The events following the scrapping of Article 370 bear strong resemblance to Sheikh Abdullah’s campaign for a plebiscite, until more pragmatic factors ended the tussle.
Basit Amin Makhdoomi
The signatories of the now-famous Gupkar Declaration have finally spoken and seem to have spoken in one voice.
In a statement titled “Gupkar Declaration II” issued to the press, six political parties of Jammu and Kashmir – the National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Indian National Congress, the J&K Peoples Conference (PC), the CPI(M) and the Awami National Conference (ANC) — have vowed to fight collectively against the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
The parties, in a joint statement, described the Centre’s decision to alter the region’s status under Article 370 as “grossly unconstitutional” and a “measure to disempower” the people of the erstwhile state. The parties have unequivocally and unanimously reiterated that there can be “nothing about us without us”.
Just a few weeks ago, former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah expressed his stand regarding the scrapping of Article 370, by maintaining that he would not contest elections as long as J&K was a Union territory. His statement drew criticism from several quarters as many imagined that he wanted political parties to reconcile themselves to the loss of constitutional status and focus on the goal of converting the UT back into a state.
Omar Abdullah clarified his position in subsequent interviews but the damage had already been done. Soon after, his own party’s chief spokesperson, Aga Ruhullah Mehdi, resigned, citing his difference of opinion. If Abdullah’s statement – or the interpretations of it which emerged – disappointed people, Shah Faesal’s exit from politics and the long silence that the released mainstream leaders had adopted were all tantamount to rubbing salt on the already bruised expectations of the common masses.
Against this backdrop, the decision by political parties to issue a joint statement seems to spell a fresh twist in the political dynamics between J&K and New Delhi.
Insights into our past
The days following the revocation of Article 370 are reminiscent of the times Kashmir and its political parties had endured way back in 1953, when the Central government in Delhi dismissed a popular government of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah under the garb of the Kashmir Conspiracy Case.
The Kashmir Conspiracy was the legal case filed by the government of Kashmir under which Sheikh Abdullah and other political leaders were arrested and jailed. Sheikh Abdullah and the others were accused of conspiracy against the state for allegedly espousing the cause of an independent Kashmir. The charges were framed in 1958, only to be withdrawn in 1964 as a political decision.
This event severely dented Abdullah’s trust in New Delhi and Nehru. So incensed was he with the Centre that he started regretting his decision to back J&K’s accession to India. In 1958, in a long statement, Abdullah openly started advocating the right to self-determination and stressed that until the future of Kashmir was decided, the state’s prospects would be vulnerable to uncertainty, economic degradation etc.
Under the circumstances, Abdullah’s only options after the humiliation meted out by New Delhi was to either compromise and accommodate the Centre or fight for his political future by insisting on what had earlier been promised to him and Kashmir. He decided to take on the Centre, as a consequence of which, he had to face a long period of incarceration.
After dismissing Sheikh Abdullah and imprisoning him, New Delhi installed several of its proxies to legitimise its indirect rule on Jammu and Kashmir. These proxies enjoyed minimal autonomy, were largely unpopular and were rarely consulted about larger issues confronting the state. These proxies were also tasked with disseminating the Centre’s case among the masses in Kashmir and creating an environment which would lead to the rejection of Sheikh Abdullah’s idea of Kashmir politics.
It was in this context that on July 29, 1953, at a public meeting at Kulgam, the then prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Mohammad Bakshi, declared:
“Since Kashmir voluntarily decided to become part of India, nothing has happened to alter our faith in the correctness of our decision. Large majority of our people continue to stand by that decision and I have no doubt that they will defend the decision against any attacks that emanate from any quarter within or without the state.”
The period which followed saw frequent onslaughts on the constitutional status of J&K. This period stands testament to the unilateral dilutions made by the Centre on the promises and assurances it had furnished at the time of signing the holy document that was the instrument of accession. The state’s autonomy faced severe erosion and there was extensive use of force to crush dissidence of any form.
