An Important Link
Repealing Article 370 will be extremely difficult for the BJP government even if it has the requisite strength to effect a constitutional change.
The statement of an Indian state minister of the recently installed government of the Bharatiya Janata Party about initiating a debate on the issue of abrogating the special status of Indian Kashmir, as enshrined in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, has triggered a big controversy. There would be pervasive and far-reaching repercussions for India and the region in case the radical BJP government takes steps to scotch the special status of Kashmir within India’s state structure.
The controversy started when soon after taking charge, State Minister Jatendra Singh talked of the need for ‘rethinking’ Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which gives special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian state structure. This special status primarily gives the Kashmiris the power to decide which of the laws, legislated by the Indian parliament, may be extended to the state. In this context, this is indeed a very important provision of the constitution. Therefore, proposing its abrogation caused ripples in the Indian political landscape – particularly in the political and public circles of Jammu and Kashmir. Reacting to Singh’s statement, Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah reportedly said, "Either the article will remain on the statute book or Kashmir won't be a part of India."
Although Minister Singh said afterwards that he was misquoted but it was not an isolated statement of any BJP leader that could be believed to have been taken out of context. The fact is, abrogating the special constitutional status of Kashmir was a part of the BJP’s election manifesto and
even Prime Minister Modi had vowed to do it during his election campaign.
Apparently, the point regarding Kashmir’s special status in the BJP manifesto was merely rhetorical and demagogical. In other words, the BJP included the demand in its election manifesto to attract votes of Hindu radicals and ultra-Indian nationalists. Here it must be understood that during electioneering, political parties and leaders, particularly radical political outfits, play to the gallery. They get carried away by the emotions of their supporters or of their own, which forces them to make promises that are hardly doable. Constitutionally speaking, it would be well-nigh impossible for Prime Minister Modi’s government to end the special status of Kashmir.
Article 370 was included in the Indian Constitution of 1950 by the Constituent Assembly of India. Therefore, its abrogation could not be done through mere rhetoric. Even if the BJP has the requisite strength of members to effect a constitutional change, it would be extremely difficult to repeal the article. The reason is that Article 370 is the only link between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Union. If this article is repealed, it would be like severing the sole link of the state to the country, as also stated by Omar Abdullah.
The second reason, which perhaps motivated the BJP to come up with the announcement, is the party’s desire to fully integrate the J&K state in the Indian Union. From the BJP’s ultranationalistic, at times chauvinistic, standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. The party and its ideological allies, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), consider India not merely a state but a concept and a reincarnation of Hinduism. They believe that no part of it could be severed, particularly those parts that constitute the state. Therefore, regardless of whether or not the BJP government could repeal the special status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir constitutionally, it would like to effect such a change politically and ideologically.
The BJP leadership also knows that changing the status of Kashmir may not be possible immediately. Thus, raising the issue is a clever move aimed at starting a debate in the anticipation that it could gradually transform into a popular demand over the years. The aim may never be achieved because of its unacceptability to Kashmiris, whether it is a popular demand in India or not. Even pro-Indian Kashmiri politicians like Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and leaders of the Kashmiri opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party have rejected any move to abrogate Article 370.The common Kashmiri, who has suffered great injustices and repression at the hands of the Indian state, would also throw out such a move. Bewailing the possible legislation, PDP President Mehbooba Mufti said, "Experts believe Article 370 is the bridge of Jammu and Kashmir's accession to the country and if you break it, you go back to the pre1947 position. Are you ready for that?"
To deflect the criticism coming its way, the leadership of the BJP has come up with the justification that Article 370 is a hindrance in the development of Jammu and Kashmir. In this regard, the BJP leaders cite the state’s subject laws which prevent outsiders from purchasing property in the state. In fact, these state subject laws were aimed at protecting the interest of the largely poor residents of Jammu and Kashmir. The underdevelopment of the valley has been due to the adverse security situation prevailing there since the 1989 uprising and the state terrorism unleashed on the people. Against this backdrop, the BJP’s argument that Article 370 and the privileges available to J&K residents is a hindrance to the development of the state is without a kernel.
Any effort by the BJP government to end the special status of Kashmir by repealing Article 370 will bode ill for the relations between the residents and the state of India. A large majority of the people of J&K already have strong anti-India feelings due to the unabated state repression and large-scale underdevelopment that has resulted in poverty and unemployment. In this situation, any move by the BJP – which is infamous for its Hindu revivalist agenda – would be received unfavorably by the Muslim majority population of Kashmir.
Furthermore, any effort by the Modi government to put an end to the special status of Kashmir would further damage Delhi’s relations with Islamabad. Pakistan is a significant party to the Kashmir dispute and any change to the status of Indian Kashmir is likely to derail the process of normalization of ties between the two countries. The recent endeavors by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ease the strained relations between India and Pakistan will suffer a big blow.
So the ultimate casualty, if the BJP’s suggestion is put into action, will be peace in South Asia. The BJP government must rethink its strategy and realize that it is no more running an election campaign. Now, the heavy responsibility of governing one of the most populated countries of the world is on its shoulders. It must exercise restraint and show tact and magnanimity so that South Asia could develop and thrive. The writer is a political analyst and researcher. A Ph.D. in International Relations, he holds expertise in governance, terrorism and radicalism in South Asia and the Af-Pak region.