itself, it has refused to die down, with RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav jumping into the fray and using equally strong words against Omar, again on Twitter: "J&K won't b part of India? Is Omar thinking it's his parental estate? 370 or no 370 J&K has been n will always b an integral part of India."
In hindsight, both Singh and Omar were equally to blame for stirring up a hornet’s nest when there was no need to. Even more apparent is the fact that both were playing to their respective galleries.
Singh is a Dogra from the Hindu-dominated Jammu region (He has been elected to the present Lok Sabha from the town of Udhampur). In the 67 years since Independence and Partition, most of Jammu (with the exception of Poonch, Rajouri and the Chenab Valley) has seen saffronisation because of the ongoing Kashmir conflict. Today, it is the stronghold of the BJP and Sangh affiliates. Indeed, out of the six Lok Sabha seats in Jammu & Kashmir this election, the BJP won three, mostly in Jammu.
On the other hand, Omar, from the Muslim-dominated Valley was being belligerent to satisfy his own home base, which sees an abrogation of Article 370 as a ‘betrayal of faith’.
This ugly affair has also once again brought the thorny debate about Article 370 to the forefront. The last time it had been in the spotlight was in December, 2013, when the then prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, Narendra Modi had spoken about it while on a visit to the Jammu region.
The greatest harm that confrontations like the present one do is that they trivialise a serious and sensitive matter like Article 370.
I personally feel that India is not yet ready for a national debate on Article 370, and perhaps never would be. That is because the entire debate is tied to the Instrument of Accession of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Dominion of India in 1947 and the larger Kashmir dispute.
Here is the reason why. As Omar himself has noted, the only way to revoke Article 370 is on the back of the body called the Constituent Assembly. This is the body that ratified the relationship of Jammu and Kashmir with India.
If India is to recall the Constituent Assembly, the debate on the Instrument of Accession could be reopened. This is because India claims the entire erstwhile princely state (pre-1947 borders) as its own. This includes the regions of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, which Pakistan controls today, Aksai Chin, which China controls and the Shaksgam Valley, which Pakistan has ‘gifted’ to China. If India says that the Pakistani side of Kashmir is its part, the Constituent Assembly will have to have members from there too. But this is highly impossible. In short, a Constituent Assembly cannot be reconvened till the Kashmir dispute is sorted out.
As for the BJP’s constant focus on abrogating Article 370, I disagree with it completely. That is because the Article means different things to different people.
To quote from an article that Business Standard’s political editor, Aditi Phadnis wrote on December 7 last year on this issue: "For the BJP, the continued existence of Article 370 on the statute books is atrocious, whether it is relevant or not. For the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, it is a testament of faith and a confidence building measure that reassures them that the state will not lose its identity, even if it is run from under the jackboot of the Indian Army.”
These viewpoints are similar to the wordplay that the BJP and Omar Abdullah have used to describe the Article. While the BJP calls it 'a psychological barrier between J&K and the rest of India', Omar calls it 'a bridge'.
So there you have it. Two extreme positions. Here is what Radha Kumar, one of the interlocutors appointed by the United Progressive Alliance government to have a dialogue with Kashmir, told Aditi Phadnis in that December 7 article:
"It is common sense that when you have two opposite poles, you try to seek a mid-point from which to take off. If the BJP thinks Article 370 gives far too much and the Hurriyat thinks it gives far too little, then it represents a mid-point. It also happens to be a historical bone of contention and features in the positions of the two major regional political parties, the National Conference and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party. The only way in which it could be ignored or bypassed is if all the stakeholders agree that it is obsolete. Will they do so?"
And here is what Amitabh Mattoo, scholar par excellence and a Kashmiri Pandit himself said about the very nature of the Article in an article of his: "Article 370 was and is about providing space, in matters of governance, to the people of a State who felt deeply vulnerable about their identity and insecure about the future. It was about empowering people, making people feel that they belong, and about increasing the accountability of public institutions and services. Article 370 is synonymous with decentralisation and devolution of power, phrases that have been on the charter of virtually every political party in India. There is no contradiction between wanting J&K to be part of the national mainstream and the State's desire for self-governance as envisioned in the Article."
In summary, all debate about Article 370 should stop for the time being. Maintaining the status quo is the best alternative right now. The comments made by Jitendra Singh are highly dangerous and risk alienating the two mainstream Valley-based parties. As long as it was poll plank of the BJP, rhetoric about Article 370 was fine. But now that they are in office, one expects them to concentrate more on other issues (The economy for instance) on the basis of which they have won the election. If India becomes an economically powerful nation, without a doubt, all of Jammu and Kashmir, including the Sunnis of the Valley would opt for us, instead of a bankrupt, terrorist and failed state like Pakistan.