When Narendra Modi called for a debate on 370, he was simply reiterating a demand made long back, it was not a dilution of any stated position, nor was it a display of opportunism, it was rather a demand for the assertion of India’s unity, says Dr Anirban Ganguly.
On July 24, 1952, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ended his long statement in the house on Kashmir and Article 370, N C Chatterjee, nationalist and veteran leader of the Hindu Mahasabha representing Hooghly in West Bengal, got up to remind Nehru that he had promised to hold a “full-dress debate on Kashmir.”
Chatterjee sought an assurance from the prime minister that he would fulfill his undertaking and the house would be given an “opportunity of discussing the matter through a full-dress debate.” Nehru, addressing the chair, replied that the government was prepared ‘for a full discussion’, and hoped that “members will be prepared to stay on here as long as necessary for this.”
It is therefore a trifle baffling to see Nehru’s political heirs finding the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate’s call for a national debate on Article 370 smacking of “political chicanery of the first order.” That there should be a thread-bare debate on this particularly unsettling provision in the Constitution is a demand which is as old as the Constitution itself! The fuming over it by the the Congress and a section of the Valley leadership thus reeks of a habitual penchant for political brigandage.
Despite his assurance to the House, Nehru made certain observations regarding Article 370 which perhaps require highlighting in the context of the current political debate over it. Referring to the provision of Article 370 Nehru described the ‘rather unusual provision’ as ‘temporary and transitional’ and put the onus of its conception on Sardar Patel, who he said “was all this time dealing with these matters.” Patel, it will be recalled, had been sidelined entirely by Nehru in matters relating to Kashmir.
Ironically, since Nehru felt that he understood Kashmir best, he had divested the ministry of states from this responsibility. The sad history of this snatching is well documented. The legendary M V Kamath once remembered how Sardar, “with a ring of sadness in his voice” had told him that “if Jawaharlal & Gopalswami Ayyangar had not made Kashmir their close preserve, separating it from my portfolio of home and states, he would have tackled the issue as purposefully as he had already done the Hyderabad problem.”
For the sake of unity and stability in the government, Sardar, even though he wanted the state of Jammu & Kashmir to be fully integrated with the Union, came to the rescue of a beleaguered Nehru who, then touring abroad, had beseeched his help. When pressed by V Shankar, his private secretary who was highly dejected to witness the acceptance of the provision, Sardar, in his characteristic style observed, pointing at its transitory nature, that after all, neither Sheikh Abdullah nor Gopalaswamy [were] permanent and the future would depend on the “strength and guts of the Indian Government” and “if we cannot have confidence in our own strength we do not deserve to exist as a nation.”
Nehru of course failed to display such a confidence, as N V Gadgil, the first Union minister for works, mines and power and one who supported Sardar in some of his most difficult and crucial national decisions observed later, “I always pressed him [Nehru] to take a firm stand in regard to Kashmir at some point and said we were all behind him…Nehru used to say that politics should always be flexible. I used to tell him that if he did not take a firm stand somewhere, he would get no time to even admit his mistakes.”
Nehru’s reference in the Lok Sabha to Sardar Patel being the architect of Article 370 even shook the usually unruffled Gopalaswamy who saw it as an “ill-return to Sardar for the magnanimity he had shown on accepting Panditji’s point of view [on 370] against his better judgement.”
Of course any debate or discussion on Article 370 can never be complete without reference to the one who laid down his life in the attempt to abolish it. Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, while participating in a debate on the issue on June 26, 1952 dissected in some detail the provision. Some of the points Mookerjee raised continue to be part of the debate today. Some of it was indeed movingly true, reflecting the voice of a patriot with India’s unity and interest at heart.
Referring to Sheikh Abdullah’s comment regarding the Union flag, “Oh, of course, we will recognise” it, Mookerjee commented that there was no “question of his recognising the Union flag. The Union flag is there in spite of anybody, and that is the flag of free India.” To Abdullah’s other comment that “we will treat both flags equally”, Mookerjee replied, “You cannot do it. It is not a question of fifty, fifty. It is not a question of parity. It is the question of one flag for the whole of India, India that includes Kashmir.”
They could keep the flag for the National Conference in Kashmir, argued Mookerjee, “but when you work as the government, no matter where you function, only one flag can fly and that is the flag of the free country, free India.”
At the end of it all, at the end of his lengthy exposition of the ills of a provision that encouraged separatism, Mookerjee, labeled too often by Nehru and his political descendants as a “communalist” and “reactionary”, called for a discussion, for a sort of debate, “I have one constructive suggestion to make. Persuade Sheikh Abdullah and let us all come to a private conference. Let us discuss the whole question. We are anxious that Jammu and Kashmir should come to India just as any other state has come. Let us know what special precautions he wants. But let him say that the people of Jammu and Kashmir are Indians first and Kashmiris next…” The language was hardly that of a “reactionary.”
When Narendra Modi thus called for a debate on 370, he was simply reiterating a demand made long back, it was not a dilution of any stated position, nor was it a display of opportunism, it was rather a demand for the assertion of India’s unity, it was essentially an “expression of confidence in our own strength to exist as a nation.”
Dr Anirban Ganguly is director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi.