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As Kashmiri leaders head to Delhi to meet PM Modi, what are their demands?

Formal Declarations Of The Gupkar Alliance Ask For Restoration Of Jammu And Kashmir’s Special Status. But Not Many Expect Its Leaders To Stand By This.

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On June 24, an all-party meeting of mainstream leaders from Jammu and Kashmir will be chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. The meeting is the first sign of the Centre’s outreach to the old political class in Jammu and Kashmir after it scrapped the erstwhile state’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian constitution in August 2019.

Last week, key mainstream leaders in Kashmir had confirmed to reporters that they had received a formal invite from the prime minister. This included senior leaders of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a conglomerate of older, regional political parties that have been demanding the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and special status under Article 370 of the Constitution.

On Tuesday, the leaders of the Gupkar Alliance met in Srinagar. Dr Farooq Abdullah, president of the National Conference who heads the alliance, told reporters that all leaders invited by New Delhi will attend the meeting with the prime minister. This includes his son, vice president of the National Conference Omar Abdullah, and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti. All three former chief ministers had been put behind bars by the union government in the wake of the unilateral dissolution of the erstwhile state’s nominal autonomy.

Among leaders of national political parties who have received the invitation and are expected to attend the meeting are Ghulam Nabi Azad, Tara Chand and GA Mir of the Congress, and MY Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In other regional parties, the Peoples Conference’s Sajad Gani Lone and Muzaffar Hussain Baig and Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party’s Altaf Bukhari are expected to join the meeting.

The Jammu region of the union territory will be represented by three senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, Ravinder Raina, Nirmal Singh and Kavinder Gupta. Besides, Professor Bhim Singh of Jammu-based National Panthers Party also stands invited to the meeting.

While there has been no official word about the agenda of the meeting, speculations about the restoration of statehood to the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and subsequent assembly elections have been rife.

Here is what the major political players invited to the meeting have publicly stated as their demands.

Gupkar Alliance: ‘Restore pre-August 5 status’

This will be for the first time since the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status that the leaders of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration will be talking to New Delhi one on one.

“We will seek something that is ours and will remain ours,” M Y Tarigami, the chief spokesman for the Gupkar Alliance told reporters in Srinagar following the alliance’s meeting on Tuesday to decide whether to accept Modi’s invitation for the June 24 meeting.

Tarigami was hinting towards the restoration of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian constitution. “We will put forth the aspirations of the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh in the meeting. Whatever is possible within the Indian constitution is what we are going to seek,” Tarigami added.

Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration was formalised as a conglomerate in October 2020 with at least seven political parties reiterating their commitment for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status prior to August 5, 2019. The official symbol of the alliance is the former flag of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The first Gupkar declaration had been made on the eve of the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. On August 4, 2019, all major parties in the erstwhile state had “resolved to remain together and stand united in their struggle for safeguarding the identity, autonomy, and special status of the State.” The second Gupkar Declaration, reiterating this goal, was signed on August 22, 2020: “We are committed to strive for the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A, the Constitution of J&K and the restoration of the State and any division of the State is unacceptable to us. We unanimously reiterate that there can be ‘nothing about us without us.’”

But the alliance has faced severe criticism, including from its own members, for not going beyond rhetoric. Its leaders have been criticised for being status quoists and for failing to come up with a roadmap to fight for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

The alliance won the largest number of seats in the elections held last December for the newly created district development councils, the third tier of local government in Kashmir. But for the next six months, the alliance leaders did not meet. The freeze ended on June 9 when they gathered at Mehbooba Mufti’s residence in Srinagar amid rumours of New Delhi planning “something big” in Jammu and Kashmir.

Congress: ‘Restoration of statehood’

On paper, the Indian National Congress has been a signatory to both the Gupkar Declarations. However, the national party has been marred by its ambivalence on the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. The only demand Congress has been clear about is the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir.

In August 2019, Congress had hit out at the Centre for doing away with the special constitutional provision for Jammu and Kashmir. But sensing the widespread support for the move across India, the party had fine-tuned its stand and said they were against the way the special status was abolished. It hasn’t demanded the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status since then.

