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Jammu and Kashmir: The Issue of Regional Autonomy

The current agitation in Jammu and Kashmir is essentially a means of expression for pent-up regional grievances. While alienation in Kashmir seeks an outlet in secession, militancy or religious orthodoxy, in Jammu its traditional vents have been communalism or ultra- nationalism. Unless and until the aspirations of the three ethnically distinct regions of the state (Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) are reconciled, there will always be pretexts for conflict. Even if the current tussle over land transfer in relation to the Amarnath pilgrimage is resolved, discontent over the lack of regional autonomy would seek other means of release in the near future.


Jammu and Kashmir: The Issue of Regional Autonomy

Balraj Puri

Muslim Malik family whose ancestors had discovered the Shiv lingam in 1860. The government order for transfer of forest land to the SASB was for a temporary period to provide some facilities to the yatris. But the word spread that it was part of a plan to settle Hindus from outside to change

The current agitation in Jammu and Kashmir is essentially a means of expression for pent-up regional grievances. While alienation in Kashmir seeks an outlet in secession, militancy or religious orthodoxy, in Jammu its traditional vents have been communalism or ultranationalism. Unless and until the aspirations of the three ethnically distinct regions of the state (Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) are reconciled, there will always be pretexts for conflict. Even if the current tussle over land transfer in relation to the Amarnath pilgrimage is resolved, discontent over the lack of regional autonomy would seek other means of release in the near future.

Balraj Puri ( is a well known writer, human rights activist and commentator on Jammu and Kashmir for many decades. He is based in Jammu.

he current polarisation between the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the two principal regions of the state, has no precedence. It has developed after the government order of May 26 transferring 800 kanals (40 hectares) of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), headed by the governor of the state and then by its revocation on July 1.

The upsurge in both regions was almost spontaneous. Though initially built around religious slogans and led by religions parties, the secular parties gradually also joined the fray. In Kashmir, the demonstrators carried Pakistani and Islamic flags and Syed Ali Shah Geelani – the extremist separatist leader – took the lead and emerged as the rallying personality. He was joined by his arch rival, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the parallel Hurriyat Conference, which represented a much larger conglomeration of the separatist groups. The two factions of the Hurriyat had split in 2002. Soon the two mainstream parties – the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – joined the protest rallies.

In Jammu the movement was started by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parivar, under the banner of the Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti, with religion-derived slogans like ‘Har Har Mahadev’. Other groups including the Jammu Bar Association, headed by a Congress Party man, organisations of traders and industrialists also joined it. A little later ex-Congress ministers, ex-MLAs and MPs also supported the demand of the samiti.

Land for Yatra Issue

The issue on which so much passion has been generated is a very simple one. Before May 26, the SASB had no land with it. All arrangements for the pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine were made by departments of the government and local Muslims, including the members of the the demography of the state, reducing its Muslim majority to a minority.

While it is fantastic to believe that outsiders can settle at high altitude near the shrine, the task of those who spread the suspicion was facilitated by the governor (at that time the retired general S K Sinha) and his secretary who was the chief executive officer of the SASB. Instead of leaving the controversy to be handled by his government, as a head of the state should have done, the governor offered a defence of the land transfer order. Moreover, the board had also organised many activities which were not within its domain. Whatever the governor’s intentions, these a ctivities were suspected by a large s ection of Muslims as attempts to reinterpret the concept of Kashmiri Islam and the Kashmiriat.

