Centre throws door opento J&K election, statehood

NPrime Minister Narendra Modi met mainstream leaders from Jammu and Kashmir at a landmark meeting in Delhi on Thursday, signalling the start of political engagement in the Valley after two years despite lingering disagreement over key issues, including the restoration of the region’s special status.

Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah stressed on grassroots democracy and the importance of conducting elections in J&K, stating their commitment to restoring the region’s statehood, and urging mainstream leaders to participate in the ongoing delimitation exercise, a contentious process of redrawing poll constituencies.

“Our priority is to strengthen grassroots democracy in J&K. Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected government that gives strength to J&K’s development trajectory,” Modi tweeted shortly after the meeting.

Shah said the Union government was committed to the “all-round development” of J&K and brought up the promise of restoring statehood.

“The future of Jammu & Kashmir was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in Parliament,” he said, referring to his statement in the Lok Sabha in February this year.

The event was the first such outreach of the Union government since August 5, 2019, when it controversially voided Article 370 of the Constitution, which bestowed special status to the region, and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two Union territories. Prominent leaders were detained, all communications snapped and curfew-like restrictions imposed for months. But local sentiment remained bitterly opposed to the decision.

Thursday’s meeting was attended by 14 leaders from Jammu & Kashmir, including four former chief ministers and prominent members from the Opposition and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Everyone agreed that the talks happened in a cordial environment.

“The PM said that he wants to remove Dilli ki Doori [distance from Delhi] as well as Dil Ki Doori [distance from the heart,” said a person familiar with the happenings at the meeting who asked not to be named.

But politicians from the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — a five-party alliance of parties in Kashmir — indicated that crucial disagreements remained.

Former chief minister and National Conference (NC) leader Omar Abdullah said there was a loss of trust between J&K and the Centre, and it was the Union government’s duty to plug the breach. “We told PM that we don’t stand with what was done on August 5, 2019. We’re not ready to accept it. But we won’t take the law into our hands. We will fight this in court, and hope that we’ll get justice there,” he said. A batch of petitions challenging the effective abrogation of Article 370 are pending in the Supreme Court since 2019.

Abdullah also questioned the delimitation exercise, and said the NC is yet to decide if it will take part in the process.

Former chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti said she told the PM that the people of J&K didn’t accept how Article 370 was nullified “unconstitutionally, illegally, and immorally”.

“The people of J&K will struggle constitutionally, democratically, peacefully. Be it months or years, we will restore Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir as it is a matter of our identity. We did not get it from Pakistan, it was given to us by our country, by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel,” she said.

The all-party meeting appeared to have discussed four main issues: the delimitation exercise, which is currently being boycotted by NC and PDP; holding fresh elections in the state for the first time in seven years; restoring full statehood to the Union territory and development goals for the region. Reinstating Article 370 also came up.

At the meeting, Modi assured that the demand for full statehood will be met but Kashmiri politicians pushed for its restoration before new elections are held, said a person aware of developments.

The regional leaders were told that elections could not precede the delimitation exercise as the 2019 Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act laid down the conditions for carving out new constituencies for polls, said the person quoted above.

“The home minister explained why the process of delimitation has to be completed before elections can be scheduled,” said Congress leader and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Azad said the parties were assured that delimitation would be carried out after extensive consultation down to the panchayat level. There is concern in the Valley that the exercise will shift the balance of power from Kashmir to Jammu. In the current arrangement, Kashmir has 46 seats while Jammu has 37.

“The next important step in the democratic process in J-K is assembly polls and we have to move to it together. For this, the delimitation process will have to be completed swiftly…all parties participating in the meeting assured to be part of the delimitation process,” Union minister Jitendra Singh said.

The issue of restoration of special status was also discussed. “The parties themselves said the issue is pending in the Supreme Court,” said the person cited in the first instance.

On the issue of timing of assembly elections, the person quoted above said no time limit was set for the completion of delimitation and the commission has till March 2022 to wind up the exercise.

“It is unlikely that elections will be held by the end of the year as winter sets in and the process of conducting elections is not feasible. At the same time, it is unlikely that the polls will be coincided with the five-state elections in early 2022 as J&K requires additional security detail which may not be possible if there are elections scheduled elsewhere. But the final decision will rest with the election commission,” the person added.

The meeting – which happened after weeks of backchannel talks by national security adviser Ajit Doval and the home ministry — represented a sharp change in the central government’s policy and was seen as an effort to break the ice with regional parties and reset the political process in the UT.

Many of the other attendees hailed the event and said the PM expressed satisfaction with the acceleration of development in the region. “Our democracy’s biggest strength is the ability to sit across a table and exchange views. I told the leaders of J&K that it is the people, specially the youth who have to provide political leadership to J&K, and ensure their aspirations are duly fulfilled,” Modi said.

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