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Independence, Autonomy and Freedom in Kashmir?

The concept of "Azadi" in Kashmir has been misunderstood by those who are fighting for independence, misused by those who are swearing by autonomy and has not been implemented in its substantial meaning in Kashmir.


Independence, Autonomy and Freedom in Kashmir?

Balraj Puri

The concept of “Azadi” in Kashmir has been misunderstood by those who are fighting for independence, misused by those who are swearing by autonomy and has not been implemented in its substantial meaning in Kashmir.

Balraj Puri ( is director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

ontinuous turmoil in Pakistan for almost one year, declining militant activity in Kashmir and growing international prestige of and support to India may have affected the morale of the separatist leaders of the valley. But this is not enough to persuade them to reconcile to the status quo in the state. For they have spent many years leading the movement for Azadi which involved the loss of a large number of human lives. How can they call off the movement without any substantial achievement?

What sustains their political role is also a measure of popular alienation among Kashmiri speaking Muslims of the state, which was not caused by external factors alone and for which internal causes also exist.

Two Versions of Azadi

The exceptionally long recorded history of the landlocked valley of Kashmir and its proverbial beauty had created a strong urge for Kashmiri identity. According to popular perceptions from history, Kashmir had been enslaved by outside rulers for the last four centuries (since 1586 to be precise) when Akbar annexed it to the Mughal empire. This was followed by outside rulers such as Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras. Since 1931, when the modern phase of a political movement started under Sheikh Abdullah’s leadership, Azadi became a popular slogan. He welcomed the role of the Indian army in 1947, as it had come to defend the Azadi of Kashmir that was threatened by Pakistan which sponsored a tribal raid. Since then independence and autonomy have been used as two versions of Azadi by the popular leaders of Kashmir.

Two vital considerations must be kept in view if the demand for independence or autonomy is to be achieved. The first is whether it is to be confined to the Kashmiri-speaking Muslims or it has to cover the other two regions of the state, namely, Jammu and Ladakh, on the Indian side, which do not share Kashmir’s historical background and pride in its unique identity. Secondly how far would the independence or autonomy that is being demanded

ensure freedom for the people. Azadi is the Urdu word for the two distinct concepts of independence and freedom. But there are a number of countries which are independent but have denied freedom to their people.

If the unity of the state is to be maintained, to which most of the leaders of Kashmir region are still committed, the idea of autonomy has to be extended to the other two regions within the state. As the commitment that Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah made in July 1952 to provide for regional autonomy in the constitution of the state and reiterated by the latter a number of times could not be implemented, the autonomy of the state gradually got eroded, which is the major cause of the popular alienation in the valley. Otherwise unity in as diverse a state as J and K can only be maintained in a federal set-up.

The other objective of ensuring freedom to the people also requires building appropriate institutions. Whatever autonomy the state enjoys today under Article 370 of the Constitution has been mostly used by its rulers to deny freedom to the people. For instance, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, instituting panchayati raj in the rest of the country are not applicable to the state. Thus, the state is deprived of institutions of democratic decentralisation at district, block and panchayat levels.

The hard work that the young chief minister of the state is doing to attend to the problems of far-off villages and to do justice to every region or sub-region of the state is no substitute for empowerment of the people at every level. The allocation of funds to them should not be determined by the discretion of the state government but by an objective and equitable formula and power to respective elected representatives to supplement it by local taxes, if they like, and to determine priorities of development. Azadi would lose its utility unless it

march 22, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


reaches the villages and enlarges freedom of the people.

There are more fields in which even the present limited autonomy has been used to abridge freedom. In all other states, for instance, district authorities are bound to inform the National Human Rights Commission about every case of custodial death within 24 hours. Why is J and K exempt from it as also from the jurisdiction of the NHRC for other incidents of human rights violations which is the single most serious cause of popular resentment? Why is the State Human Rights Commission not allowed to function normally even according to the Act under which it was formed? It has remained without a chairperson for a long time and all its vacancies have not yet been filled. Its annual report is full of complaints that the government does not allow it to function. It has no investigation machinery as its disposal and the post of the inspector general of police (IGP) provided in the Act has not been filled for the last five years.