Sher-e-Kashmir, as Sheikh Abdullah was popularly known, evolved the Plebiscite Front (PF) in 1953 with the objective of conducting political activities and mobilising people. While Abdullah commanded the loyalty of its members and guided its politics, Mirza Afzal Beg remained the titular president. With Abdullah’s faith in Delhi at its nadir, the PF principally sought a plebiscite in Kashmir as had been promised in consonance with resolutions passed by the UN Security Council
Common slogans used by the Plebiscite Front included, “Ye Mulk Hamara Hai, Is Ka Faisla Ham Karein Gay (This country is ours, its future will be decided by us)” and “Rai Shumari Fauran Karao (Hold Plebscite immediately)”. Apart from taking a firm stand on boycotting elections till its demands were met, the PF also served as the principal opposition to all the governments propped up by New Delhi. Its rigid stand, however, enabled easy election wins for proxy National Conference candidates, patronised by the government of India. Thus, in the elections to the state legislative assembly of 1957 and 1962, the official machinery was unabashedly used to favour candidates of ruling party.
Sheikh Abdullah continued to tread this strenuous path for a very long duration only to take a pragmatic view of things much later. In 1972, after 22 years of a tussle with the Centre, Sheikh Abdullah signed the infamous Indira-Sheikh accord, under which, inter alia, Abdullah dropped his demand that the people of Kashmir be given the right to self-determination. Reality seemed to have dawned upon him that he had few choices to opt for following the consolidation of India’s global position after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. His decision to abandon a rigid stand on the right to self determination, autonomy and restoration of J&K’s pre-1953 status became known after his interview to the Times of London in 1972:
“Our dispute with the Indian government was not on accession but with regard to the quantum of internal autonomy. Nobody should forget that we were the people who brought Kashmir to India who otherwise could have never become part of India.”
Even though the terms of this accord were deeply unpopular, Sheikh Abdullah had to swallow the bitter pill. He knew that his bargaining power against Delhi had diminished and that sticking to his guns might keep him out of power indefinitely. The Plebiscite Front that had once envisioned and promised a plebiscite to the masses of J&K was merged with the National Conference and Sheikh Abdullah was installed as chief minister of J&K with the then incumbent, Syed Mir Qasim, immediately resigning on instructions from New Delhi.
History repeating itself
Parsing through the options that have been left on the table for mainstream political parties in J&K following the events of August 2019, the most convenient one is embracing the Centre-backed clarion calls of “restore statehood and conduct elections”. This might save these parties and their leaders from the long and arduous battle that the people and propriety expect from them. Moreover, this option also offers the promise of coming to power, helped by the probable backdoor benevolence of the Centre.
A second, and more arduous, option is to recognise popular sentiments and fight for ‘370-minus’ – a diluted version of the special status the state of J&K once enjoyed. This option, though a tough one, is not unrealistic, keeping in view the Sons of the Soil trend reignited by Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The recent developments in the state of Nagaland and the stand taken during the ongoing Naga talks may further be used to buttress this option.
The third and most gruelling option is for the mainstream parties to seek a watertight restoration of the pre-August 5, 2019 status, i.e. a return to the status quo ante of 370. Espousing this option needs a lot of courage, patience and perseverance. This option might delay, for years, these leaders’ ambitions to seek power and might also invite harsh consequences, such as prolonged detention without charge or trial, or having all kinds of extraneous cases foisted on them.
This third option would also involve rigorously pursuing the matters pending before the Supreme Court and hoping for a favourable adjudication – as a political resolution of the same seems improbable since the steps undertaken by parliament are unlikely to be undone or revoked even if power changes hands at the Centre.
Since the adherents of the Gupkar Declaration, by their fresh statement, seem to have upped the ante and declared their willingness to fight for a restoration of the pre-August 5 status, only time will tell how many adherents will remains steadfast in their resolve to pursue this cause. The faintest of wobbles could force J&K to witness a rerun of its painful historical past of making compromises.