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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: The danger with deadly uniformity

Abrogating Article 370 that grants special autonomous status to J&K is not a sound idea

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

George Wallace, the Alabama governor was segregationist ("Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever") but not secessionist. He comes to mind now amid the controversy over Article 370 because when I called on him many years ago in Montgomery (he gave me a pair of cufflinks with the gubernatorial seal), Alabama's distinctive flag stood behind him flanked by the old Confederacy standard and the Stars and Stripes.

In India, Jammu and Kashmir alone flies its own flag. It's one of the state's few remaining privileges that some want to snatch away under the pretext that the answer to all problems lies in a deadly uniformity. Abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, flood Kashmir with settlers from all over the country, let them erect shoddy little places of worship at every street corner and jabber away only in Hindi, and all will be well in India that is Bharat.

That was Russia's brutal way of suppressing the Cossacks. It is China's prescription for Tibet. Narendra Modi accuses Pakistan of behaving exactly like that in Balochistan and "Azad Kashmir". It is not conduct befitting a mature democracy that respects ethical values and its own solemn commitments, and wishes to strengthen the unity in diversity that was Jawaharlal Nehru's pride.

Some claim the special provisions of Article 370 are now obsolete. No law of the land ever becomes obsolete. Otherwise, obscurantist British imperialists might say the Indian Independence Act, 1947, is dated and should be repealed. Neither India's nor Indira Gandhi's prestige was enhanced when the government unilaterally and arbitrarily repudiated its constitutional obligations to the princes.

"Article 370 of our hallowed Constitution" should not be tampered with because it is "the legal glue which binds J&K to India", says retired Lt Gen Kamal Davar, first chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency, with operational experience of the state, in The Quint. Manoj Mohanka takes the argument farther in the same forum with the plea that only "more autonomy for each and every state of India including Jammu and Kashmir" can ensure "genuine autonomy in a truly federal India without power being concentrated in the Centre".

Let states have their own flags and even anthems, he says. Let them exalt chief ministers into premiers, as they were once styled. Let states be broken into smaller units for better administration. Providing there are safeguards regarding free movement, property purchase, etc, none of this will damage or destroy the idea of India, Mohanka argues.

He might have added that even tiny Britain admits constitutional variety. The Isle of Man, ruled formerly by Norway and Scotland, flaunts its own parliament and flag. The Channel Islands are not in the United Kingdom.

Wider application of Article 370 might realise Dr B R Ambedkar's vision of a Constitution that is unitary or federal depending on needs in a flexible dispensation that guarantees the full self-expression of states. That dream seemed to come alive in 2004 when Manmohan Singh quoted Sinnappa Arasaratnam's Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century to stress India's gain from the autonomy of littoral states "with little interference from groups that would not have understood the needs and demands of the predominant activity of commerce". Only "mutually beneficial business links" between coastal states and South-East Asia could substantiate the Look East policy and "give shape to the idea of an Asian Century".

Yet, an initiative by Kerala's industries minister, P K Kunhalikutty, to station an official in Singapore "to woo investors throughout the Asean region" was killed 11 years earlier. Thiruvananthapuram was suspected of getting above itself. Imagine the horrified outrage if Mehbooba Mufti proposed an office in Dubai. Australian and Canadian states have long pursued their business interests in foreign capitals. Western Australia runs an office in Mumbai. Kunming seeks similar links with Kolkata.

But the very notion alarms Indian ultra-nationalists who cannot accept a rich diversity that defies regimented definition. Diehard politicians refuse to believe that all Indians cannot be forced into the straitjacket of a single culture.

I was in Madras in 1967 when the Constitution was amended to make secession illegal. "New Delhi must be very lacking in self-confidence to need such a law," V R Nedunchezhiyan, who acted briefly as Tamil Nadu's chief minister, told me contemptuously, promising his DMK would not abandon its demand for independence. The DMK has since been won over by more civilised methods. So can the rest of India if only we have a regime at the Centre that believes in democratic self-government at all levels instead of continually parodying top-down colonial rule.

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First Published: Fri, August 19 2016. 21:45 IST