People’s Union Needs Regional Alliance

KO File Photo: Abid Bhat

As of now, the Gupkar coalition has only a symbolic value. Key to its relevance will be its ability to draw support from Jammu and Ladakh

SOON after Mehbooba Mufti’s release from 14 month long detention on October 14 she issued an evocative audio statement that called for a sustained struggle for the restoration of Article 370 that granted J&K an autonomous status within Indian Union. She termed “the illegal, unconstitutional and undemocratic” erasure of J&K autonomy as a “daylight robbery” and narrated how the pain of the loss of the autonomy had been “lacerating” her mind and soul during the period in detention.

Her freedom has since lent some momentum to the otherwise defunct mainstream politics. Six political parties who are signatories to Gupkar Declaration met again at the National Conference leader Dr Farooq Abdullah’s residence to formalize a structure, to evolve an agenda and to give the alliance a proper name.

Later talking to reporters, Abdullah said theirs was a, “constitutional battle to ensure the return of all the rights which the people of Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh, enjoyed before the abrogation of Article 370”.

More importantly, the parties this time didn’t limit their demand to restoration of Article 370 but sought a solution to the larger Kashmir issue. “We want steps taken for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. All the stakeholders should be taken on board in this regard”.

Inclusion of the resolution of Kashmir issue in their agenda subsumes the Kashmir settlement formulae of  National Conference, the PDP and the People’s Conference like autonomy, self-rule and achievable nationhood respectively. This takes care of the criticism the new grouping faced about marking down their long-standing political agenda by seeking only the restoration of Article 370.

Now, where do we go from here? The parties have decided to hold consultations with like-minded representatives from Jammu and Ladakh and plan to offer them to join the grouping. This is a smart move. In recent months, Jammu and Ladakh have exhibited visible signs of disaffection with the post Article 370 move state of affairs.  A looming prospect of demographic change, loss of jobs and land rights have made people uneasy. But while the expression has been muted in Jammu, people have been vocal about their rights in Ladakh. In fact, all parties in the union territory recently closed ranks against entry of outsiders and to this end threatened to boycott elections if the centre didn’t promise safeguards like the grant of 6th Schedule of Constitution. Centre was prompt to assure these protections to Ladakh unlike its approach to Kashmir. But until it actually grants these safeguards, Ladakhis will have reason to feel apprehensive. At the same time, Muslims in Ladakh who are in a slim majority in the region, aren’t interested in these safeguards. Like their counterparts in Kashmir, they also want reversal of Article 370 move and rejoining of Ladakh with J&K.

In Jammu, on the other hand, the parties other than the BJP have a varying degree of beef with the new state of affairs, although the local parties like  Panthers Party support the revocation of Article 370 but ironically want Article 370 like guarantees to protect the region’s unique identity. Helpfully for new Kashmir alliance, Congress, a national party, has supported restoration of Article  370 and the rights for Kashmiris. In fact, the party is a constituent of the  Gupkar alliance.

This opens up a possibility that the three regions can agree on a common minimum agenda. And should that happen, it will be a major achievement for the six party alliance and will only strengthen its case at the national level. Also, a broad regional cooperation on the issue of rights of J&K will afford more space for political activity to the leaders in Kashmir. Such an alliance will also require influential local leaders to represent it in Jammu and Ladakh.

But there is still a big if about the chances of a regional cooperation happening anytime soon. Or happening of it at all. The reasons are the deep mutually antagonistic political cultures and the largely contradictory interests of the three regions. Even, in case of Ladakh where Muslims are in a slight majority, their political weight is undone by the centre’s support for Buddhists. So, for a regional alliance to materialize, all such opposing forces will have to be reconciled. This will not be an easy task.

As for remaining a Kashmir-centric grouping, the six party coalition will have little political space to operate. Centre is likely to come down hard on the alliance at any sign of the civil strife that will be promptly traced to its actions, real or imagined.

One option for the new mainstream political grouping to build some pressure on New Delhi is to mount a sustained public resistance against the erasure of the special status. But there are valid doubts about the scope for such a resistance at a time when the centre has drastically squeezed the space for any democratic dissent in the region. And the Gupkar amalgam is mindful of this fact: They have so far issued the joint statements, given themselves a name, formalized their structure and worked out an agenda but stayed well short of calling for a peaceful protest, a public rally, a press conference or for that matter even a hartal.

At the same time, even if the parties were to mobilize the public opinion against the withdrawal of Article 370, their ability to force a shift in centre’s policy will be minimal. For in doing so, they will be up against the new national consensus on Kashmir that sees the integration of the former state into India as a fait accompli.

This makes the demand for the restoration of Article 370 just like the one for autonomy, self rule and Achievable Nationhood. Much will also depend on the evolving geo-politics of the region and how India’s equations with China and Pakistan will shape up, and also whether Afghanistan will pass again into the hands of Taliban. It still remains to be seen how these developments will impact Kashmir. As of now, a Kashmir observer has no option but to stay with his fingers crossed.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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