It can be safely assumed that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s wish to debate the merits and demerits of Article 370 of the Constitution signifies a shift in the BJP’s long-held stance on this issue. The Ram Mandir construction, the Uniform Civil Code, and Article 370, which confers special autonomous status on Jammu and Kashmir(J&K), have been core issues in the BJP’s political agenda. Time and again, BJP and RSS leaders case in point, LK Advani’s recent blog have renewed the demand to repeal Article 370. Ever since Jan Sangh founder SP Mookerjee’s death in police custody in Kashmir while agitating against this provision, Article 370 has been an emotive issue for the BJP. It is possible that Modi’s, and the BJP’s views, are influenced by the BJP’s experience of dealing with J&K between 1998 and 2004, when the party helmed the NDA government. The abrupt change of stance could also be Modi’s attempt to create a pan-India image going into the 2014 polls.
The circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to India in October 1947 necessitated the framing of Article 370. But over the years, the Indian government has used the same Article 370 to interfere in Kashmir’s affairs and reduce the promise of autonomy to symbolism. In its original form, Article 370 facilitated the creation of a separate Constitution for J&K and a measure of legislative and financial autonomy for J&K. For Kashmir’s leaders, Article 370 has literally become a Hobson’s choice. For them, it is something worth fighting for, despite the realisation that successive central governments have used it to distort local aspirations. The instances of the use of Article 370 to alter the basic structure of the Indian and J&K Constitutions have been many. Despite the J&K Constitution having a provision for Governor’s Rule, Article 356 of the Indian Constitution was made applicable in 1964. The original J&K constitutional scheme had the Sadr-i-Riyasat as head of state. This was replaced with the governor as head in 1966. In 1986, a Presidential order extended Article 249 (power of Centre to legislate on State List entries) to J&K. And from 1990 to 1996, Article 370 was used to extend President’s Rule in the state after the onset of militancy.
With a history of such distortions, any review of Article 370 as mooted by Modi would become an exercise in futility. The inability to honour Article 370 in letter and spirit has been traced to the roots of the Kashmir insurgency. Those who argue that abrogating Article 370 presents India with the best chance of integrating Kashmir with the rest of the country ignore ground realities. Modi’s contention that Article 370 was being used as a shield to resort to communalism is not borne out by facts either. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was prompt in rejecting Modi’s claim that women marrying outside the state lose their rights in the state.
Crucially, Modi’s speech in Jammu on Sunday was silent about recent issues facing the troubled state like ceasefire violations, Kishtwar communal riots, and the killing of Indian troops at the border. As the principal Opposition party’s prime ministerial candidate people are interested in knowing how Modi plans to tackle these challenges. When these incidents happened, the ruling National Conference-Congress alliance and the UPA government at the Centre drew instant and impulsive criticism from the BJP. Modi’s silence will be interpreted as approval of the government response to these incidents.