Debating autonomy


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‘Until Jammu and Kashmir (and) Ladakh draw closer, settle their differences and agree to operate as equal partners, there will never be a stable basis upon which relations with rest of India can be satisfactorily tackled.’1


THE perception that the internal dynamic of the politics of Jammu and Kashmir has a strong bearing upon the relationship of the state with the Union of India has grown in recent times. As the discourse around the peace initiative takes shape and efforts are underway to address the alienation in the valley, it is clear that unless the political complexity involving the divergent political aspirations is recognised, and a consensus reflecting the varied political interests within the three regions of the state evolved, it may be difficult to pursue any political course in the state.

A reason for the failure of the National Conference to persuade the centre to consider the recommendations of the State Autonomy Committee (SAC) Report, was the absence of internal consensus within the state on the issue of autonomy. Aimed at mitigating the grievances of the people of Kashmir, the report did not find approval with the people in the Jammu region.

The issue of autonomy, as viewed from Jammu, has its specific parameters that need to be emphasised. On the one hand there exists the broad spectrum of responses that the context of the special status of the state has evoked in this region in the last 50 years. (These range from a general indifference to the idea of special status to a strong, vocal opposition). On the other, is the crucial context of regional autonomy. Both parameters are interlinked and emanate from two factors: first, the internal political dynamics of the state, especially the context of the interregional relationships and second, the very nature of the political discourse of autonomy that is rooted in the history of Kashmir.



The idea of conferring special status on the state failed to find broad support within the Jammu region. For those whose politicisation was influenced by the ideology of the RSS, this idea evoked negative emotions. In the urban Hindu dominated areas of the region, the Sangh Parivar created a dimension of regional politics around the demand for abrogating the special status of the state. The tone of this politics was set as early as 1952 when a major agitation was launched by the Praja Parishad, an RSS-supported regional party.

The main demand of this agitation (with the slogan ‘ek vidhan, ek pradhan, ek nishan’ or ‘one constitution, one president and one symbol’) was the complete constitutional integration of the state with India. Over the years, varied political organisations like the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party, ABVP, Shiv Sena and so on, have nurtured this kind of politics. One can understand the vociferous opposition to the demand for restoration of autonomy to the pre-1953 constitutional position with reference to the political constituency created by this politics.

Yet, the opposition to the idea of autonomy has not merely been a result of the ideological influence of the RSS; it also lies in the internal political dynamics of the state. There exists a strong perception that the region is discriminated against in matters related to the allocation of developmental funds, provision of educational facilities and employment in government services.

Acknowledging the regional irritations and tensions, the Gajendragadkar Commission of Enquiry appointed by the government in the mid-60s to comprehend the causes of inter-regional tensions and irritations had observed that Jammu nurses a strong feeling of discrimination. According to the commission, this was due to the absence of a feeling of equal participation in the integrated development of the state.2



It is this sense of discrimination and exclusion that has resulted in regional discontent. The feeling persists that decision-making in the state is regulated by ‘pro-Kashmir’ preferences which, in turn, arouses strong public emotions. In the last five decades there were many occasions when such emotional public response took the form of major or minor agitations. Underlying these was the perception that Kashmir got a larger share of the cake in the distribution of resources or development funds; that the genuine demands of Jammu were unjustly dealt with. Some long-pending demands, like carving out more districts in the region (or legislative constituencies), were deliberately undermined in order to maintain the dominance of the Kashmir region.

Such feelings of deprivation and discontent had their roots in the existing asymmetrical power relations between Jammu and Kashmir. The politics in the state was so structured that Kashmir occupied a large political space, keeping Jammu virtually deprived of political power. Giving primacy to the political deprivation of Jammu over economic and developmental deprivation, the Gajendragadkar Commission had suggested remedial measures to reduce tensions arising out of a disproportionate distribution of power between the two regions. It had recommended that ‘a convention should be established that if the chief minister belongs to one region, there should be a deputy chief minister belonging to the other region. By another convention, the number of cabinet ministers belonging to the two regions should be equal.’3

The political imbalance led to a demand for an internal devolution of power within the state. This demand, commonly referred to as the demand for regional autonomy, has gained ground in recent years. During the 1996 Assembly elections the demand acquired such strong public support that all political parties, across ideological lines, were forced to incorporate it in their electoral manifestos.



Despite regional issues being the locus of Jammu’s politics, the discourse of ‘state autonomy’ as pursued by the National Conference did not include the local sensibilities of this region. If anything , this discourse was perceived to be ‘Kashmir-centric’. A popular view in Jammu saw the issue of state autonomy as primarily reflecting the political response of the people of Kashmir, as one unconnected with the political aspirations of the people of Jammu. The reason why this view dominated the public mind in Jammu was because the NC located the issue of state autonomy in the historical context of the formation and assertion of the political identity of Kashmir. It was rooted in the freedom movement of Kashmir and centred around the basic issue of the commitment made by the Indian leadership to the political elite of Kashmir at the time of accession.

