Only two weeks ago, while appraising the challenges that Narendra Modi would face upon coming to power, TEHELKA had warned that the greatest of them would be to prevent the ‘enthusiasts’ in his party (for want of a better description) from committing his government to positions, and actions, that it has not discussed, let alone taken any decision upon. Our fears have been vindicated within 24 hours of his swearing in, and by no less close an associate than his MoS Jitendra Singh.
Singh gave his first statement to the media only minutes after he assumed his new role, and it took him only moments to create the government’s first crisis. The government, he said, had “already begun to work upon the repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution”. The storm this created in Kashmir even among the so-called ‘mainstream’ parties, forced him to issue a lame retraction, in which he claimed to have been “misquoted”. But one glance at what he actually said, in what was quite a long exchange with the media, shows that misquote him was the last thing that the media had done.
Singh had begun by quoting Modi’s remark that Article 370 should be debated, and claimed that he was keen to carry out the mandate that Modi had implicitly given his party then. The BJP would, therefore, attempt to convince the ‘unconvinced’ of the many benefits that would accrue to J&K if Article 370 were repealed. Among these would be an inflow of vast amounts of investment from the rest of India and consequently a sharp rise in income and employment.
He claimed that he derived the mandate to initiate the debate from the BJP’s manifesto; from the fact that the BJP had won an absolute majority; that it had won three of the six seats from J&K and had polled the highest vote share in the state.
Viewed against the backdrop of his other remarks, it is clear that the only part of the statement that he has retracted is that the government has already begun to work on the repeal of Article 370. For this implies that Modi had already taken the decision to do so and he was only carrying it out. This, we now know to our relief, was patently untrue.
Singh’s retraction shows that Modi doesn’t intend to allow his subordinates to speak for him, let alone foist decisions upon him. But did Modi make him retract only because he had jumped the gun? Kashmiris need to know the answer, for their fate hangs upon it. But fortunately for all of us, it does not take long to see that Modi had far deeper reasons for disowning what Singh had said.
To begin with, Modi knew that Nawaz Sharif had taken his courage in both hands and placed his faith in a man he did not know and had not heard many good things about, when he decided to come to New Delhi. He knew also that by doing so, Pakistan’s PM had overridden his army high command and deeply infuriated the jihadi outfits in his country. Sharif hadn’t, moreover, raised the Kashmir issue when he met Modi. Thus had Modi allowed Singh’s remark to stand, he would have gravely weakened Sharif and likely put him in mortal danger.
This would, however, have been the least of the reverses India would have suffered. As the instant reaction in Kashmir showed, any attempt to even tamper with, let alone repeal Article 370 would have united mainstream parties and all brands of separatists on a single platform — secession from India even at the cost of losing Jammu and Ladakh. Once such a platform got formed, it would have been impossible for Sharif and even a moderate army chief to prevent the ISI from funnelling money and jihadis into Kashmir. And, god forbid, if this led to another insurrection, the world would have found it hard to stay aloof.
Article 370 is not perfect. It applies to the whole of J&K when most of Jammu is indifferent to its continuance and Ladakh is itching to break away and become a UT. But to the people of the Valley, it is the last, and most important, bastion of their ethnic identity. That identity — peaceful, humane and syncretic — has been under relentless attack by both Pakistan and India. It must be respected and indeed cherished, as every other ethnic identity is cherished in our complex, multi-layered democracy. The debate we need is not over how Article 370 can be repealed but how it can be strengthened and focussed better to meet the justified demand for self-empowerment.