Many in India are nervously watching reported moves by the Central Government to scrap Article 35A of the Constitution and end the special status for domiciled residents of Kashmir.
As a non-Kashmiri Indian citizen and an outsider to the state, one question that has been bothersome is: why mess around with a sensitive part of the Indian constitution when it does not affect anyone else in other parts of the country? Or, for that matter, Kashmiris in Kashmir?
It is not as if the rest of India needs a visa to visit Kashmir. The only reason that is commonly touted for doing away with Article 35A is it prevents non-Kashmiris from buying land in that state. Well, there are at least 28 other states where they can buy land. Practically speaking, the existence of Article 35A in no way affects Indians in the rest of the country. Scrapping it too is not going to benefit anyone. Even if some see benefits, the negatives far outweigh the positives.
Also, contrary to general perception, every state does offer advantages to their own domiciled residents like preference in government jobs and education. For example, in Karnataka, you need to be domicile to be able to write the state-conducted common entrance test for an engineering degree and other non-MBBS medical courses. Andhra Pradesh recently reserved 75 percent of jobs for locals. So, why can’t Kashmiris too enjoy some privileges?
For those who argue that Article 35A obstructs Kashmir from integrating into the rest of India – that is not the case in reality. As anyone would know, the accession of Kashmir to the Indian union at the time of independence was extremely controversial, sensitive, violent, and heavily disputed. The newly-created Pakistan nation wanted Kashmir for itself. But for a variety of reasons (that go beyond the scope of this piece), much of Kashmir became a part of India, while the remaining found itself on the other side, Pakistan.
The creation of Article 35A was a direct result of the complex issues related to Kashmir’s accession to India. An important allegation is that this article was brought into the statute books through the backdoor. But the more relevant issue is that Article 35A was a corollary to Article 370 of the Constitution which accorded special status to Kashmir.
Incorporating Article 35A into the Constitution in 1954 through a Presidential order consolidated for India the support of Kashmiris at a time of severe uncertainty and fluidity. It ensured certain stability and gave a sense of comfort to people in the state – one that has managed to sustain for all these 72 years despite the various wars, violence, and attempts at insurgency.
Kashmir’s accession to India was unique. Most of the other states joined the Indian union in a relatively peaceful manner other than some exceptions like the then Hyderabad state under the Nizam. Also, none of the other states was located in as sensitive a region as Kashmir. Since the process of accession to India was comparatively smooth there was no need to bring in any special laws to secure the other states.
Article 35A, therefore, is a product of historical circumstances that need to be respected and retained for its efficacy. No one can take it to mean that Kashmir is any less of an Indian state just because of the 35A factor. So why dig at the fundamentals and worsen a long-standing existential crisis that already haunts the state?
If at all, the reason for disturbing the delicate arrangement can be attributed to the agenda of the RSS whose creation, the BJP, is in power at the centre. One of the cornerstones of the Sangh’s makeup is the abrogation of Article 35A and Article 370 of the Constitution. Now that it is in power at the Centre with a comfortable majority it is sniffing, nay well poised, at a chance to make this possible.
At the time of independence, the Sangh may have taken up this position as a response to the fraught situation at the time which saw extreme polarisation between the Hindu and Muslim communities and the consequent riots that occurred during the country’s breakup.
But, whether one likes it or not, that was then and now is now. Seventy-two years on, the world is almost unrecognisable from that in 1947. The South Asian region is much different and politics within India and in the neighbourhood has undergone a sea change. If at all there is one line of continuity, it is that both India and Pakistan have been unable to resolve the Kashmir dispute and the tension continues. But that is again, another story and unrelated to Article 35A.
Article 35A is an internal matter for Indians. The problem seems to be that there is a mixing up of the dispute with Pakistan and India’s administrative arrangement as far as Kashmir is concerned.
The insertion of Article 35A in the Constitution was a masterstroke by sagacious Indian administrators in the aftermath of Partition that helped douse tensions in the valley and facilitated its accession to India backed by the support of much of the Kashmiri population.
Now for the BJP government to pick up the excuse of a perceived flaw in how Article 35A was allegedly “pushed through the backdoor” in Parliament at the time and use this reason to abrogate it does not wash. Further, for a population in Kashmir that has led a life of uncertainty, insecurity, and instability to have the legislative protection removed the repercussions are bound to be severe.
Already, influential Kashmiri leaders like Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti have warned of a descent into danger if the Centre were to repeal Article 35A. Also, this will pave the way for removing Article 370 that ends the special status to Kashmir.
It is not even clear from the BJP’s pronouncements whether it expects a faster resolution to any of the problems that the Kashmiris face by knocking off the Constitutionally guaranteed status to the state. On the contrary, it seems a mere attempt to put into practice what the Sangh has been saying all these years. Without bothering about the repercussions. And that really is the problem.