Apart from its Kashmir-centric orientation, the autonomy discourse of the NC was seen as flawed because it overlooked the issue of regional autonomy. The issue was not reflected in the Report of the State Autonomy Committee (SAC), which sought merely to ‘recommend measures for restoration of autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.’



An analysis of the National Conference approach towards the issue of state autonomy, as well as a reading of the SAC report, shows that the idea of internal devolution of power was not intrinsically connected with the question of state autonomy and did not logically flow from it. The SAC refered to the ‘mosaic of diversities in its regions, groups and communities’ and acknowledged the duty of the state to protect minorities and regional interests, but it did not go into the intricacies of the question of diversities. The question of diversities and regional interests was referred to another (lesser) committee – the Regional Autonomy Committee (RAC).

The failure of the National Conference to incorporate the issue of internal autonomy in its discourse on state autonomy impacted the political response of the Jammu region. For all practical purposes, this was read as indifference towards the political aspirations of the people of Jammu (and Ladakh). Such indifference, it was felt, emanated from a concern to keep political power centralised in the hands of the political elite of Kashmir. This concern of the party, it was argued, was equally reflected in its hesitation to respond to the idea of grassroots democracy.



There have been no panchayat elections in the state in the last 23 years. Worse, even as the state government expressed its willingness to announce elections, it shied away from the task of fully empowering the panchayats. The state has a retrograde panchayat act with a number of provisions that ensure the control of the government over the panchayats. Despite a demand to bring this act at par with the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India, the state government has refused to delete the provision for the nomination of a large number of members.

The nonchalant attitude of the NC towards the issue of internal devolution of power led to a general feeling of scepticism in the Jammu region. Such scepticism only increased in recent years as a result of the negative approach adopted by the Regional Autonomy Committee towards Jammu’s demand for regional autonomy. The terms of reference of this committee were to ‘evolve instrumentalities like local organs of power to promote better involvement and participation of people in different regions for balanced political, economic, educational, social and cultural development.’ Also, ‘to examine the powers that such organs need to be vested with’ and to suggest changes in the constitutional structure of the state in this context.

But rather than suggest a mechanism for guaranteeing regional autonomy, the committee denounced the very existence of Jammu as a region. Using historical, ethno-cultural and developmental explanations, it argued that ‘Jammu is heterogeneous – culturally, linguistically, ethnically and geographically’ and that it never existed as one region, segregated as it was into diverse regions, each of which could be considered an independent entity with its ‘distinct history, language and cultural identity’.4 It, therefore, recommended a reorganisation of the existing region into three autonomous regions, viz. Jammu (Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur districts excluding Mahore tehsil); Pir Panchal (Poonch and Rajouri districts) and Chinab valley (Doda district and tehsil Mahore).

Such reorganisation of Jammu, perceived by many to be communal (as it seeks to separate the two Muslim dominated areas of Doda and Poonch-Rajouri from the Hindu dominated areas of the region), was seen as a NC tactic to stall the process of internal devolution of power. This involved placing the sub-regional claims arising out of discontent of the peripheral and backward areas within the Jammu region against its regional claims.



The sub-regional discontent in Jammu is a reality that further indicates the complexity around the issue of autonomy and internal autonomy within the state. Such sub-regional discontent grew as a result of the backwardness of the peripheral areas of the state. The Gajendragadkar Commission had noted that ‘within both Jammu and Kashmir regions there are certain pockets which have remained much more backward than the rest of the region... these areas deserve special attention and the governments should address themselves urgently to the task of developing them speedily.’5 Despite this warning, little was done by successive governments to tackle the problems of the peripheral areas.

An acute sense of discontent in the areas of Doda, Poonch and Rajouri led to a process of politicisation and assertion of competitive identities. Although much of the discontent arose from a resentment against the Kashmir elite for monopolising power and neglecting development of the backward areas, there was also resentment against the Jammu elite for not highlighting the backwardness of the region.



It may be pertinent to note that Jammu’s dominant elite (comprising mainly of the urban, middle class, upper caste Hindus), while projecting the issue of regional discrimination, failed to focus on concerns about the backwardness of these peripheral areas. The issues relating to primary education, health facilities, development of roads and the like, which represent the interest of these peripheral areas, failed to find a voice in Jammu’s regional politics.

