By Luv Puri
19 January 2010
On February 28, 2007, Barkat Bi, 70, living in Jammu & Kashmir was united with her husband, Niaz Mohammad, 72, after a gap of 42 years. Her husband had crossed over to Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir during the 1965 Indo-Pak war and could never return.
Notwithstanding the constraints that bind the policymaking elite in New Delhi and Islamabad, there had been tangible progress since 2004. The Line of Control (LoC) points were opened and a process initiated to end the pain of divided families living on both sides. Last year, trade began between the two sides creating an economic stake for the peace process.
The mistrust which developed between the two countries after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 reversed some of these gains. The number of passengers travelling through the various LoC points is consistently coming down. Traders are demanding flexible rules of engagement and calling for an end to the barter system.
Despite these setbacks, there are some recent significant political developments on both sides of the LoC, which if understood and facilitated can go a long way in evolving an amicable solution. A working group appointed by the Indian prime minister and headed by former Supreme Court justice Saghir Ahmed recently issued a report. The operative portion of the report was a suggestion to restore autonomy to J&K.
The report to address the political dimension of the issue was delayed owing to major differences within the group. The autonomy debate revolves around the July 24, 1952 Delhi agreement between Jawaharlal Nehru, then India's prime minister, and J&K prime minister Sheikh Abdullah which meant "the matters in the Union List not connected with the three subjects of Defence, External Affairs and Communications and/or Ancillary thereto but made applicable should be excluded from their application to the State".
Kashmir desk handlers would just have to reopen the old records to understand the complexity of the issue. In 1974-75, talks between Indira Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, and Abdullah reached a dead end. Ultimately, a mediator saved the situation by suggesting a via media - that is, the two sides "agree to disagree" - paving the way for Abdullah to assume power in the state. He constituted a committee to discuss the issue. The whole exercise had to be called off after committee members developed differences.
In the past, opposition to the federal autonomy proposal has come from within the state. Therefore, the feasibility of the idea of federal autonomy depends on how far the state is able to satisfy diverse political, regional, ethnic and religious groups within J&K.
There are already enough feasible proposals within the state to give a practical shape to the principle of federalism. The idea of regional autonomy is one which seeks to give political powers to the three regions with legislative and executive powers and grant political reservation to scheduled tribes such as the Bakerwals. Further decentralisation of power at the district and village levels is also possible. The idea can be stretched by incorporating Pakistan-administered J&K (PAJK) into this formulation.
Interestingly, the debate on federal autonomy has been reopened in PAJK as well. In a recent interview, PAJK prime minister Farooq Haider stated that there is no need for the Islamabad-based Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council as it is an extra-constitutional body. The council was established under Section 21 of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974. The council has seven members from Pakistan government, including its prime minister, who is also chairman of the council, the federal minister for Kashmir affairs, and five members of the Pakistan National Assembly, nominated by the prime minister. Other members of the council include the PAJK prime minister, who is vice-chairman, and six elected members. Decisions can only be approved by the council with a majority vote.
Powers of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council are absolute. Article 35 of the PAJK constitution states that a Bill passed by the council shall not require the assent of the president and shall upon its authentication by the chairman of the council become law and be called an Act of the council. This means that the council is empowered to legislate on some subjects without the direct involvement of the PAJK legislative assembly, an elected body of the belt.
To take the debate over federal autonomy in J&K on either side of the LoC to some concrete form will require political imagination and pragmatism. The colonial practice of appointing retired judges to handle complex political issues has to be dispensed with. A person trying to mediate or evolve a solution should have the understanding of the complex political history of the region as well as the patience to listen to diverse political opinions within the state. The success of this delicate process holds the key to some of the problems that the subcontinent is facing at this moment.
The writer is a Fulbright fellow at New York University.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi