Finance minister’s opinion is not only on shaky ground, its timing is questionable and fraught with dangers
Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s latest outburst on Article 35A has ominous portents for two major reasons. First is the ludicrousness of the argument. Second, and most important is where it is coming from and the timing. In a blog post, the union finance minister termed Article 35A as constitutionally vulnerable, temporary and an impediment to the economic development of Jammu and Kashmir. He averred that it creates inequalities in the country and also forbids the state from raising resources by stopping investors. Article 370 and Article 35A have become emotive issues in the restive state, particularly since the BJP rose to power at the Centre. Ever since, its leaders have been from time to time dropping occasional hints about tinkering with either Article 370, which is J&K’s constitutional link to rest of the country, or Article 35A, which was incorporated into the Indian constitution in 1954 grants special rights and privileges to the citizens of India. The Article 35A empowers the J&K legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state, was added to Article 35 through a Presidential Order superseding an earlier order issued in 1950, which provided the framework for division of powers between J&K and New Delhi under Article 370.
The Article 370 which remains the constitutional link between India and Jammu and Kashmir and also guarantees special status to the state stands eroded and diluted through a slew of central amendments right since 1950s. The permanent resident provision, protected by the Article 35 A, today remains the core of this special status that the state enjoys. Striking down the Article 35A, which was not passed by the parliament or ratified by the state legislature but came as a presidential order, may create a constitutional crisis, impacting several other such presidential orders altering the state’s special status. Needless to point out that the finance minister’s pet project of GST also came to Jammu as part of a presidential order. The arguments of equality and economic investments raised by Jaitley need to be seen in the backdrop of both the unequal constitutional status of the state as well as the conflict. Any change in the status of these articles will have a validity only if there is political resolution process in place. Article 35A and Article 370 are red rags that will further muddy the waters in Jammu and Kashmir, politically as well as socially with dangers of not just a more lethal backlash in the Valley but also possible polarization of state on dangerously communal lines. This is specially so in view of the extremely rigid and ruthless stand adopted by the BJP led Centre with respect to Kashmir, RSS’ historical penchant for resolving Kashmir by changing its demography.
Though Jaitley had earlier also given vent to similar views when the Article 35 A was raked up more than a year ago, the timing of the present remarks make them more questionable. A case pertaining to the Article 35A is pending in the court. While the government has taken no official stand on the issue, a union minister making such averments is a clear attempt to influence the court proceedings. The remarks also come at a time when the country is in the midst of elections. While in Kashmir such a contention can turn the already volatile situation chaotic, even in BJP’s stronghold of Jammu province, the idea of tinkering with the special status of the state does not find much currency because of the common perception that it will go against the interests of Jammu’s business and economic interests. The remarks are more meant to appeal to the right-wing constituency in rest of the country where a hardline approach on Kashmir has a salability. The words are thus a reflection of petty vote-bank interests, at the altar of which the BJP is ready to sacrifice peace and calm.