Sinha’s secretary, Arun Kumar, an IAS officer, who as a civil servant was not expected to issue press statements, said, in his capacity as CEO of the SASB that it had purchased the controversial piece of land permanently after payment of Rs 2.5 crore. But it was soon clear that the land was neither sold nor payment had been r eceived by the government. According to the official order of May 26, the government was to get rent from the SASB for its temporary use during the period of the pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, the PDP ministers also joined the popular protest, even though two of them holding the forest and law portfolios (who were directly responsible for the land transfer order), and other members in the cabinet were a party to the government’s unanimous decision. The law minister rejected the Supreme Court’s direction that transfer of forest land for non-forest purposes should get its clearance. The law minister ordered that under Article 370, the Forest (Conservation) Act of the government of India and hence the Supreme Court’s direction were not applicable to

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Economic & Political Weekly


the state. But swim ming with the popular wave, the PDP gave notice to the chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, to withdraw the order of transfer of land by June 30. If not, it would quit the coalition government. But it quit a day earlier.

The new governor N N Vohra, who had taken charge on June 25, and was ex officio head of the SASB, intimated to the government on June 29 that if it could provide all facilities, as it used to do, the board would not need the land for the purpose. On July 1, the government revoked the order of transfer of land to the board and undertook to make all arrangements for facilities of the pilgrims. The SASB, it added, could take care of religious rituals and ceremonies at the Amarnath shrine.

Reaction in Jammu

As soon as the governor wrote his letter to the government, the situation began to calm down in Kashmir, but it provoked spontaneous protests in Jammu under the Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti, (SAYSS). The bandhs continued till July 8. Civil society leaders intervened to appeal to the people of Jammu to first insist on complete communal harmony, then not to condemn the people of Kashmir, whatever grievances they might have against their leaders or the government. They asked for adoption of a peaceful method of protest. The samiti’s response was positive. It sought cooperation of Muslims. Despite initial aberration, when some anti-social elements attacked Muslims and burnt their hutments here and there, the Muslims joined in the protest demonstrations in the Hindu m ajority part of Jammu for not only the i mmediate issue of restoration of land to the SASB but also against what they called continued discrimination against the p eople of Jammu, of which they were the worst sufferers.

After some days of a blockade of Kashmir, L K Advani, on my request, opposed it, followed by similar opposition to it by the SAYSS, the BJP, the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and other organisations. The SAYSS initially opted for peaceful methods of protest, like hunger strikes and dharnas.

Inflamed Passions

July 8 to 23 was a time when a consensus could have been worked out between

Economic & Political Weekly

august 23, 2008

leaders of the two regions. But on July 23, a young man Kuldip Varma committed suicide for the cause of land for the Amarnath yatra. The way his dead body was handled and desecrated by the police, which forcibly removed it from the city to his ancestral village and tried to cremate it during night (prohibited among Hindus) inflamed popular sentiments, revived the popular protests and were followed by curfews.

It was in this surcharged atmosphere that the governor, N N Vohra, visited Jammu on July 31 and invited the SAYSS for talks. The samiti insisted on a concrete proposal from the governor in the absence of which it declined to meet him. It also resented the participation of Kashmiri leaders like Farooq Abdullah, the patron of the National Conference, and Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP, in the all-party conference that the governor had proposed on the following day. They were kept hostage at the airport for three hours by angry crowds till they were rescued and brought to Raj Bhavan under heavy police escort.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh had to intervene in the situation and apart from speaking to the BJP leaders, he convened an all party conference on August 6 which decided to send a delegation to Jammu for talks with the samiti on August 9. The samiti objected to the presence of Kashmiri leaders Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, and the state Congress chief Saif-ud-Din Soz in the meeting on August 10. It eventually agreed to meet the all-party delegation after the Kashmiri leaders left Jammu. Though ice seems to have been broken, the talks were i nconclusive. The delegation left for S rinagar the next day to have similar talks with the Kashmiri leaders. Various formulae were mooted but no commonly a ccepted solution will be in sight until the leaders of the two regions agree to meet.

Meanwhile, Kashmir again flared up a fter reports as well as by rumours of atrocities on Muslims of Jammu by the agitation and of a blockade of supplies to Kashmir and export of fruit despite official denials. Crores of rupees worth fruit was alleged to have rotten due to the blockade. The fruit traders moved to the Srinagar-Muzaffarbad road supported by not only separatist parties but also some mainstream leaders and a large number of people. The union home minister, Shivraj Patil, who was in Srinagar, assured Kashmir that the blockade had been completely cleared and promised to pay compensation for the loss that the fruit exporters had suffered.

The firing on people marching to M uzaffarbad on August 11 took seven lives, including that of Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz. The massive march had taken place despite the assurances of the home minister that there was no blockade. The demonstrations and clashes with s ecurity forces were resumed thereafter, taking a toll of 22 persons. Meanwhile the agitation and bandh in Jammu continued. The continuous bandh for 28 days and a gitation for 51 days till August 20 are a record in Jammu.

By now the emotional and political divide between the two regions had become the widest ever. While the immediate causes of the current regional divide have been described in bare outlines, they do not deal with the root cause of the ever widening regional divide.

It is worth noting that the recent unprecedented popular upsurge in Kashmir started at a time when militancy was at its lowest ebb and the separatists had lost the sympathy of the new Pakistan government. Much of Pakistan’s local support had been encroached upon by mainstream parties which tried to be better champions of Kashmiri aspirations. Syed Ali Shah Geelani was persona non-grata with the Pervez Musharraf regime and more so with the successor civil government. The new Pakistan government gave recognition and reception to mainstream leaders like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and cold-shouldered Mirwaiz and other separatist leaders.

Regional Grievances

Militancy had earlier been the main outlet of popular alienation in Kashmir which has many local causes and for which the government of India was more responsible than the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) d irectorate of Pakistan. As that outlet t ended to close, the Amarnath shrine board controversy provided an alternative outlet. Likewise, Jammu had been nursing a


g rievance against what its people perceive to be Kashmiri raj in which they had been discriminated against. The current agitation is essentially an outlet for pent-up r egional grievances.

While alienation in Kashmir seeks an outlet in secession, militancy or religious orthodoxy, in Jammu its traditional outlets have been communalism or ultra nationalism, i e, integrationist slogans like abrogation of Article 370.

Unless and until the aspirations of the three ethnically distinct regions of the state (Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) are reconciled, the tensions would complicate matters. Even if the current tussle over land transfer to the SASB is resolved, the root cause of the trouble would seek other

o utlets to burst into the open.

History of Grievances

I became conscious of the importance of this fact soon after the state’s accession to India in 1947. I had warned prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru of the consequences of the simmering discontent in Jammu soon after the state’s accession to India. His reply was that while a Kashmiri leader would be the head of the government, Jammu’s maharaja would be the head of the state. This should satisfy both the regions. I argued that the arrangement was unjust to Jammu. For, while political power would be with the Kashmiri leaders, the people of Jammu would merely have an illusion that their man was living in the palace, who was a constitutional head without any power and access. N ehru pleaded to give this “unstable s tability” a trial.

The trial did not last too long. The maharaja and Sheikh Abdullah were not even on speaking terms. By June 1949, the maharaja had to abdicate in favour of his son Karan Singh. After a prolonged campaign, I was able to persuade Nehru and Abdullah to declare on July 24, 1952 at a joint press conference, that the constitution of the state, when framed, would provide for regional autonomy. This would have provided a lasting solution of good relations between the Kashmir and Jammu regions, and to the Kashmir problem. But the Praja Parishad, the Jammu affiliate of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, started an agitation against the Delhi agreement on centre-state relations, supplemented by the state-region relations. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder president of the Jana Sangh, came to lend his party’s support to the agitation. He was kept in detention at Chashma Shahi guest house in Srinagar. During a prolonged correspondence with Nehru, he offered, in his letter dated February 17, 1953, to support the Delhi agreement and Article 370, provided regional autonomy was also granted to Jammu. Nehru replied that this was granted in July 1952 and if he had realised his mistake, he should withdraw the agitation. Unfortunately he died in June 1953 in Srinagar jail before the final agreement between his party and Nehru could be announced.

