Past few weeks have seen a few developments which brought Jammu – one of the three regions of the state – into the focus. First it was the controversy over last Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh’s anniversary to be declared as holiday that evoked sharp reaction from Kashmir given the background that the dynasty had ruled the state for nearly a century with an iron hand and reopening those wounds of tyranny have always been painful. Though the holiday issue remained confined to a resolution in the Legislative Council, another important facet of underlying politics of the region came to the fore. Apparently not that significant but a strike called by the Pharmacists Association invoked the Article 370 as a contract was awarded by J & K Medical Supplies Corporation Limited (JKMSCL) to an outsider, which would mean a non state subject of Jammu and Kashmir.
Hardly many people would know that there would be a concern about Article 370 in Jammu. For long time it has been an issue related to Kashmir only. In fact the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has used it as an “effective” electoral tool to come to the power not only in the state but at the national level. When BJP came to power in India for the first time in 1998 (though for a short period) but returned in 1999, there were only two planks that lead it to ascendency of power. One was the reconstruction of Ram Temple at Ayodhaya and other the abrogation of Article 370 of Indian Constitution that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir within the Union of India. It was, however, forced not to follow these slogans since it lacked majority and had to run the government with the help of other parties that were presumably “secular” in nature. But the party never abandoned them and they remained the core of their ideology. BJP is for complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian union and for that abrogation of this Article that defines the constitutional relationship between the state and centre is the biggest roadblock.
While fighting the elections within the Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP has been invoking the religion since Jammu is Hindu dominated, though Pir Panchal and Chenab regions have Muslims in majority. It has all along harped on abrogation of Article 370 and making it a focal point in elections. The premise that the state has lacked in development because of this Article coupled with exploiting the religious sentiment that revolves round the “bogey” of domination by Muslims of Kashmir valley, it slowly made electoral strides in Jammu. Following 2014 euphoria of polarization in parliament elections in May that saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi marching successfully to Delhi throne, it had its own effect in Jammu thus making it possible for BJP to get 25 seats in December 2014 assembly elections making it more than the double it had in 2008 elections. BJP swept Jammu with Modi wave and his promise of “Achhe Din”. It emerged as the party with largest vote share of 23 percent though marginally ahead as PDP got 22.7 percent in 2014 assembly elections.
It did so at the cost of Congress which had already sunk in corruption. But it goes to the credit of Congress party as well: it had sown the seeds of polarization in the state while it remained in coalition in the government first with PDP from 2002 to 2008 and then with NC from 2009 to 2014. Traditionally Congress has been getting away with most of the seats in Jammu region thereby stitching an alliance with Kashmir party like NC and PDP. Though the former has equally strong presence in Ladakh and Jammu regions as well, it always projected itself as the sole “savior” of Jammu. The Congress ministers made it a point in 12 years of their rule that no Muslim be posted at a significant position in Jammu and the way it promoted the communal chord in Jammu ultimately helped BJP to reap the harvest.
Coming back to the Pharmacists Association strike that paralyzed their business in Jammu for two days, it conveys a different story that has not been heard or told so far. Notwithstanding the political maneuvering and exploitation of the sentiment this single incident has punctured the theory that has been the bedrock of BJP’s politics in Jammu. Though its pros and cons could be discussed separately and the economic stakes that have forced the Pharmicists to revolt against the order but it tells a lot about the real concern the region has about the distinct political identity of the state. It may be connected with the “business interests” alone but ultimately it is a big political statement these traders have made and shown how sacrosanct Article 370 is for them. It is not only today that people have expressed concern over the special status but in the past also the state subject certificates have been an issue in Jammu though thousands of such certificates have been issued clandestinely to non residents of the state. Without knowing that they have become a political football for the political parties who use Jammu as an alibi to win the elections, such a revolt is an eye opener for all those who have exploited the people so far on this issue making it contentious? Credible voices such as Prof Rekha Choudhary, a distinguished political scientist, have always expressed reservations about Jammu being seen through only the prism of polarization and communalism. “There is much beyond the fringe element” she told me once.
Not only is the strike by Pharmacists significant, it was in June 2016 the government was forced to withdraw a controversial order on Mining lease that had been given to an outsider. After an uproar in the Assembly the government had to cancel the contract. Same concerns were expressed at that time as well, and diluting the special status was the focus.
Though there are parties such as Panthers Party which is trying to replace the BJP in its slogans of “discrimination with Jammu” but keeping in view the developments those forces have become irrelevant even if they have come up with banners “Wake Up Jammu throw out Rohingya Muslims”. But the moot point is whether the parties in Kashmir including Hurriyat can come forward and consolidate on these sentiments in Jammu which obviously are hidden and come out only when economic interests are hit. There is a rallying point that the special identity of the state is to be safeguarded and all parties should join hands to ensure that. Will the electoral politics allow them to do so is difficult to predict. But for BJP it is the writing on the wall that slogans like Article 370 may not work for them in future. This silent majority in Jammu needs to be saluted for the concern about special status and the identity of the state.