Demand is being made for demilitarisation of the state – as was suggested by Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, as a part of his four-point formula to resolve the Kashmir dispute – and replacement of an outside army with state police (the strength of which is sought to be tripled) that would provide employment to local people. But the fact remains that the maximum human rights violations have of late been committed by the state police. These cannot become more tolerable simply because the local police is committing them.

Moreover, following the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court to reform the Police Act, other states are taking steps to do the needful. But J and K is still being ruled by the Police Act of 1861 and by virtue of its autonomous status, as per initial media reports, it is not considering the Model Police Act the other states are obliged to.

Failure of Other Institutions

The same is the case with other democratic institutions. The State Accountancy Commission is virtually dysfunctional since its chairperson resigned complaining against undue government interference in its functioning. The Women’s Commission is headless for the last five years, and all its members have also completed their term.

As the national Right to Information Act is not applicable to the state, it had its own act which was hardly used by the people. An amendment act was passed by the state assembly and sent to the governor for his assent who returned it to the government with the recommendation that it should be brought at par with the central act. As the state assembly was adjourned sine die due to continuous disturbances in its session, the government sent it back to the governor with the certificate of the speaker that it was a money bill for which the governor could not hold back assent. In the opinion of legal experts the amendment bill did not involve any changes in the existing taxes and hence could not be called a money bill. The state government should have used its autonomy not to deny its citizens the right that people in the rest of India enjoy but to improve upon the central act and provide more rights to its people.

Misuse of ‘Autonomy’

Many more instances can be cited to illustrate how the autonomy of the state is being used to curb the freedom that people of the other states enjoy. Even the central government finds it easier to interfere in the affairs of the state in the absence of central institutions of checks and balances. If, for instance, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction had been extended to the state in the 1950s, Sheikh Abdullah could not be dismissed in 1953 under the plea that he had lost the confidence of the majority of the members of his cabinet which was his own creation. Nor was there any law then in the country under which he could be detained indefinitely. A distinction has to be drawn between executive power of the centre and federal institutions that provide checks on it. If the jurisdiction of the latter institutions like the Supreme Court, NHRC, Election Commission and Auditor General had been extended earlier, the centre would not have been able to manipulate elections, impose a government of its choice on the state and corruption may have been less rampant. If the present level of autonomy had ensured more freedom to the people than elsewhere in the country, a case could then have been made for enlarging it further.

Those who are campaigning for autonomy and independence must devote some thought to strengthening and evolving more institutions that ensure freedom to the people and safeguard against worse local tyranny. This freedom need not wait till what is called the final solution to the Kashmir problem. After all the Congress Party, during its struggle for independence, also fought for reforms in the system and participated in municipal and assembly elections which helped it to build up democratic institutions in independent India. Similarly champions of independence must have a blueprint of the sort of system they would build and start implementing it. This will also restore their relevance to the current situation and provide common ground to the other mainstream parties, which will add to their strength.

The mainstream parties and all those who seek a solution to the Kashmir problem within the framework of India are no less responsible for the disillusionment caused to the people by the so-called autonomous state guaranteed under Article 370. The way the legislature functions for brief periods amidst scenes of bedlam and even physical clashes between the treasury benches and the opposition brings the democratic institutions of the assembly to disrepute and damages the credibility of the political leaders.

By now the government of India too must realise that lavish central aid alone does not satisfy the much stronger urge for identity, dignity and empowerment in all regions. In the absence of appropriate institutional arrangements the aid is not only spent improperly and breeds corruption but also aggravates tensions between regions and sub-regions over their respective shares in allocation of funds.

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Economic & Political Weekly

march 22, 2008

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