February 24, 2020
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Another Full Stop, Another Coma

By thwarting the autonomy move at birth, the Centre might have closed the door on its own face

Another Full Stop, Another Coma

For an event touted as one of historic proportions, it met a rather swift end. The NDA government’s outright rejection of the J&K assembly’s autonomy motion had a touch of panic to it. Farooq Abdullah, in response to New Delhi’s hesitant testing of political waters in the Valley, pulled out the long-hibernating pre-’53 formula. In vetoing it out of hand-whether out of dread of the stigma of attaching with an idea so anathema to the BJP as a party, or to pre-empt similar demands from states-New Delhi seemed to have put down "our man" in the Valley. And in doing so, severely cramped its own manoeuvring space. An opening sought to be created disappeared under its own debris.

The question now is whether the government will talk to the Hurriyat or try to keep Farooq in good humour. On July 4, a grim Farooq accompanied by his law and parliamentary affairs minister P.L. Handoo reached the PMO at 10.30 am. Vajpayee told them his cabinet, due to meet later that morning, would reject the motion. Though Farooq had an inkling about it a day earlier, Vajpayee’s position was that it could be raised anyway in Parliament and the government was not going to be a party to any such resolution.

The cabinet resolution itself was quite terse. "The government is of the firm conviction that national integration and devolution of powers to states must go together." It also noted that "acceptance of the J&K resolution would set the clock back and reverse the natural process of harmonising the aspirations of the people...with the country’s integrity." In the words of a Vajpayee aide, "Farooq had played his part by passing the resolution. The Centre has played its part by rejecting it."

So is there more to come? A smarting Farooq, facing an erosion of his authority in the state, said he was "disappointed" but vowed to continue his struggle. "The rejection is yet to sink in fully in our collective consciousness," says Sheikh Nazir, National Conference general secretary and the CM’s cousin. He added, meekly, that the NC would "leave (the matter) to informed public opinion." The NC’s almost resigned response to Delhi’s swift body-blow, merely calling for a "wider debate", is indicative of the party’s unease. "Having put his neck on the block, ostensibly to keep his ‘96 poll promise, Farooq now finds himself in a bind," says Abdul Ghani Lone, executive member of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

With Farooq’s reputation already in a free fall with allegations of corruption, resurgence of custodial killings and human rights violations, the rebuff couldn’t have come at a worse time. "If he has to salvage some respect and still lay claim to represent the Kashmiris, he should snap ties with the NDA," says a party colleague. Despite intense pressure, Farooq seems to be in no hurry to do that.

As for the Kashmiris, the debate evoked little enthusiasm. "We knew Farooq was playing his own game," says Srinagar advocate Mohammed Ansari. Its rejection, say locals, too was expected. It’s also clear that their residual faith in the state and central governments has further diminished. But Farooq’s political survival hinges on the autonomy plank. "It will be the dominant theme in next year’s assembly polls," says a supporter. The party reckons it would be unwise to do anything hasty now. "It means everything to us," points out Sheikh Nazir.

On the other hand, the whole drama strengthened the Hurriyat’s position by default. "Using the bugbear of autonomy is part of Farooq’s diversionary tactics. There was no popular support for it...the people don’t trust him," says Javed Mir of the JKLF, a Hurriyat constituent. A perked-up APHC, hitherto neglected, says the events showed up the NDA’s duplicity. "Not that the resolution addressed the people’s issues, but New Delhi has even run down its own agent," scorns Syed Ali Shah Geelani, APHC chairman.

The Hurriyat says as long as New Delhi evades the core issue of holding "tripartite talks" without preconditions, peace would elude the Valley. Besides, they say, the Centre’s summary rejection harms its own argument of Farooq being a representative of the people. "Our movement for self-determination will acquire renewed vigour. We don’t trust Delhi’s political class," says Lone.

Moreover, the dithering on how to create an alternative to the NC has exposed the Centre’s doublespeak. "At one level, it wants to open a dialogue with the Hurriyat, on the other it rejects autonomy, which was firmly within the parameters of the Constitution," remarks Mohammed Shafi Uri, state education minister. Says JNU’s Kashmir expert, Amitabh Mattoo, "The cabinet resolution is bit of a blow to the process and has dampened hopes in the Valley. Frankly, its wording leaves little scope for future discussion."

Some believe Farooq Kathwari of the US-based Kashmir Study Group was instrumental in influencing the NDA’s veto. The KSG proposes a sovereign Muslim majority entity with its own constitution, citizenship, flag and legislature and has been impressing upon New Delhi the need to talk to the Hurriyat. But the Centre has yet to make any cohesive move to arrive at an arrangement, however tentative, that may bypass the NC. "Some people in the Centre got in touch with us when the autonomy package was being debated, but it was just words. There has been silence after that," says Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq.

One major spinoff could be the strengthening of extremist groups in the Valley. "We can expect them to step up activities now," says a security official, adding "their spin will be that talks have resulted in nothing and nobody can be trusted, especially New Delhi." So what next? Officials say the ‘autonomy’ bugbear has been nipped in the bud. This, they say, has been done to signal to India’s many potential autonomy seekers that there can be no compromise on India’s integrity. They reason that a full-fledged debate in Parliament would’ve raised expectations that would have to be quelled. Still, the chances of a debate sponsored by an individual MP in the coming Parliament session are very high.

The whole issue was kickstarted by New Delhi’s move to talk to the Hurriyat after leaders like Yasin Malik and Syed Geelani were released from jail this March-April. Most of the Hurriyat leaders are anathema to Farooq, and much to his chagrin, officials say at least three of them, Mirwaiz Farooq, Malik and Geelani have "shown the spirit" to talk to the Centre. The question now is whether the Centre will revive these moves. Officials remain noncommittal, but BJP leaders say anything is possible. According to party general secretary Narendra Modi, talks will be useful only if they are held with people who hold the gun. "Ours is a D-4 formula: development, dialogue, determination and defence forces." The government’s ambivalence on autonomy is understandable: while it aroused some interest in the Valley, other regions expressed their opposition. "There are Ladakhi Buddhists, Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in Jammu who are anti-autonomy. Where’s the majority opinion that Farooq claims," says an official. He points out that it took a stern whip from the NC high command to get the legislators to vote on the resolution.

Says Bharat Karnad of the Centre for Policy Research, "With enormous financial/administrative powers already at its disposal-much more than any other state-the autonomy motion is just a gimmick." Then, there’s the fact that Vajpayee and Advani have sought to convert this debate into the more general framework of devolution of powers to the states. Will this analogy between Kashmir and general federalism, however forced, hold?

The CPI(m)’s Sitaram Yechury insists on a basic differentiation between the two. He points out that the core issue of Kashmir’s demand, which has its own specific historical background, can’t be clubbed with the federalist aspirations of states. But to go against the drift in the current climate seems a herculean task. And finally, it’s the Kashmiris, who, caught in a swirl of events, seem to have lost all hope for a meaningful dialogue.

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