For all the upheavals in Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh by and large manages to stay away from the limelight and the headlines. The no-news-is-good-news adage fits well with the region, tucked away in the farthest north of the country, amid Himalayan mountain ranges where even the summers are mildly cold and the snow lies deep through the brutal winters. So, it was no surprise that the rest of the state—and the country—hardly batted an eye when governor Satya Pal Malik last week approved a bill that gave more powers to the two autonomous councils of Ladakh and Kargil.
For most people in the Valley, the empowerment of the councils is but an extension of their own aspirations for greater autonomy, which lies at the heart of the Kashmir issue. While a section of the right-wing sees the special status to the state as the flashpoint of militancy, a majority of Kashmiris—including regional political parties—insist that the state’s relation with India rests on its autonomy. The National Conference has even warned that if Article 370 goes, all other presidential orders passed since 1950s will also become redundant and reopen the debate around the issue of Kashmir’s accession to India.
It’s precisely for this reason many feel that more autonomy should also be given to the Pirpanjal and Chenab regions, both Muslim-dominated areas of Jammu region. Hindu-majority Jammu, however, opposes such a move, saying that it will lead to Pirpanjal and Chenab becoming part of “greater Kashmir”, an area often cited as that Muslim-majority part of the state seeking secession from India. For the Centre too, while autonomy to Ladakh is fine, any such concession to Pirpanjal and Chenab is a strict no-no.
The LHDC was formed in 1995 during another period of governor’s rule when P.V. Narashima Rao was the prime minister. Buddhist-majority Ladakh has a population of 1.3 lakh, according to the 2011 census.
In 2003, then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed established the KHDC for Kargil, a Shia Muslim-dominated district with a population of 1.40 lakh. The latest amendments give powers to the councils to levy and collect local taxes and fees and also more control over the functioning of various departments in the districts and administrative control over the staff. Besides, all properties such as public buildings, public roads, constructed out of the council fund will belong to the council.
Except a few voices from trade and the academia, who questioned the timing of the decision, the bill was seen as routine. Naeem Akhtar, a former minister and the PDP leader, says that the acceptance of the bill by the Valley’s people shows the desire of Kashmiris to see greater autonomy in the region. Zafar Choudhary, a well-known political analyst, says the timing of the bill smacks of political motive as the major constitutional amendment was executed when the assembly is in suspended animation and there was a political crisis in Kashmir. More importantly, he says, the political message from the Centre is quite visible. “This could be a message to Kashmiris, that you are battling on streets and the courts to protect an article of the Constitution but here are possibilities of greater autonomy for people who seek greater integration with the Union,” he adds, referring to articles 35A and 370, which are crucial to maintaining the state’s unique character. A section of the right-wing is seeking abrogation of the two legislations, creating tension in the Valley of late.
“In a way, the present government in the state is an extension of the Centre. And it is the Centre that has given more powers to the LHDC. But the same central government has not been able to defend Article 35A or Article 370 (in court),” says Gul Mohammad Wani, who teaches political science in the University of Kashmir. He says similar demands from Pirpanjal and Chenab Valley districts for the same status have been rejected on the grounds that minorities in these areas are against such a move. “There are minorities in Leh and Kargil also. But that minority angle has never become a hurdle to provide greater autonomy to Leh and Kargil…the same central government, instead of restoring autonomy to the state, makes every effort to obliterate its remnants when such demands come from the assembly,” he adds.
- More power to Ladakh and Kargil councils hints at the Centre’s intent to reward people seeking integration with the Union.
- Plans to grant more autonomy to two Muslim-majority Jammu regions is seen as a push for the ‘greater Kashmir’ agenda
- Many Kashmiris insist that the state’s relation with India rest on its unique autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar