J&K: BONDING OVER ARTICLE 35A
Mehbooba Mufti reaches out to rival parties to build a consensus against the move to alter the state’s special status
Are we witnessing the beginning of a grand coalition of regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir over apprehensions of an imminent move to dilute constitutional provisions that guarantee the state special status? In a bold and surprising move, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti called on arch rivals, the Abdullahs, on the evening of August 8. The meeting with National Conference president Farooq Abdullah and his son and former CM Omar was held at Farooq’s Gupkar Road home. Mehbooba said it was to seek their counsel and support on the threat to J&K’s special status. The perceived threat has arisen from the central government’s refusal last month to oppose a 2014 petition in the Supreme Court seeking abrogation of Article 35A of the Constitution.
Article 35A, issued in 1954 under Article 370, empowers the J&K legislature to define ‘permanent residents’ of the state and their rights and privileges. As it currently stands, the law bars non-residents from acquiring immovable property in the state, registering as voters, and holding jobs in the state government. Ironically, the provision replicates the 1927 State Subject law introduced by J&K’s erstwhile ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, on persistent demands from local Dogras and Kashmiri Pandits, who feared losing their pre-eminent status in the Dogra administration to outsiders from neighbouring Punjab.
Analysts believe Mehbooba’s unprecedented overture—not just the meeting with the Abdullahs but also with state Congress leaders and other political groups in the Valley—is clearly meant as a signal to ally BJP. While she has preferred to not speak out on most other issues, including the recent arrest of senior Hurriyat separatists on terror-financing charges (see: The Terror Connection), Mehbooba isn’t mincing words on this one. “It’s a challenge for all political parties in J&K, who swear by the J&K Constitution and the Constitution of India. There’s hardly anything left in our special status, and if Article 35A is tampered with, we will cease to exist,” she said after meeting the NC leaders. She described the move as a
“death knell” for mainstream political parties in the Valley.
Earlier too, on July 28 in New Delhi, Mehbooba had courted controversy by saying that no one in J&K would carry the national flag if there was any move to tinker with the constitutional status of the state. The NC has taken a firm position on the issue. Omar says any debate on the legality of Article 35A has to accompany a debate on the accession of J&K to India. Perhaps for the first time, every mainstream party with a presence in the Valley is in agreement. “We are all together in this,” said Mehbooba, accepting Farooq’s advice on holding talks with “other like-minded parties for a broader solidarity on the issue”. She has announced plans to call an all-party meeting in Srinagar.
Saifuddin Soz of the Congress has also endorsed the moves to build consensus: “The parties have adopted the right stance on Article 35A,” he says. “The mainstream parties in J&K and the Hurriyat Conference are on the same page on this issue.” Perhaps startled by Mehbooba’s manoeuvres, the state BJP unit hastened to clarify that it does not favour “tampering with any of the constitutional provisions of J&K—Article 35A or Article 370”. The party’s central leadership, however, remained typically reticent.
J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti (above) and NC’s Omar Abdullah (left)