With Article 370 out, government faces monumental challenges

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Last Updated: Wed, Aug 7th, 2019, 19:29:30hrs
Uncertainty grew over the weekend in Jammu & Kashmir when the government issued travel advisories, cut off essential communications services, deployed troops to the region, cancelled the Amarnath Yatra and placed former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti on house arrest. Speculation was rife with what events might transpire during the week. Those questions were finally answered when Home Minister Amit Shah in a speech in parliament stated that Article 370, which grants special status to J&K will be revoked. The Kashmir Times editorial came down hard of the manner in which the government arrived at the decision –

It shows that BJP has made J&K a theatre of its militarist and muscular Hindutva nationalism. Whatever be its intent in enabling the full integration of J&K with India, August5, 2019, decision to alter the State's status could have unintended, dangerous and disastrous consequences in the future”.

This means Jammu & Kashmir as we know it will be bifurcated into two Union Territories – Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir. With this move, India will now have 28 states and 9 Union Territories. Shah in his speech in parliament said in part, “This decision is a tribute to all the patriots who made the supreme sacrifice for a united India.” Wajahat Habibullah, former Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, in a column for The Hindu sums up the move by the government –

This endeavour has meant riding roughshod over Kashmiri public opinion already beset with widespread disaffection. What it has succeeded in doing is leading to a feeling of betrayal among a section of our people and foreboding among well-wishers of Kashmir”.

The BJP, as a part of its manifesto in the run up to the recent Lok Sabha elections included revoking the special status for the former state. The recent attacks in Pulwama that garnered national attention might have set the ball rolling. A reason being given for the scrapping Article 370 is development of a state that has witnessed terrorism. Both houses cleared the Jammu and Kashmir reorganization Act, but now this will face legal scrutiny. The Hindu editorial called the move by the government hasty –

The mechanism that the government used to railroad its rigid ideological position on Jammu and Kashmir through the Rajya Sabha was both hasty and stealthy. This move will strain India’s social fabric not only in its impact on Jammu and Kashmir but also in the portents it holds for federalism, parliamentary democracy and diversity”.

Article 370 granted special status to Jammu & Kashmir as it was. This was part of the Constitution (application to Jammu & Kashmir) Order of 1954. By scrapping this, the government has allowed for provisions of the constitution including amendments to apply to the area of Jammu & Kashmir. In addition, the government scrapped Article 35A, which gave the State Legislature of Jammu and Kashmir power to define who shall be permanent residents of the state, to confer them special rights among others.

One of the regions that will now be a Union Territory is Ladakh. This is a region that has been demanding something similar. They wanted to be separate from J&K. A year ago, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) unanimously passed a resolution demanding complete autonomy from Kashmir’s administrative setup. The LAHDC was set up to give the people of Leh and Kargil district powers. In 2003, the Kargil district got autonomy. Former Ambassador P. Stobdan, in an op-ed for Outlook welcomes the latest developments –

For a long time, circumstances never permitted Ladakh to shape its own political identity. The people of Ladakh have their own regional identity which is more distinct by any yardstick compared to Jammu and Kashmir. It should allow the people of Ladakh to nurture a political expression to be able to uphold its political identity and interest first”. On the diplomatic front, China has opposed the formation of a separate union territory of Ladakh. It called the move unacceptable. Beijing said it always opposed the inclusion of its territory in the western part of the Sino-Indian border. A spokesperson for the Chinese government criticised India’s move stating in part, “Recently, India has continued to undermine China's territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law. Such practice is unacceptable and will not come into force”.

The one country that everyone’s watching in light of the decision by the government is Pakistan. They have written to the Secretary General of the United Nations about the recent developments. Pakistan has stated that it will use all diplomatic efforts in light of the government’s decisions. Prime Minister Imran Khan criticised the BJP. In a joint session of the Pakistani parliament he said in part, “Jinnah knew that RSS wants India only for Hindus and any Muslims there would be treated as second-class citizens. He was the first to see through their agenda”.

Going forward, the government faces two big challenges in terms of the new law. First, it will be challenged in court. The Rajya Sabha has already passed a resolution that recommends the President repeal most of Article 370. The government has also introduced a reorganisation bill that splits up the state. Sanjay Hegde and Pranjal Kishore, practising lawyers in the Supreme Court, in an op-ed for Business Standard, write on the legal ramifications –

Jammu & Kashmir hasn’t had a government for months. Instead of consulting the government, the President has consulted the governor. As is well-known, the governor is the representative of the Union Government in the State. So, in effect, the Union Government has consulted itself. It is hard to see how this is legal.”

The next challenge the government will face is political and economic. The government will need to ensure that peace prevails in the newly re-drawn regions. This can be done only through political and economic integration; which for the rest of India, has been a slow process. The government will need to boost spending as well as encourage private sector investment by making it clear that anyone doing so is making the right call. The Indian Express editorial highlights the main challenge that now lies ahead for the government, calling for the release of leaders who have been detained –

An ambitious political project such as the one in which the government apparently situates this decision on Kashmir demands arduous work. To win the trust of an alienated population kept in the dark needs an openness to all voices, including those of dissent. That is the first step in the long way forward”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar