My knowledge of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state and its past is largely derived from AG Noorani’s epic work “The Kashmir Dispute, 1947-2012”. I was involved too, in part, in the efforts made by the Manmohan Singh Government in trying to stabilise the situation in Kashmir and in confidence building measures to repair if possible, our relations with neighbouring Pakistan. Although I lived many years in Delhi in my childhood and my teens and later, as a Central Government official, I visited Srinagar only once and that too, for a day and Jammu and Leh, not at all. In my childhood, the people of Delhi knew of Kashmiris only as good looking, peaceable, gentle people, easy to befriend.
My next connection with Kashmir came only much later, in the mid-eighties, when I was Chairman of the Spices Board, headquartered at Cochin. Kashmir then, was the only state in the country that grew the highly priced spice, saffron. Saffron grows in areas where temperatures do not soar, where the plant can get full sunlight and soil conditions are favourable. Spain is the main producer, but it grows also in Iran and Greece and there are sub-species growing elsewhere. Kashmiri saffron is sold as two variants, ‘Mongra’ consisting only of the stigma and ‘Lachha’ with the stigma and parts of the style. I planned several times to go to Kashmir but never succeeded, partly because some other work would turn up at the last moment, partly because I am a lazy traveller.
My next tryst with Kashmir was an unhappy one. My elder daughter Priya, then working with the “Indian Express” at Delhi was deputed for fifteen days to their Jammu office for bringing out their newly started Jammu edition. On the last evening of their stay at Jammu, she and her colleagues decided to go to Patni Top, a tourist location not far from the city. On the way back, the van they were travelling in fell off the road into a deep ravine and she lost her life even as all those who were travelling with her survived.
Many years later, as Cabinet Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir loomed large in my work portfolio. This was a period of recurring terrorist activity in all parts of the country, which centred round the unending dispute with Pakistan that started in 1947. I was tasked by the Prime Minister to make trade flows between the two countries easier as greater linkages would be forged between the two nations if trade connections strengthened. Several meetings were held to make rail movement of goods easier, customs and immigration less irksome. The greatest barrier to goods movement was that all consignments had to be unloaded at the crossover point, inspected, and then loaded back again. Given the deep suspicion that existed in intelligence circles in both countries and repeated terrorist events, it was difficult to establish direct trade. If ever the two countries are able to resolve their political differences, trade will flourish, markets will grow inviting fresh investment and both will gain immeasurably.
Dr. Manmohan Singh was simultaneously working on the political front using back channel diplomacy and using non-official channels to create peace in the Kashmir Valley. The attempt was to somehow build a climate in which issues could be resolved although events had moved to such a pitch that political solutions, involving compromise on either side, may not have easily found popular acceptance. The closest we came to a possible settlement was probably in the Vajpayee days, but then it was blasted wide open by the Pakistani army in Kargil. But India kept trying. As Dr. Manmohan Singh said, in an interview with Jonathan Power reported in ‘The Statesman’, “ Short of secession, short of redrawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything. Meanwhile, we need soft borders - then borders are not so important.” Nor did this effort end with Manmohan Singh. Modi took the unprecedented step of inviting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with other SAARC leaders, to his swearing in. In November 2015, Prime Minister Modi and Nawaz Sharif agreed to resume bilateral talks between the two countries .In the following month, he broke conventional diplomatic norms by making an unscheduled stopover in Pakistan on the occasion of Sharif’s birthday. Relations strangely deteriorated after Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister. Strangely, as one of the great cricketers of all time, Imran has deeper links and a wider circle of friends and acquaintances in India than any of his predecessors.
The only time I visited Srinagar was with my colleague Secretaries. It was my practice to visit problem states and weaker states with Secretaries of Ministries as a team and try to resolve as many issues as possible on the spot. While the Home and Defence Secretaries , the Director, Intelligence Bureau and I held a closed door meeting with Army and Police officers on security matters ,my other colleagues discussed issues with their counterparts in the State. Then we had a combined meeting to deal with residual issues. All these events and also discussions with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah were crowded into just a day , so I never saw the sights of Srinagar, only the fringes of the Dal Lake from a car. I have a lasting memory, however, of a wonderful dinner hosted by the Chief Minister with mouth watering Kashmiri dishes, immaculately prepared in earthen pots by the best of chefs. I have always been a foodie and can never forget a great meal. Today, the State of Jammu and Kashmir does not exist, having been broken into two Union Territories. Making Ladakh a Union Territory is something the people of Leh, primarily Buddhist, have been demanding for years. No wonder the Ladakh Buddhist Association is overjoyed. The people of Kargil, predominantly Shia Muslims , on the other hand, strongly protest. Said former MLA, Asgar Ali Karbalai, “It is a black day not only for Jammu and Kashmir but for the whole country”(Times of India, August 5th).It is a good thing that the breakup of J&K remained with a bifurcation rather than a trifurcation , something the RSS publicly supported as early as September 2000 and which the then Home Minister L.K. Advani had agreed to consider in June 2000. A trifurcation would have meant division along religious lines. A bifurcation leaves the Hindu and Muslim communities together in the Union Territory of J&K. On rendering Article 370 inoperational by use of a Presidential Order, strong opinions have been expressed - and, in my opinion, justifiably so - that this was done without a process of consultation with the people of the State. Article 370 was a recognition of the fact that, arising from the Instrument of Accession and the historical events that followed, J&K was different from other States and had to be treated differently. As Nehru said in the Lok Sabha in June 1952, ““And I say with all respect to our Constitution that it just does not matter what our Constitution says: if the people of Kashmir do not want it, it will not go there….Do not think you are dealing with a part of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Gujarat. You are dealing with an area, historically and geographically and in all manner of things, with a certain background. If we bring our local ideas and local prejudices everywhere, we will never consolidate….And real integration comes of the mind and the heart and not of some clause which you may impose on other people.” Babasaheb Ambedkar also made a reference to the special character of J&K in his resignation speech after quitting the Union Cabinet. The right solution, he said, was to “ partition Kashmir. Give the Hindu and Buddhist part to India and the Muslim part to Pakistan as we did in the case of India. We are really not concerned with the Muslim part of Kashmir.” If the “ Muslim part” remained with India, this was largely the result of the teamwork displayed by Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah and Patel and the understanding they showed. Article 370 was intended to reflect the fact that the State had certain distinct privileges and rights and that it joined the Indian Union on their acceptance. The provision enabling the President to issue Orders, however, was later converted into a ““tunnel in the wall” as Home Minister Gulzari Lal Nanda put it in December 1964. Beginning with the incarceration of Sheikh Abdullah, the imposition of chosen heads of government by the Centre, the allegedly ““rigged “ election of 1987, the intent of Article 370 was diluted and actually made inferior to the process of amendment of Constitutional provisions applicable to the rest of the country under Article 368. The Presidential Order winding up the Article is the 273rd, which means that 272 have already been issued over the years, in many cases the Governor representing the people under different spells of President’s Rule. While the Article stipulates that the Presidential Order is subject to concurrence of the Constituent Assembly, there has been no such body in J&K since 1956 and successive State Assemblies and Governors have been presumably exercising this power. The legality of what was done will probably be adjudicated by the Supreme Court, there are arguments both ways and this is not the place to comment on it. Along with Article 370 goes Article 35A and the special rights enjoyed by “ Permanent Residents” of J&K. While the Indian Constitution and laws will now apply to J&K, in my understanding the power to issue Presidential Orders still remains as this power can be taken away only if the Article ceases to be in the Constitution. While wholly transformational changes were announced by the Home Minister, the truly amazing feature is the way the international community responded calmly, without excitement, not heeding the plaintive cries of Pakistan. This is surely a tribute to Indian diplomacy, a tribute also to the chain of events unleashed in1991, which has resulted in a tenfold growth of the Gross Domestic Product since then and India’s resultant strength in the global marketplace .The fact that UAE,Saudi Arabia, even the Taliban of Afghanistan have turned a cold shoulder on Pakistan , that the UN and US have made mild responses speaks highly of the work that has been done over the years to build India’s image. AG Noorani, in an article published in “The Wire” on 9th August ,says, “The arrest of Sheikh Abdullah on August 8, 1953, and his detention for 11 years inflicted a scar which still refuses to heal. The BJP regime’s crack down on August 5, 2019, will ensure far more lasting damage.” To contain this damage will be the biggest challenge that the nation will have to face in the months and years to come. The present clamp down on the entire Valley can obviously not be for long. When it ends, how will the people of the Valley react? Like the rest of India, will they be able to breathe the air of freedom and lead peaceful and happy lives in an atmosphere of growing prosperity ? Or will there be further terrorism, not just confined to the Valley, but encompassing the whole country? Will there be a lingering sense of betrayal, of living under an alien colonial master? Will other States with special privileges feel threatened?Is this the beginning of a process to unify laws and making them applicable everywhere, thus altering the structure of our Constitution which is based on accommodation of diversity? Is the bilateral dispute with Pakistan at an end? Will there be further bilateral discussions in pursuance of the Simla Agreement? The task has just begun. It calls for adroit, patient and clever handling over years, rather than months.
Former Union Cabinet Secretary, presently, Chairman, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum
(The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.)