Like Modi, Indira Gandhi, too, wanted to alter the status quo in the state almost 50 years ago.
After his government voided Article 370, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “a new age has begun in Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh”. In fact, the quest for a new beginning is not all that novel in the history of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
Indira Gandhi, too, wanted to alter the status quo in Kashmir.
In explaining its decision to abolish the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the Modi government has emphasised the developmental and political benefits that are expected to flow from these arrangements. These moves have indeed wrought a radical change in the constitutional relationship between the Indian Union and the erstwhile state of J&K. As we ponder how these arrangements will work out, it may be useful to look back to Indira Gandhi’s attempt at a new beginning.
“We will build a new Kashmir, quickly if you help, slowly if you don’t, but build it we will!” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had said while addressing a public rally in Srinagar in June 1970. Indeed, important changes were already underway.
Then J&K chief minister, GM Sadiq, had been in office since 1964. A year into his tenure, he had merged his splinter group, the Democratic National Conference, with the Congress. What’s more, Sadiq had enabled the erosion of the state’s special status by accepting more provisions of the Indian Constitution (including Article 356, which caters for President’s rule) and amending the state’s constitution to convert the elected Sadr-e-Riyasat into a governor appointed by the central government. Following assembly elections in 1967, Sadiq returned with a comfortable majority. New Delhi was poised to tighten its grip over the state.
Yet the government struggled to create jobs or promote investments in Kashmir. Sadiq noted that the educated young people of the state were increasingly drawn to the secessionist groups. Indira Gandhi deputed her confidante, IK Gujral, to mobilise investments in the state. But Gujral reported that industries were not prepared to invest in a conflict zone and the best he could do was to get two public sector units to open factories in the state.
The central challenge, however, was posed by the stalwart leader of Kashmiris: Sheikh Abdullah. Although Abdullah had been in and out of prison since his dismissal and arrest in 1953, his standing in the Kashmir Valley was unrivalled. Indira Gandhi understood the importance of co-opting Abdullah to ensure that New Delhi’s hold over Kashmir remained unshaken.
Among the inputs that shaped her thinking was advice from an unlikely quarter. Jayaprakash Narayan had been an advocate of self-determination for Kashmir, but had changed his mind after Pakistan’s aggression in 1965. The following year he wrote to Indira Gandhi arguing that Kashmiris could be enthused about autonomy within India if Abdullah advocated it. The Sheikh might have flirted with independence in the past, but now “he is realist enough to realise” that India would not part with any portion of Kashmir. To secure Kashmir, it was imperative to forge a new concord with Abdullah, who remained under arrest.
In October 1967, Gandhi tasked foreign secretary, TN Kaul, with reaching out to Abdullah in his “private” capacity. Kaul had known Abdullah for nearly four decades. In a series of meetings with the Sheikh, he probed the latter’s mind. Abdullah said that the “gradual whittling of Article 370 … was unfortunate”, but agreed that India’s interests should “not be harmed in any way”. At the same time, he noted that it was difficult to make the case for autonomy: “no fruitful dialogue was possible unless a free and congenial atmosphere was created in Kashmir …[Kashmiris] were not prepared to accept this master-slave relationship.”
When Kaul pointed out that New Delhi would not parley with anyone demanding self-determination, Abdullah retorted, “It was very strange … that while Government of India had no hesitation in talking to Nagas who were in open armed revolt against her they should refuse to meet the real representatives of the Kashmiri people.” In the event, Abdullah was open to meeting the prime minister when he was out of prison.
Abdullah was released in March 1968, but Indira Gandhi chose not to meet him. She evidently hoped that the Sheikh would reconcile himself to the new realities in Kashmir. She was not off the mark. In 1971, she returned to power with a massive majority and the next year, following the military defeat of Pakistan, the Congress won 57 out of the 74 seats in the J&K assembly elections. With Sadiq’s passing in December 1971, Syed Mir Qasim took over as chief minister. These dramatic developments left Abdullah with few cards to play.
Meanwhile, PN Haksar, the prime minister’s principal secretary, advised her that “it is imperative to make a fresh start and lead him [Abdullah] by hand on the difficult and tortuous road whose ultimate destination is reconciliation”.
Haksar also advocated a quiet dialogue between New Delhi and Abdullah to work out a model of autonomy acceptable to both sides. The ensuing negotiations between G Parthasarathi and MA Beg led to an agreement in November 1974. The accord paved the way for Abdullah’s return to power, but at the cost of further hollowing out the autonomy of J&K.
In February 1975, Abdullah took over as chief minister with the support of the Congress. To Abdullah’s surprise and consternation, these developments drew widespread criticism in the Valley. Thereafter, he sought to maintain a prudent distance from the Congress. When the latter suggested that the National Conference should merge with the Congress, Abdullah demurred. He also refused to take any suggestions from the Congress on the composition of his cabinet beyond agreeing to give them four berths. Lastly, Abdullah dug in his heels on seat sharing with the Congress in local body elections. By October 1976, an irate Indira Gandhi was telling Gujral that Abdullah had become “a pain in the neck”. Indeed, she was seriously contemplating removing him from office.
It was Indira Gandhi who was ousted from power in March 1977. The Congress withdrew its support to Abdullah’s government in J&K. Released from these ties, the Sheikh won a handsome victory in the assembly elections. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she had to make yet another new start in Kashmir — this time with more deleterious consequences.
The attempts during the Indira Gandhi years to create a new normal suggest that there are limits to the plasticity of politics in Kashmir. The challenge of fostering new leaders who cleave to New Delhi’s vision may be greater today. To be sure, the context now is very different. Yet we would do well to recall JP’s advice in his missive to Indira Gandhi:
“To think that we will eventually wear down the people and force them to accept at least passively the Union is to delude ourselves. That might conceivably have happened had Kashmir not been geographically located where it is. In its present location and with seething discontent among the people, it would never be left in peace by Pakistan … With the issue settled to the satisfaction of the great majority of the people, the external mischief-makers would not find a favourable soil for sowing their mischief.”