Kashmir: Rajnath stands by Article 35A, invites “all stakeholders” for dialogue
When Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh started speaking at the press conference at Hari Niwas in Srinagar on Monday, not only journalists but Kashmiris too were listening with rapt attention. And all that they wanted to hear was his opinion on Article 35A, which is currently facing a grave legal challenge in the Supreme Court. And Singh didn’t disappoint them, holding an assurance that the central government would do nothing that goes against the sentiments of people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Centre takes a stand
“We won’t do anything that goes against the wishes and sentiments of people of Kashmir. We will respect them,” Singh said. “There are no issues left that is why such issues are being raised,” he said.
However, Singh added that the government had not initiated the case nor had it gone to the court. At the same time, he had stopped short of revealing whether the government would defend the case when it again comes up for hearing in the court. So far, the central government had shied away from doing so. Instead Attorney General KK Venugopal told the court that the government wants a larger debate on the law, an observation that triggered alarm bells in Kashmir. Kashmir saw it as a signal that New Delhi was open to tinkering with the law, which enables state government to define state subject law and forbids outsiders from settling in the state.
Singh’s statement, however, was the first public assurance by any top central government functionary about the continuation of the Article 35A, albeit it was not as specific as Kashmir would have liked it to be. More so, after the state BJP delegation which earlier met the home minister had demanded the abrogation of the law as, according to them, it had been detrimental to the country and the interests of J&K. Also, BJP’s longstanding position on J&K has included the revocation of the Article 370 and the Article 35A as pre-requisites for complete integration of the state into Indian Union.
But with signals coming from New Delhi that the home minister will offer assurances on Article 35A, the ruling PDP had planned a grand rally on Sunday where Singh was expected to publically throw the Centre’s weight behind the law. But later the rally was called off. Incidentally, the decision was taken after the Opposition National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted that Singh would announce the Centre’s support for Article 35A. It is learnt that the BJP also had expressed reservations about the rally as publically dissociating from the legal challenge to state subject law would have gone against party’s formal position on the issue and hence it may open the party to criticism from its wider constituency in the country.
Vague call for dialogue
However, in his press conference the home minister only chose to talk about the law when his attention was drawn to it through a question. In his introduction, he chose rather to talk about a broad gamut of issues including the government’s willingness to talk to all stakeholders in the state to restore peace.
“I had meetings with a large number of civil society and political delegations. I am willing to talk to anyone. I am inviting everyone who is willing to help us in resolving problems of Kashmir,” he said. “I don’t want to leave anybody. I have already said that all stakeholders are welcome and anybody ready to talk to us is welcome”.
And when asked whether centre would extend a formal invitation to the separatists for a dialogue, Singh again didn’t give a specific reply but said that he was open to talk to all stakeholders for restoration of peace. There was no mention of Hurriyat by name.
"What is formal or informal? I have invited everyone,” he said. “I request everybody’s help to restore peace and understand the Prime Minister’s good intentions”.
However, such offers will have little resonance with the separatists who are loathe to be seen as one of the sundry stakeholders in Kashmir and consider themselves to be the sole representatives of the political aspirations of the people. Nor would a general and proforma offer of dialogue be sufficient for them to respond positively.
Rajnath’s ‘healing touch’?
Aside from Article 35A and the openness to talks, Singh had many other feel-good things to say, a perceived take-off from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reconciliatory noises about Kashmir in his Independence Day speech. The PM had said that Kashmir couldn’t be solved by “Goli” (bullets) and “Gali” (abuses) but by embracing the people of the state.
The home minister told the forces to exercise caution during their encounters with the militants and restrain from excessive use of force. Singh also said that he had asked the administration and forces to treat “misguided” Kashmiri children with compassion and not put them into jails.
“Such misguided children should be dealt with according to the juvenile justice system and not locked up in jails," he said. “They should be properly counseled and treated with compassion”.
The home minister said he had visited Kashmir five times since last year, the highest number of visits by any home minister in such a short time. “But for the peace in Kashmir even if it takes me to visit the state 50 times, I will happily do it,” he said. He was also given to the use of poetic language to describe the improving current situation in Valley.
“My own assessment is that the tree of peace has not dried up in Kashmir,” he said. “I could see some fresh green shoots are still visible on the tree”.
However, in Kashmir, the central government’s approach to Article 35A still remains the touchstone about the professed sincerity of its words. People now expect the words to be matched by the deed. And this sentiment was aptly articulated by Omar Abdullah in his tweets shortly after the Singh’s press Conference.
He termed the home minister’s assurance on the law “a very important statement”.
“His assurance will go a long way towards silencing the noises against 35-A,” Omar tweeted.
He continued in another tweet: “The Union government must now file a counter affidavit in the Supreme Court to defend 35-A. That is the way to carry this assurance forward”.