Viewed from this perspective of sub-regional discontent, the autonomy discourse acquires a different flavour. Neither the discourse of state autonomy nor that of regional autonomy are sufficiently comprehensive to deal with questions of sub-regional deprivations. What is required is a multi-layered structure of autonomy that must flow from the state to the region and from the region to the sub-regional and finally to the panchayat level. Conscious of the complexity of the underlying problems of discontent at regional and sub-regional levels, Balraj Puri, in his alternate report on regional autonomy,6 had recommended a five tier system that included devolution of power from state to region to district, block and panchayat level. The political, legislative, executive and financial powers and functions of each tier, he felt, should be carefully spelt out and constitutionally guaranteed.7

Such sensitivity to the complex realities of the state, particularly at the regional and the sub-regional levels, was unfortunately missing in the official Regional Autonomy Committee report. Instead of acknowledging the multi-layered political aspirations within the state and underlining the need to extend the logic of political autonomy from the state to regional and sub-regional levels, it merely foregrounded sub-regional aspirations and totally ignored the question of Jammu’s regional discontent.



Arguing that the recognition of ‘culturally, linguistically, ethnically and geographically’ heterogeneous Jammu as a region hampered the process of social and human development of ethnic groups and democratic participation at the grassroots level within the state, it suggested recognising Poonch-Rajouri and Doda as autonomous regions. Such a process of identifying new regions, in its opinion, was the only way to deal with the ‘perception of neglect and injustice, real and imaginary, existing among groups in the diverse regions of the state.’8

This approach caused immense resentment. A common feeling expressed was that there existed no scope for redress of regional grievances in the autonomy discourse pursued by the National Conference. A political response, therefore, is being generated in the region that has the potential of taking an extreme form. This relates to the demand for reorganisation of the state and its division into three parts – with Jammu acquiring the status of a state and Kashmir and Ladakh acquiring the status of Union Territory. Commonly referred to as the demand for ‘trifurcation of the state’, it is being voiced on the ground of divergence of political aspirations between the regions of Jammu and Kashmir.



It may be important to note that the demand for separation of Jammu (and of Ladakh) from Kashmir is an old one and has been voiced from time to time, though so far it has remained peripheral and innocuous. However, more recently, especially after the recommendations of the RAC were made public, it has become more strident and seeks to occupy the centre-stage of Jammu’s politics. A number of new groups have been formed which seek to take advantage of the people’s disillusionment with the National Conference’s approach to the issue of regional autonomy. The RSS has taken a public posture in its favour and local BJP leaders have shown their willingness to support it.

The politics of ‘trifurcation’ has the potential to polarise Jammu on communal lines. This politics, it may be noted, represents the same constituency that perceives the special constitutional status of the state as a concession to the Muslims of Kashmir and demands its abolition. With the RSS clearly behind this new politics, such a demand is bound to alienate the Muslims of the region. In terms of intra-regional relationships, it is likely to create a schism between the Muslim dominated districts of Doda and Poonch-Rajouri on the one hand, and the Hindu-dominated areas of Jammu, Kathua and (a part of) Udhampur on the other.

The political reality of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is marked by heterogeneity and divergent political aspirations. It calls for a politics that not merely recognises the plurality of the state but also devises suitable political mechanisms for handing such plurality. Yet, instead of sensitivity to the complexity and plurality, the present political scenario of the state reflects a tendency to seek simplistic solutions through the means of divisive politics.

Both the issues of regional and sub-regional deprivation are sought to be addressed through solutions based on communal considerations – division of the state in the first case, and that of the region in the second. Unfortunately, there exists a circular relation between these two kinds of politics with one reinforcing the other.

Such divisive politics is fraught with danger and therefore needs to be countered. However, without addressing the discontent at the root of such divisive politics, this will be difficult. For taming these political emotions, ‘autonomy’ could have been a useful political mechanism. It could have removed the basis of inter-regional tensions and helped to build a consensus in favour of autonomy for the state. However, the National Conference failed to appreciate the complex political realities of the state, especially at the regional and the sub-regional levels and its politics of autonomy has proved to be counter-productive. Rather than inspire confidence among the various regions and identities, it has only increased the gulf between them.

There is a need, therefore, to redefine the very context of autonomy to make it relevant for the different regions, sub-regions and identities. Otherwise the divisive politics currently at play may destroy the plural fabric of the state.



1. Balraj Puri, Simmering Volcano: Jammu’s Relationship With Kashmir, Delhi, 1983.

2. Report of Gajendragadkar Commission of Enquiry, November 1965, p. 7.

3. Ibid, pp. 84-85.

4. Report of the Regional Autonomy Committee, April 1999.

5. Report of Gajendragadkar Commission of Enquiry, p. 42.

6. Balraj Puri was initially appointed the working chairman of the RAC but was later dismissed. His report was subsequently published in the form of a book.

7. Balraj Puri, Regional Autonomy Committee: A Report, Delhi,1999.

8. Report of the Regional Autonomy Committee. op cit.