Autonomy Debate in Jammu and Kashmir

29 Feb, 2000    ·   336

Ashok Behuria analysing the autonomy debate concludes that Farooq Abdullah has to reconcile the aspirations of the Jammuites

The call for autonomy demands dispassionate study to place it in correct perspective. Since April 1999, the Abdullah administration has made the issue part of its Kashmiri political agenda. Farooq had set the autonomy-ball rolling, due to popular disillusionment with militancy in the valley, hoping the National Conference could reap a rich electoral harvest. He announced the formation of a 9 member State Autonomy Panel headed by Dr. Karan Singh on 29 November 1996. A Regional Autonomy Committee, was set up to recommend measures for decentralisation of power, to be headed by Mr. Balraj Puri. The Panel was supposed to submit its report within six months, from the start, it was afflicted controversies. On 31 July 1997, Dr. Karan Singh resigned and was replaced by Mr.Mohinuddin Shah. Again, in December 1998, Balraj Puri tabled an RAC report without the express approval of other RAC members, which resulted in his removal. On 13 April 1999, Dr. Farooq Abdullah tabled the reports of both the SAC and RAC in the State Legislative Assembly.



The central argument of the SAC was return to the pre-1952 position and restoration of Article 370 to its original 1950 position, as a ‘special’ and not a ‘temporary’ measure. This meant that, apart from defence, external affairs and communications, other matters will to be left to the State for sovereign legislation and execution. The RAC report recommends the division of the three regions (Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu ) into eight autonomous units on ethnic-religious lines. The Ladakh region is to be divided into Buddhist Leh and Muslim Kargil; the Kashmir region into three units: Kamraz, Nundabad and Maraz; and the Jammu region into three units: Hindu majority Jammu , Muslim majority Doda and Pir Panjal.



The recommendations of the SAC have been crticised by many commentators  for its seemingly defiant tone, holding to be anti-national and a potential tinderbox that could rend asunder the monolith of Indian Union. The Central Minister for Civil Aviation, Mr. Chamanlal Gupta, who hails from the State, has ridiculed this proposition and says the demand is not viable economically ‘as the state's total revenue earnings was Rs.600 crore whereas the salary bill alone amounts to Rs 2400 crore’. He claimed that the state already enjoys unfettered powers under Article 370 and it was not wise to grant more autonomy.



Similarly, the recommendations of the RAC for division of the State into eight   administrative units has drawn flak from commentators. Many have criticised the principle of ethnic-religious divisions and said that it would introduce the two-nation theory by the back door. Leading the argument, Balraj Puri argues that the SAC report seeks to remove checks on the powers of the state government, lest it wriggles out of its commitment to regional autonomy. He disclosed that he had recommended regional authority with executive, legislative and taxation powers under the heads of political autonomy, cultural autonomy and economic autonomy. He held that the state government, instead of considering the report, proposed the division of Jammu and Ladakh on communal basis and a Panchayati Raj Act under which all institutions would be dominated by nominees of the government. However, the RAC has mentioned that the Districts Councils could replace the Regional Councils. 



These arguments have their own logic and rationale. The demand for autonomy has been treated, the so-called Unitarians as a divisive ploy. This passion for unity has played havoc with the universal principle of genuine federalised autonomy. However, following the Kargil conflict when Kashmir-centric nationalism  is running high, the opposition to the Kashmiri demand for autonomy is very likely to be misconstrued as anti-national. Hence the Abdullah government seems poised for troubled times ahead, but opposition from the Centre to his demand might keep him politically alive as an alternative secular political force in the valley. 



In any case, Farooq will have to reconcile the aspirations of the Jammuites for genuine regional autonomy.The disproportionate influence that Jammu enjoys with Central government has always acted against the Abdullahs in the valley. It is time that the Farooq administration shed its valley-mindedness. Otherwise, his National Conference may well be swept out of the valley by the Hurriyat. Of late, they are being projected by many moderate commentators as an alternative worth experimenting with in Kashmir .