New Delhi : For the first time after the June 2018 breakdown of the PDP-BJP government and imposition of the Governor’s/President’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited the Union Territory’s mainstream politicians for a meeting at his residence in New Delhi. The invitation has been delivered telephonically to at least 14 leaders — including four former Chief Ministers and heads of all the major parties — by the Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla on Saturday, 19 June.
According to knowledgeable sources, the roundtable meeting to be attended among others by the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, would begin at 3.00 pm on Thursday, 24 June, with no specific agenda. However, much of the deliberations are presumed to remain focused on holding of the Assembly elections and restoration of Statehood which have collectively surfaced as the two key demands of different political parties after termination of J&K’s special status and bifurcation into the two UTs.
The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, which created the separate UTs of J&K and Ladakh, extended the rights of holding immovable properties, government jobs and scholarships to everybody holding a domicile certificate and applied most of the Central laws to Jammu and Kashmir, was tabled during the President’s rule on 5 August 2019 and passed with the majority vote in both Houses of the Parliament.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Modi’s invite to the J&K politicians has gone out on 19 June 2021–exactly three years after the PDP President Mehbooba was removed as Chief Minister, the Assembly was placed in suspended animation and the erstwhile State was brought under Governor’s rule on 19 June 2018. Finally, the Assembly was dissolved and the President’s rule was imposed in November 2018 after the political parties failed to form a new government of the elected representatives.
Nine months later, in August 2019, the BJP-led Central government engineered a tectonic shift in the erstwhile State’s organisation, breaking it into the two UTs of J&K and Ladakh. The special constitutional provisions of Article 370 and 35-A were abrogated and the legislature’s Upper House — Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Council — was abolished.
While the UT of Ladakh, which had only four Assembly segments out of 87 in the erstwhile State, was created with no legislature, the UT of J&K retained the Legislative Assembly of 83 seats– 46 in Kashmir and 37 in Jammu–with provision of the addition of seven new segments.
The Election Commission of India’s Delimitation Commission, headed by Justice (retd.) Ranjana Desai, has been working on delimitation of the new constituencies since March 2020. The commission has been granted an extension of one year on 6 March 2021 and it is expected to complete its exercise in the next few months. Thereafter, the UT’s first Assembly elections would be conducted by the Election Commission of India, subject to an appropriate security scenario.
The Delimitation Commission has associated with itself as members all the five Lok Sabha members of the J&K UT–BJP’s Dr Jitendra Singh and Jugal Kishore Sharma and National Conference’s Dr Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Justice (retd.) Hasnain Masoodi. However, the NC’s MPs have not attended any meeting with the Commission, contending that their party had challenged legality the J&K Reorganisation Act in the Supreme Court of India and refused to accept the changes introduced by way of the August 2019 legislation and the Presidential orders invoked thereafter.
For the first time, early this month, Farooq Abdullah seemed to be relenting on the NC’s maximalist position when he asserted, following a working committee meeting of his party, that the J&K parties had not shut their doors to any offer of negotiations from the Centre. The NC’s change of heart is said to be the result of the ‘pressures within’ as most of the party’s leaders are believed to be in favour of contesting the next Assembly elections irrespective of achieving their proclaimed goal of the restoration of Article 370 and 35-A and J&K’s Statehood.
The new vibrations in the J&K parties, particularly in the NC, are widely being interpreted as acceptance of the August-2019 changes as fait accompli. Senior NC leaders are currently holding the view that boycott to the delimitation process and the forthcoming Assembly elections could render their party irrelevant as their traditional competitors, notably the Congress and the BJP, besides Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party (AP) and Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference (PC), seemed to be ‘impatient’ to fill up the vacuum and grab the power.
Remarkably, all the apprehensions of a fresh turmoil, clashes and violence in reaction to the August-2019 changeover have proved wrong as there has been no stone pelting, no street turbulence in Kashmir in the last 22 months.
Top NC and PDP leaders had initially resorted to an extremely tough posturing, ruling out participation in any elections until ‘complete withdrawal of the changes made in August 2019 and thereafter and restoration of all that has been snatched away illegally from Jammu and Kashmir’. On more than one occasion, former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti had asserted that they would not be associating with any democratic exercise until achieving the objectives of the post-2018 alliance called ‘Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration’ (PAGD).
The PAGD had been formed as a conglomerate of seven mainstream political parties after Mehbooba Mufti’s release from a prolonged detention in 2020. Restoration of Article 370 and 35-A besides restoration of Statehood was its key demand. In October 2020, Congress broke away from the PAGD but six parties–with the NC and the PDP at the front–contested the District Development Council (DDC) elections as an alliance against the BJP and the AP. Out of 280, it bagged 109 seats. Among the individual parties, the BJP stood first with 75 seats and the NC second with 67.
After the Congress party’s departure, the PAGD suffered a major setback in January 2021 when Lone’s PC moved out over the issue of ‘proxy candidates’ in the DDC elections. Significantly, there was no PAGD meeting after the DDC election results were declared on 22 December 2020. The first meeting of the alliance later took place at Mehbooba’s residence on 9 June, 2021. Farooq asserted after the meeting that the J&K parties had not shut their doors on the Centre.
Significantly again, Farooq, Omar and Mehbooba have diluted their posturing and stopped issuing rhetorical statements, interviews and tweets in the last over two months. Omar, in particular, has ignored most of the political developments and dedicated his Twitter handle to amplification of the Covid-related issues. The frequency of the two former Chief Ministers’ anti-BJP, anti-Centre rhetoric has drastically reduced in the last 8 weeks.
There have been terse reactions with many in the social media asking how Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Shah would be accommodating and hosting the same Kashmiri politicians whom they used to project as ‘anti-national, pro-separatist and pro-Pakistan’ until recently. Some are particularly mentioning Shah’s thread of tweets on 17 November 2020 in which he had repeatedly called the PAGD as ‘the Gupkar Gang’.
But many of the serious political analysts are counting it as the BJP-led Centre’s achievement that the Kashmiri leaders had begun to accept abrogation of Article 370 as fait accompli. They are pointing out that these leaders’ main demand now is the restoration of Statehood which is Shah’s own commitment to the Parliament on 5 August 2019.
“In the past, all of New Delhi’s offers, invitations, talks and negotiations were only for the separatists, for the Hurriyat and the militants–in other words for Pakistan and her terrorists. This is for the first time that the Centre is completely ignoring the separatists and negotiating with only the mainstream politicians elected by the people in the past and sworn-in to uphold India’s sovereignty and integrity in J&K”, observed a Delhi-based commentator. He claimed that the participation of the Kashmiri politicians in the delimitation process and the Assembly elections would be a ‘game changer’ as it would lend legitimacy to the Indian narrative across the world and leave Pakistan and the militants with no locus standi.