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Above: Omar Abdullah’s proposal is hardly new but its timing has stirred up a political storm/Photo: UNI

NC Vice-president Omar Abdullah’s statement that his party would strive to restore the terms of accession of J&K, including provisions for having a Sadar-e-Riyasat, has led to sharp reactions

By Pushp Saraf

In 1949, the late Dogri litterateur Shivanath became the first person from J&K to qualify for the IAS. But his joy was short-lived. He could not join the elite service as it was then not integrated with J&K whose accession to India on October 27, 1947, was limited only to defence, communications and external affairs. He was accommodated instead in the Ind­ian Postal Service, retiring as the D-G, Posts and Telegraphs. He won wide recognition, including by the Sahitya Akademi, for his literary pursuits.

During an interaction with me in 2002, he recalled that he was placed 18th in the 1950 civil list and on being shifted to the postal department, the resultant vacancy was filled by the late TN Chaturvedi who distinguished himself in the bureaucracy and also became the governor of Karnataka.

Shivanath’s example reveals the trials and tribulations that the people of J&K  suffer due to a delayed and lim­ited accession. While the rest of India celebrated its independence on August 15, 1947, their future hung in the balance till October 27 of that turbulent year when India accepted Maharaja Hari Singh’s Instrument of Accession. The after-effects of that continue to rock the state even now. Its status is governed by two constitutions—that of J&K and India—and two flags—state and national. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution is widely perceived to be a credible bridge.

Over the years, several steps have been executed for politically and constitutionally strengthening the accession. Some of them are the All-India Services Act, 1951; the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 1954, of May 14, 1954, which was promulgated under Article 370 to extend the apex court’s jurisdiction and add Article 35-A to the Indian Constitution as an assurance to the state legislature to decide on the privileges of permanent residents with regard to immovable property, settlement in the state and employment.

In addition, the Election Commission’s authority began on November 2, 1960, with a byelection in Zadibal constituency in the Valley, and on May 24, 1971, Article 226 of the Indian Constitution was made applicable to the state in toto. This empowered the High Court to issue directions, orders or writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus (a writ issued as a command to an inferior court), prohibition, quo warranto (a writ requiring a person to show by what warrant an office is held) and certiorari (a writ by which a higher court reviews a case tried in a lower court) for the enforcement of fundamental rights or for any other purpose.

J&K’s political leadership participated wholeheartedly in all such exercises and showed sagacity by agreeing on December 4, 1964, to the extension of Article 356 (imposition of President’s Rule) and Article 357 (exercising legislative powers under proclamation issued under Article 356) and by amending the J&K Constitution on March 30, 1965, to rename Sadar-e-Riyasat as governor and “Prime Minister” (the designation till then of the popular head of the state) as chief minister. Almost simultaneously, the ruling National Conference (NC) converted itself into the state unit of the Congress to end the absurdity that had existed after the arrest of the NC’s founder and the tallest Kashmir leader, Sheikh Abdullah, on August 9, 1953.

The high point came on November 13, 1974, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, riding high after the Bangladesh victory, and Abdullah reached an accord reiterating commitment to Article 370, protecting “the residuary powers of legislation” of the state, honouring “provisions of the Constitution of India already adopted to the State of Jammu and Kashmir without adaptation or modification” and empowering the state government to “review the laws made by Parliament or extended to the State after 1953 on any matter relatable to the Concurrent List” with the authority to “decide which of them in its opinion needs amendment or repeal”.

The “agreed conclusions” of the accord were signed by journalist-educationist-author G Parthasarthi (son of the late N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a minister in the first cabinet of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) for Indira Gandhi and Mirza Mohammad Afzal Baig for Abdullah, with the admission that “no agreement was possible on the question of nomenclature of the Governor and the Chief Minister and the matter is therefore remitted to the principals”.

The subsequent events lead one to believe that the “principals” had agreed to the status quo. Abdullah returned as chief minister in February 1975 and Indira Gandhi let it be known that the issue was not that of handing over power to an individual but of avoi­ding “confrontation”. The world believed that Indira was too powerful at that time “after having changed the history and geography of the subcontinent”, an expression used by an associate of the Sheikh, to brook any opposition.

There have been well-intentioned measures, but in fits and starts. As a result, there is always room for interpretation and misinterpretation. In the present cacophonous environment of the upcoming elections, NC Vice-president and former CM Omar Abdullah declared that his party will strive for restoring the pre-1953 (the cut-off date being that of Abdullah’s arrest) autonomy of J&K that included having a Sadar-e-Riyasat and prime minister. There was nothing new in it except the timing.

Instantly there was a sharp reaction from as far as Secunderabad where Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing a public meeting, asked the Oppo­sition leaders to make their stand clear on the issue: “Two prime ministers for Hindustan? Do you agree with it? Congress has to answer and all the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ partners have to answer. What are the reasons and how dare he do that.” Losing no time, he tweeted: “National Conference wants 2 PMs, 1 in Kashmir & 1 for rest of India. Does Mamata Didi agree? Does U-Turn Babu agree? Does Pawar Sahab agree? Does former PM Deve Gowda Ji agree? Shame on the Opposition! Till Modi is there, no one can divide India!”

BJP President Amit Shah also jumped into the fray and said that abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35-A was his party’s priority. Mehbooba Mufti, People’s Democratic Party chief and former CM, hit back, saying that Shah was “daydreaming” and the abrogation of Article 370 would mark the end of J&K’s accession with India.

Only if political leaders look beyond their immediate goals will they find that these provisions have served the country better. They must sit together and formulate a consensus. A united approach will call Pakistan’s bluff in J&K far more effectively than Operation Balakot. It will be much like the Indira-Sheikh accord which caused a panicked China to say it was India’s annexation of Kashmir.

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