Meanwhile the state government sent a 45-page draft on regional autonomy to Durga Das Verma, the underground leader of the Parishad agitation. After consulting some constitutional experts, Verma returned the draft with his party’s approval. Eventually the agitation was withdrawn after Nehru’s assurance on regional autonomy to the Praja Parishad leaders, who after their release, went to Delhi to meet him on July 3, 1953. But according to Balraj Madhok, who became the president of the Jana Sangh some time later, the party reversed this decision after some months on the direction of the RSS. Thus, Jammu missed an opportunity of getting a status of equality with Kashmir. It missed a nother opportunity of acquiring such a status when the Gajendragadhkar C ommission, on the basis of a representation of the Jammu Autonomy Forum, which I headed, conceded in its report in 1967 that regional autonomy would be an ideal solution of regional grievances, but it did not recommend it as the idea was

o pposed by most of the leaders of Jammu. The national executive of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh which met at Shimla in the same year dubbed the idea of regional a utonomy as “anti-national”. Despite its opposition, the idea continued to gain popular support from all communities of the Jammu region, particularly in the M uslim majority districts of Rajouri, Poonch and Doda as also from most of the secular parties of India.

Sheikh Abdullah and Autonomy

The J&K State People’s Convention, convened by Sheikh Abdullah in 1968, representing the entire political spectrum of the valley, adopted an internal constitution of the state which provided for regional autonomy and further devolution of power to districts, blocks and panchayats.

In the early 1970s, when the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah talks were going on, Indira Gandhi asked me what would be the likely reaction of Jammu if the Sheikh returned to power. I assured her that his commitment to regional autonomy would satisfy the people of the region. She wanted this commitment to be reiterated which Sheikh Abdullah agreed to do. He convened a convention of leaders of Jammu and Ladakh in 1974 where



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Economic & Political Weekly


the commitment to regional autonomy was reiterated.

Importance of Autonomy

Regional identities are the greatest secularising force in the state. Any weakening might lead to a division of Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines, which is not in the interest of either Jammu, Kashmir or the nation. There was a time when the BJP and the government headed by it at the centre had proposed such a division. I argued with Advani, who was then the deputy prime minister, of the dangerous consequences of the move. Eventually Advani was convinced of the arguments against division of the state and in favour of regional autonomy as a solution to the Jammu problem. The then law minister also declared that Parliament had no power to abrogate Article 370, which, in any case, had nothing to do with the Jammu problem.

Meanwhile all Left parties and the socialist groups supported the idea of regional autonomy. I wanted it to be included in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the Congress and the pdP agreed upon after the 2002 election before forming a coalition government in the state. But the Jammu Congress leaders were apparently not keen for it to be i ncluded in the CMP.

Recently the National Conference passed a resolution in favour of regional autonomy. It could be a basis of a dialogue with all Kashmir-centric parties. For, if as per Pakistan People’s Party leader, Asif Zardari, Indo-Pakistan relations cannot be held hostage to the Kashmir problem, the leaders of Kashmir-based parties should also realise that regional harmony should not be held hostage to what they call “the final solution” of the Kashmir problem. Thus the natural course that the Jammu agitation should adopt is to convert


--it into a movement for regional autonomy, so that the popular energy spent on it yields the maximum results and takes care of the political aspirations of Jammu, which is the root cause of this p ent-up anger.

The demand for regional autonomy and further devolution of power at district, block and panchayat levels, on the pattern of panchayati raj in the rest of the country, would not only address the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Ladakh, but would also safeguard the unique identity and civilisation of the Kashmir valley. The world over, in democracies, the centralised polity is being substituted by federal and decentralised structures, which go a long way in empowering people at the grassroot level. This is all the more necessary in the most diverse state of India. Regional autonomy alone can harmonise its diversities and satisfy the basic human urges of empowerment and identity.





Economic & Political Weekly

august 23, 2008

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