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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

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Where Azad and the Congress failed in J&K

July 07, 2008

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What seemed like an innocuous decision, transferring 40 hectares of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, has devoured the government of Ghulam [Images] Nabi Azad. And it is one more government down for the Congress, leaving it in power only in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra.

Till two days ago, Azad had given Delhi the impression that he had got his act together. And Delhi -- both the home ministry and the Congress party -- were happy to take his word for it. The fact is that of late Delhi has been caught up in the Indo-US nuclear deal to the exclusion of all else.

By resigning rather than facing a floor test, Azad may be cutting his losses, in the hope of winning back Hindu opinion in Jammu. His land order was as much to woo the Jammu Hindu in view of year end elections as it was to please Governor S K Sinha in the last weeks of his tenure. Azad may now hope to give a different spin to the story -- that he sacrificed his government over the Amarnath issue. Whether, after the revocation of the order, this will cut ice with the Hindus remains to be seen, now that the BJP has seized the opportunity of an issue to flog. The Congress may fall between two stools in a polarised situation.

L K Advani had threatened to make the Amarnath Yatra an issue in the coming general elections. The BJP and the front organisations are trying to use an aggrieved Hindu sentiment in states where elections are due. There was large scale violence in the Indore and Ujjain region in Madhya Pradesh. However, interestingly, it was not picked up in Gujarat where the government may not want a communal conflict with Narendra Modi [Images] wanting to reinvent his image or in Karnataka where the new government is still settling down

Clearly, Azad had neither anticipated the reaction in the Valley nor its counter reaction in Jammu. This is not the first time that widespread protests have taken place in J&K. What was different this time was a popular upsurge without specific leaders steering the agitation. Such was the sentiment in the Valley that it united the moderates and the hardliners in the divided Hurriyat, and bridged the gap between the separatists and the mainline parties, the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party, otherwise bitter adversaries.

The agitation was reminiscent in some way of 1990, when people came out on the streets under the leadership of the Jammu and Kashmir [Images] Liberation Front shouting slogans of azadi, but more of 1963, when a sacred relic of Prophet Mohammed's hair had disappeared from the Hazratbal shrine, leading to an emotional outburst in the Valley.

Azad revoked the order lest the situation spin out of control, and this created its own backlash in Jammu. The point is that once the original sin had been committed, the fat was in the fire. And then it was that much more difficult to control the chain of events that followed.

Azad decided to execute the land order, unlike his predecessor Mufti Mohamamed Sayed who had put it in abeyance. Mufti was a thorn in Gen Sinha's side but Azad favoured Sinha's retention as Governor when the decision came up for review after he took over as chief minister.

For some curious reason, even the home ministry dilly-dallied on the appointment of the new Governor six weeks ago even though N N Vohra's name had been cleared both by the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi [Images]. General Sinha wanted his term to be extended in order to oversee the Amarnath Yatra before moving out of Kashmir,

Azad's tense relationship with the PDP has been open knowledge and left to himself he would have preferred a tie-up with the National Conference. But he was reined in by 10, Janpath on more than one occasion.

On the face of it, there is weight in the arguments put forth both by people of Jammu and of the Valley. The Hindus question why land cannot be given to a shrine board looking after their religious yatra, when land is given in the country for Muslim shrines. The Kashmiris, on the other hand, are touchy on the issue of land. Maharaja Hari Singh had ensured that no outsider could buy land in the state, and this has remained unchanged till today. Though legally, the land order did not flout the law, it was seen by the Kashmiris as the thin end of the wedge. The Shrine Board is headed by the Governor, who is an 'outsider', so are officials who are appointed to it. This was seen by many in the Valley as Delhi trying to gain a back door entry. The Hurriyat leaders even charged the government of attempting to alter the demographic character of the state -- an over- reaction.

It is also possible that people in the Valley found in the Amarnath issue an outlet for their disappointment over the peace process, which had created huge expectations but has not moved forward as it was meant to.

Those agitating in Jammu -- or Indore or Ujjain -- cannot understand why 40 hectares of land to the shrine board should agitate the Valley and are equating Amarnath with Haj subsidies.

The issue at the heart of the controversy was not really a religious one, as is being made out by some. It is not as if the Valley Muslims have tried to stop the Amaranth yatra. If anything, they have played a pivotal role in facilitating it.

This was an issue involving the federal principle. In a federal polity, and a diverse society like ours, different parts of the country have a right to decide how they want to conduct their affairs and fulfill their aspirations within an overarching national framework. Kashmir is a special case even within that federal entity, given its special history, the decades old alienation of the people, their suspicion of Delhi and its designs, given the mistakes that rulers have made in the handling the situation. That is why governments in Srinagar [Images], and in Delhi, have to move with great sensitivity, and foresight.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee took initiatives to ease the situation in J&K, Sonia Gandhi gave the chief ministership to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in the larger interest of the state, and Manmohan Singh [Images] took the dialogue process forward. But the recent events have come as a major setback to the process of normalisation in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the short run, the Amarnath controversy has underscored the need to set up an additional mechanism which politically monitors the situation in J&K on a daily basis, and sends early warning signals. The National Security Advisor has a hundred balls in the air. The home ministry has not come up to scratch, and we all know how quickly the situation can spin out of control. We can ill afford to jeopardise the gains made in J&K in the last decade.


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