(Mr. Balraj Puri, 80, was born in Jammu city and attended the Ranbir High School and the Prince of Wales College in Jammu. He is a journalist, human rights activist and a writer who has been an eye witness to the turbulent history of the State. He has written 5 books, including the historical "5000 years of Kashmir" in 1997. He is the Convenor of the J&K State branch of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and the Director of the Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, based in Jammu.)
Azadi, Autonomy and Self-Rule Vs Freedom
Home Minister P Chimbmaran has offered to have a quiet dialogue with all parties in Kashmir including who are demanding. Azadi, Autonomy and Self-rule, the three main categories in which the politics of he valley is divided. But none has spelled out broad outlines of the constitutional system within the state which would ensure rights of the people if they succeed in their objective. The votaries of restoration of pre-1953 statues for the state, for instance, when Supreme Court’s jurisdiction did not extend to the state, must realize if Supreme Court’s jurisdiction extended to the state in 1953, Sheikh Abdullah count not be dismissed and arrested under any law in force at that time.
When Sheikh Abdullah, the most popular leader Kashmir ever produced, assumed power after the state’s accession to India and end of Dogra rule he hailed it as Azadi of Kashmir after four centuries of slavery, having been ruled by Mughal, Afghan, Sikh and Dogra rulers one after the other. People enthusiastically celebrated the Kashmiri rule, as if the Sheikh was their own king.
However, neither the ruler nor the people bothered about freedom. Azadi is Urdu translation of two concepts in English viz independence and freedom. The people and leaders of Kashmir who demand Azadi never bothered about freedom. After Sheikh Abdullah came to power no dissenting voice was tolerated. The system was so regimented that the office bearers of the ruling National Conference were appointed as government officers and vice versa. The Sheikh dismissed my suggestion that government officer should not hold any office in the party by citing how successful the system was working in the Soviet Union, then his ideal.
I showed a copy of an order by the Deputy Commissioner of Doda dismissing tehsil committee of Kishtwar National Conference and appointing a new committee to the Prime Minister Nehru. I asked “Can such a regimented state remain a part of a democratic India”? He disapproved the practice but added “Our entire Kashmir policy revolves around the personality of Sheikh Abdullah. We cannot afford to oppose him.”
Many international forces also played a role in aggravating differences between Nehru and the Sheikh, leading to dismissal and arrest of the latter in August 1953. I was one of the first persons outside the Valley to mobilize a campain against this action of the Government of India.
I also opposed the sweeping integration of the state with the rest of India during post Nehru phase which did offend popular sentiments in Kashmir. But I draw a distinction between two forms of central institutions. One that empower the executive authority. The other which are the autonomous institutions which act as a check on the executive authority of the centre and should act on undue encroachment in the affairs of the states and ensure rights of the people against repressive and undemocratic government of the state. Mere Azadi—independence, autonomy or self-rule from external power does not ensure freedom to the people. In fact local tyranny can be far worse than that of an outside power. particularly if the ruler happens to be far less popular and principled than Sheikh Abdullah was—which was a rare phenomenon in Kashmir.
Unfortunately the entire controversy over autonomy versus integration has been debated as Kashmir versus the nation. Let people of Kashmir debate and decide what is in their interest. They would not like, for instance, to be deprived of fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution of India and safeguards that autonomous federal institutions like the Supreme Court, Election Commission and Auditor and Comptroller General provide against interference by the centre. Even today the state has more autonomy than other states of India. But it has been used in a manner that its people have less rights than those in other states. In the rest of India, for instance, district authorities are required to report to the National Human Rights Commission any incident of custodial death within 24 hours. But people of the state have been denied this right.
The State Human Rights Commission is a poor substitute of the NHRC as it has no independent investigation agency and many vacancies in it, including that of chairman, have not been filled for the last many years. Its former chairman described it as a toothless tiger.
The State Women Commission is defunct for the last many years since the terms of its members expired.
Under Article 370 of the Constitution, 73rd and 74th amendment did not apply to the state with the result that Panchayati Raj does not exist in the state. The state did enact its own Panchayati Raj Act, which has not been implemented, and under which District Boards were to be headed by ministers—unlike in the rest of the country where they are elected. There was no provision for Block Committees and even at Panchayat level there were nominations. Same was the case with central Rights to Information Act which was enacted in 2005. The state only recently passed such an act, though it is yet to be implemented. There are many progressive laws passed by Parliament which are not applicable to the state, nor the state legislature has adopted them.
If the state gets independence, will its constitution provide for these institutions which ensure freedom to the people? The present system in the state has many undemocratic features. But independence or autonomy which would deprive people even the freedom or democratic rights they enjoy today may lead to an authoritarian regime, which will be much worse than we what have today. Any proposal for independence or autonomy is worth considering only if it enlarges freedom and democratic rights to the people.
Moreover, the Kashmiri leaders have to decide whether they are concerned with the future of the Valley or that of the whole State. For ensuring unity of the State, a federal decentralized system is a necessity. Why can’t the decision jointly announced by Nehru and Abdullah in July 1952 for granting Regional Autonomy as proposed by me and a similar decision by the State People’s Convention, convened by Sheikh Abdullah in 1968 as leader of the Plebiscite Front for an internal constitution of the state, drafted by me and unanimously approved by all the participants who included Plebiscite Front, Jamat-e-Islami, Mirwaiz Farooq’s Awami Action Committee, Karra’s People’s Conference and personalities like Maulana Massoodi, PN Bazaz and Shamim Ahmad Shamim, be implemented before demanding Azadi, Autonomy or Self-rule. These agreed proposals provided for regional autonomy and further devolution of power at district, block and panchayat levels and transfer power to the people instead of concentrating in the rulers at the state level.. This could be a basis for evolving a composite and harmonious personality of as diverse a state as J&K and the first step towards any decision on external status of the state.