Are moves afoot to restore statehood in Jammu and Kashmir?

Farooq Abdullah(centre), the president of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, Mehbooba Mufti (second from left), the president of the People’s Democratic Party and other political leaders speak to the media during a press conference on 9 June 2021, in Srinagar. The PAGD is a five-party electoral alliance, and was formed in August 2020 with the aims of restoring the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and Article 35(A) of the Constitution, which granted domicile privileges to permanent residents. Waseem Andrabi / Hindustan Times
18 June, 2021

The Narendra Modi government seems to be taking tentative steps to restore the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, and hold elections to the legislative assembly. According to media reports, the centre has already initiated backchannel negotiations, and if all goes well, the mainstream political parties of Jammu and Kashmir are likely to be invited to Delhi for a formal dialogue. The central government can rationalise this move as its recent public statements have claimed that it was always committed to restoring statehood at an “appropriate time.” But the reasons for moving forward are likely to be mainly external, as there is still no popular acceptance of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and its bifurcation in August 2019.

The United States is putting pressure on India to provide a roadmap for restarting democratic processes in Jammu and Kashmir, and subsequently, a dialogue with Pakistan. On 12 June, the US acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Dean Thompson, told a congressional hearing on democracy that “some of the Indian government’s actions have raised concerns that are inconsistent with India’s democratic values.” Thompson told the hearing that among these concerns, “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, including we’ve seen some steps taken: the release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other electoral steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”

However, the Joe Biden administration’s interest goes beyond concern for human rights and democracy. The United States is committed to a pull-out of troops from Afghanistan before 11 September 2021, possibly even by mid-July. It, therefore, has to signal to Pakistan that despite a close alliance with India, it is conscious of Pakistan’s interests. It needs the active cooperation of Pakistan for the Afghan peace negotiations and to protect American interests after the troop withdrawal. Pakistan’s concerns over the developments in Jammu and Kashmir have to be acknowledged by the United States, at the least as a courtship gesture.

The United States may have got its opening with the Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s offer, on 4 June, to restart talks if Delhi provides a roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir. This differs from Pakistan’s earlier position, as recent as 30 May, that unless India reverses its decisions of August 2019, normalisation could not begin. It was on these grounds that in April this year, the Pakistan cabinet had put the proposed reopening of trade with India on hold.

The Modi government’s new narrative for international consumption will include initiation of a dialogue with Kashmir’s mainstream parties—the five-party Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, or PAGD, as well as Sajad Lone’s Peoples’ Conference and Altaf Bukhari’s Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party. Having failed to incubate a new pliable leadership through the local body and the District Development Council elections held in November and December 2020, the centre seems to have realised the inevitability of engaging with Kashmir’s mainstream parties. This is a far cry from professing to eliminate dynastic politics in the region—meaning the Abdullah family of the National Conference and the Mufti family of the People’s Democratic Party—and creating a pliant King’s party under Bukhari’s leadership.

The people of the erstwhile state have been reeling under economic, political and psychological distress with no public access to governance. For the present, the state is at the mercy of an overpowering bureaucracy. The local body and DDC elections have paradoxically made the bureaucrats even more powerful dispensers of favours. Statehood and elections could yet become popular demands in Jammu and Kashmir. The response by the region’s political parties to the centre’s behind-the-scenes overtures seems to suggest so. On 9 June, the PAGD, dormant for the last six months, met at the residence of the PDP president Mehbooba Mufti. Media reports noted that the government’s offer of a dialogue was discussed at this meeting. After the meeting, the NC president Farooq Abdullah told reporters, “We have not closed any doors. If invited, we may look into it.”

The statehood move, however, is likely to be limited. Ladakh is unlikely to be part of the new state. Strategically, Delhi’s security concerns in Ladakh—with Tibet and China on the eastern border and Pakistan on the west—are different from those in Jammu and Kashmir. Politically too, the Ladakh Buddhist Association’s demand for union-territory status predates separatism in Jammu and Kashmir. The unresolved question, however, is whether the Kargil Muslims would want to be left at the mercy of the Leh Buddhists.

The restoration of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir would, however, continue to be off the table in the centre’s new gambit. In addition, the offer does not rule out the eventuality of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the centre using the Delimitation Commission to redraw the constituency boundaries, skewing them in favour the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

However, two factors could come in its way. First, the 2011 census to be used for delimitation favours the Valley—the seven new constituencies proposed to be added under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 cannot all be allotted to Jammu. Second, most of the mainstream political parties of the region had rejected the centre’s delimitation plan last year. But in the last week of May 2021, the NC indicated that it was reconsidering the boycott. So, if the NC joins the delimitation proceedings and other parties also follow suit, then they could check the margin of manipulation.

The move forward on statehood and elections will allow the Modi government to spin a narrative of normalisation for the international community. However, the Kashmiris, while supporting the move, are unlikely to accept this as the final answer to their political demands. This may, however, help restart the stalled dialogue with Pakistan—an early indicator of the thaw taking place in the relationship is the two countries agreeing to clear stalled visas for each other’s diplomats this week.