June 2000 News

Who gets pieces of the pie?

23 June 2000
The Hindustan Times

New Delhi: A CHARMING fallacy, variously packaged and promoted, is currently making the rounds of the political marketplace. Greater autonomy. This is being touted as a one-shot solution to the Kashmir conundrum. This means that violence will end, militancy will disappear and everything will be honky dory once the State has received a high degree of constitutional autonomy. Indeed, nothing could be farther from the truth. To question this view is not an argument against the merits of greater devolution and more autonomy per se. All one can say is: By all means, take it. But do subject it two basic considerations. First, don''t let the autonomy debate be used to cover up the other factors (read failures) that have contributed in the build-up to the mess in Kashmir. Second, before buying a particular autonomy package, put it to the Gandhian test by asking how and to what extent it would benefit the State''s population. The State Autonomy Report, which is currently the subject of heated arguments in the Assembly and agitated articulations in two of the three regions of the State, does not make the grade on either count. One major limitation of the report is that it is too much of a party document, tailor-made to suit the National Conference''s own pursuit of power. That should not be surprising. The birth-marks of the report would have made that predictable. The report was prepared under the supervision of a senior party colleague of Farooq Abdullah after the chairman of the autonomy panel had resigned mid-way. It was prepared with a minimum level of consultation with various segments of the State''s population - and remained little debated until the special session of the State Assembly this week. What is surprising is how could a report of this nature be so insensitive - as the outburst of protests this week have demonstrated - to the concerns of significant segments of the State''s population, north and south of the Valley. There is some validity in the argument that the report is meant to serve as a bargaining factor with the Centre. In fact, the report almost remained untalked about for a whole year, when it was suddenly taken out of the closet as talks with the Hurriyat leaders began to appear as a distinct possibility early this year. For some, this might revive an old memory: for instance, the manner in which V. P. Singh instantly retrieved the Mandal Commission Report once he found himself caught in a tight corner. Thus, the autonomy report has since been sought to be put on top of the agenda with a fresh sense of urgency. It would be useful to recall that when Sheikh Abdullah insisted on going back to the pre-1953 constitutional position as the basic premise for talks with the Centre in the early Seventies, he had an important personal point to make. Since he had been removed from power in 1953, he insisted on reverting to that year as a defining landmark for a settlement with the Centre. The Sheikh was soon persuaded to comprehend the argument that everything that had happened in the State in the intervening years need not be seen as evil. Instead, he should take a fresh look, and cull out whatever he found was not acceptable. It was thus that G. Parthasarathy and Mirza Afzal Beg spent months poring over various laws and enactments, and arguing over them back and forth before the Accord of 1975 was hammered out. It is understandable if the Hurriyat groups seek to run down the Accord, but it is amazing that the Sheikh''s own party and ''successor regime'' should turn away from it on the specious plea that it has not worked. What has not worked is that successive governments in their pursuit of power and its perpetuation have simply forgotten about giving the people a caring and clean administration, a transparent government with adequate space for political dissent and fair elections. This is not to suggest that the problem in Kashmir is all about electoral rigging, administrative corruption and misgovernance. But these have been hugely contributing factors in the current crises. And over the decades, the Centre is seen as a passive party in the misfeasance. To pretend that the problems of good governance would disappear once the governor has been replaced by a Sadar-i-Riyasat, or the Election Commission robbed of its jurisdiction to conduct the elections, or the Supreme Court debarred from hearing a Kashmiri''s petition, is worse than missing the wood for trees. Critics of the autonomy report have a point when they say that it is not about empowering the people; it would end up empowering those who are already in power. They fear that it would diminish localised accountability even further, narrow the space for democratic dissent, and entrench those in power. In the past, democratic debate and dissent have almost always been hostage to the ruling elite in the State, especially in the Valley. A good autonomy package should provide a formula for giving more power to people at the grassroots cutting across ethnic and regional distinctions. What the report seems to have done is to deepen fears of further concentration in fewer hands in one region. Perhaps, the Abdullah Government must attempt a better draft than the one he is trying to push.


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