May it be said that the composite state of Jammu and Kashmir, as we knew it until yesterday, was the product of certain accidents of history. The conjoining together of the southern Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley itself was result of the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar signed between the British and the Dogra ruler, Maharaja Gulab Singh. It was the conquest of Ladakh by Gen. Zorawar Singh that made this Himalayan upland— also known as ‘Little Tibet’ for its predominantly Buddhist ambience—part of the Dogra kingdom. The geography of the Jammu and Kashmir State so created was partly altered when its three distinct constituents were restructured into new two Union Territories on October 31, 2019.
For the people of Ladakh, changing the status of being a minor constituent of a State to that of a Union Territory has come as an answer to their long-standing prayers. The Ladakhis demand for turning this high Himalayan part of the erstwhile J&K State into a Union Territory goes back by at least half a century. Way back in the early 1970s, Lama Lobzang was among the Buddhist leaders of Ladakh who had articulated the Ladakhis preference for direct Central rule by turning the region into a Union Territory. That, in the opinion of many Ladakhis, was the solution to the region’s problems of under-development. In their view, Ladakh had long been treated as a backwater of J&K by those holding the reins of power in Srinagar. As such, it had not been allowed to express its distinct cultural identity and realize its full economic potential. It is not surprising, therefore, that carving Ladakh into a Union Territory was received with much festivities and celebrations in Leh and elsewhere across the region.
The people of Jammu, on the other hand, have welcomed their new position of being part of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir as a historical necessity. In fact, the demand for closer integration of the State and the Union was first raised in Jammu way back in the early fifties. The ‘Ek Nishan, Ek Pradhan’ movement then led by the Jammu-based Praja Parishad party was partly an expression of the same sentiment.
However, the decision to restructure Jammu and Kashmir as a new Union Territory was resented by a miniscule sections of the Valley, who were known as the “privileged class”. Their grouse arises from losing privileges and access to high places. The Kashmir Valley will now enjoy proper use of development funds. Large scale administrative corruption that had resulted, will also be checked. Most importantly, the protection enjoyed by the separatist elements under the local political dispensation has come to an end. The still larger problem of spread of radicalism would be countered in an effective manner. Trans-border terrorism need to be addressed with an iron hand. Especially as, cross-border terrorism and radicalism have often acting in tandem and hurt the youth of J&K.
It is significant, that Union Home Minister Amit Shah has reiterated that the central government remains open to Jammu and Kashmir reverting to its earlier status as a State of the Union when the circumstances so warrant in the future. In saying so, the Centre has underlined that its primary purpose in making the changes was not to deprive Kashmir of its autonomy, as had been alleged by some, but to tackle certain security and related challenges that the Valley has been faced with.
That also yields some clue to the government’s intent in making these changes. What the Centre seems to suggest is that once the challenges posed by the rise of religious radicalism and trans-border terrorism have been tackled and peace and equanimity restored, the Centre would be open to restoring the Statehood to Jammu and Kashmir.
Having said that, one cannot fail to miss the symbolism of the fact that the twin Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh came into existence yesterday, while the nation was celebrating the 144th birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The ‘Iron Man’ who had almost singlehandedly created the Union that is India, seven decades earlier.
Script: M. K. Tikku, Political Commentator