During the District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir – the first electoral exercise in the union territory after August 2019 – the local Congress leadership dropped hints of “seat-sharing” arrangement with the Gupkar Alliance. However, the party had eventually stayed away from entering into any electoral alliance, contesting elections alone.

The party had also distanced itself from the Gupkar Alliance when it was attacked by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders over the comments made by Farooq Abdullah in which he had hoped that the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh would result in restoration of Article 370 and 35A. It had also faced heat for Mehbooba Mufti’s comments about not holding Indian tricolour until the Jammu and Kashmir flag is restored.

The ambivalence of Congress appears to be in place in the run-up to the meeting with the prime minister. On Tuesday, The Indian Express reported senior Congress leader and former J&K Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad stating that the restoration of “full statehood” will be “top of the agenda” during the meeting with Prime Minister Modi on June 24. The report said Azad remained non-committal whether the party would discuss the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status during the meeting.

Peoples Conference: ‘New social contract’

Led by former separatists-turned-mainstream politician Sajjad Gani Lone, Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference was part of the Gupkar Alliance till January this year. However, the party walked out of the alliance citing “breach of trust”.

After its exit from the Gupkar Alliance, the party has been mostly involved in growing its presence on ground and signing up new members to build the party. On Monday, the party held a meeting under the leadership of Lone in context of the all-parties meeting on June 24.

“The participants expressed their appreciation for the initiative of the Prime Minister and hoped that this engagement would evolve into something much bigger and facilitate return to democracy and empowerment of the people of J&K,” said Adnan Ashraf Mir, spokesperson of the party in a statement. “However, they also emphasised on the need for creative thinking to address the pain and suffering of the people of J&K and hoped that the engagement will be positive, decisive and result oriented.”

The party spokesperson said there was a need for “ a new social contract” between the people of Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi. “We believe that as political workers we are duty bound to facilitate movement towards restoration of democracy and empowerment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

The statement was silent on the restoration of statehood or the special status to the Jammu and Kashmir.

Apni Party: ‘Commencement of a political process’

The Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party is the only regional party which will not be meeting Prime Minister Modi for the first time since August 5, 2019.

Led by former Peoples Democratic Party leader Altaf Bukhari, the Apni Party is a new political party that has emerged from the ruins of the post-August 2019 situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In Kashmir, it is widely seen to have the Centre’s blessings as an instrument to give shape to a new kind of politics, the contours of which are set by New Delhi. The party had also attracted a significant number of former legislators, mostly from the Peoples Democratic Party.

But the experiment seems to be failing. During the development council elections held last year, the party had fielded 134 candidates across Jammu and Kashmir but won only 12 seats, nine of them in the Valley.

That is possibly because the party’s stand on the future of Jammu and Kashmir. The party believes the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status is not achievable. However, the party has been vocal in its demand for the restoration of statehood to Jammu and Kashmir. Of late, the party has been also raising the issue of local businessmen losing out to outsiders in the mining industry of Jammu and Kashmir.

“…the June 24th meeting will facilitate commencement of a political process in Jammu and Kashmir that will eventually pave the way for genuine empowerment of its people,” Rafi Ahmad Mir, General Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party said in a statement on Tuesday.

The party said it had “unanimously authorised its President Syed Mohammad Altaf Bukhari to represent the wishes and aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir in the All Party meeting called by the Prime Minister on June 24 in New Delhi.”

Ordinary Kashmiris view the meeting with cynicism

In Srinagar, the mood about the June 24 meeting is devoid of excitement. Very few ordinary Kashmiris are expecting any significant political change to come out of it.

“What unites all these parties, including BJP, is the demand for statehood,” said a political science student in one of the universities in Kashmir, who wanted to remain anonymous. He said the measure could be sold as a confidence building measure by New Delhi to ward off the international criticism over prolonging the Centre’s direct rule in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Gupkar Alliance can sell it as a beginning towards a larger victory, Congress too has been demanding the same. Once there is a state, elections will automatically take place,” the political science student explained further. “In a way, the arrangement works for everyone, including the BJP, because statehood has been already promised by them. There will be a state, there will be elections, but will they restore the special status?”