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Opinion | The Story of Ambedkar's Scepticism on Article 370 is Only Half Told

The method BR Ambedkar suggested for the partition of J&K was to carry out a plebiscite in Kashmir with the real possibility that Muslim-dominated Kashmir would leave India for Pakistan.

Soumyabrata Choudhury |

Updated:August 9, 2019, 12:43 PM IST
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Opinion | The Story of Ambedkar's Scepticism on Article 370 is Only Half Told
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Among the most prominent voices against Article 370 being recalled from the past, Dr BR Ambedkar’s is one. It is being circulated that Ambedkar refused to write that part of the Constitution and the burden shifted to N Gopalaswami Ayyangar. Dr BR Ambedkar differed with Sheikh Abdullah on the very rationale of this Article of the Indian Constitution.

We can possibly cite Dhananjay Keer’s biography which talks about the press conference by Ambedkar at Aurangabad, in 1953, where Ambedkar quite brusquely pointed out that it was unfair on the part of Kashmir to expect India to provide military and other necessary services to the state and yet decide not to merge with it.

Indeed, these are persuasive instances, which convey Ambedkar’s deep scepticism towards Article 370. However, the story of scepticism is only half told.

The more significant context that justified Ambedkar’s reaction lay in the question, did Article 370 or any such constitutional measure help in solving the problem of Kashmir?

His October 12, 1951 statement, where he announced his resignation from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet as the law minister can help us understand Ambedkar’s relationship with the very situation of Kashmir, and not one Article alone.

Apart from the issue of Hindu Code Bill, India’s policy on Kashmir played a large part in this announcement. Interestingly, for Ambedkar, this also had an implication for India’s bad foreign policy.

Ambedkar says that the solution to the Kashmir problem, which would also resolve the conflict with Pakistan, lay very clearly in the partition of Kashmir.

The method he suggests for the partition is to carry out a plebiscite in Kashmir with the real possibility that Muslim-dominated Kashmir would leave India for Pakistan.

However taboo a subject it might be today, the project of pulling Ambedkar on to one’s side on the Kashmir question must deal with his unequivocal support for self-determination in principle as well as his rigorous historical pursuit of the logic of partition to the very end including in Kashmir.

All this archival reference to Ambedkar’s views though don’t form the crux of the true Ambedkarite intervention in today’s situation. Ambedkar’s method was always to search for a valid principle to apply to any concrete situation or problem so as to try to solve or emancipate it.

In his 1951 statement, concerning Kashmir, he says the real matter of enquiry is not “who” is right in Kashmir, but “what” is right for it. The question of “what” is always the question of the principle to be applied to a concrete situation, which is the principle that is either nullified, rendered inoperative or seriously threatened by the forceful action. Can we relate it to the action undertaken by the government yesterday? To me, it seems that the principle concerned is the principle of Constitution itself. And to understand such a principle one must again go to the proper method laid down in Article 370 of how to abrogate it through a presidential order.

Everything is clearly laid down in this regard, abrogation cannot happen without consultation with the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The revocation of the Article 370 would be both unconstitutional and immoral in any other way. It must be emphasised that the above point is not a procedural matter merely. It is a matter of, in Ambedkar’s words again, what is “right” in a difficult historico-political situation.

To grasp what is right in a situation, we have to study its fundamental constitutive elements. The BJP government is coming up with the blithe theory being heartily consumed by much of the county that in the absence of an operational legislative assembly in J&K, it must be the Parliament of India that must play the role assigned in the Constitution to either the Constituent Assembly or the Legislature of the state.

This theory has a tremendous gravitational pull for most people as far as the image of national sovereignty embodied in Parliament is concerned. But the whole point of the Kashmir problem lies precisely in a division. To that extent, the people of Jammu and Kashmir were not considered historically “natural” to the initial constitutional compact of the Union of India.

This is precisely the intermediate and “unnatural” situation of Kashmir that Article 370 takes as a premise and someone like Ambedkar is impatient with what he considers to be ‘neither here, nor there’ approach to Kashmir. The BJP equally doesn’t like this ‘neither here, nor there’ situation. Instead of the Ambedkarite proposal, it seeks to naturalise the “unnatural” compact by sheer force of a declaration and fiat.

Nevertheless, Article 370, with all its intermediate and “temporary” status, actually embodies the historical constitution of the people of Jammu and Kashmir as a people not yet of India.

Hence, everything hinges on how one interprets the term “temporary”. Ambedkar, impatient with such a temporary status, spoke clearly of the partition and self-determination as a principled solution to this historical uncertainty. The BJP and its government, impatient with the endless continuation of a “temporary” article of the Constitution, simply decide to render it inoperative.

Their reason is the opposite of a principled one. For them, the impatient words amount to the following discourse (more or less what Amit Shah has been saying): “How long can ‘temporary’ continue? 70 years?” or “We live in a globalised world with one meaningful agenda, the aspiration to development. Why should Kashmir be deprived of such an aspiration?”

Such a discourse is a pure fait accompli acceptance of the world as it is imagined by the dominant part of the society. To this extent, the so-called people of Kashmir (or even J&K) must be smoothly, or coercively, naturalised into the dominant social imaginary.

And this domination found the most incontestable political legitimation when the BJP won the verdict it did in recent Lok Sabha elections. Pushed beyond a point, a hyper legitimate political majority strangely loses its political character which is based on historical contingency and changeability, and starts to appear as a fact and law of nature.

It is this force of the law of nature that the BJP today wants to impose in the name of the electoral majority that it has won. One name of this electorally produced majority can be called an “Indianist majority”.

In this sense, we could say that the ‘inoperativity’ that now grips Article 370 is the force of an Indianist majority applied to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The territory and the people of Jammu and Kashmir, from being a real problem of historical constitution, must now be subsumed by a permanent natural majority.

This is how BJP would like to defeat the frailty and uncertainty of history – by producing a new natural Indianist law based on a tremendous electoral verdict. The actions of August 5 testify to such a magical and coercive effect.

But the word “temporary” for the real historical people of J&K has surely meant something else. It has meant the actual ‘neither here, nor there’ status of the people.

This reality can’t be smoothly and coercively flattened out by either a militaristic central government unionisation of J&K (i.e. making it a Union Territory) or by imagining it as a corporate destination for the future of global capital, free to buy Kashmiri land under liberated Indian laws.

The project of liberating India from Article 370 and not merely ending the constitutional provisions applying to a state is indeed a long term politico-commercial project. But here and now, do the people of Jammu and Kashmir exist?

It is interesting that insofar as they were recognised to be temporary, historically unnatural, like ‘neither here, nor there’, they were still defined by these very traits as an actual people inhabiting a real territory.

The “not yet” character of such a people till now was a real test of whether the situation will essentially change and whether Jammu & Kashmir would one day be, in a sense, co-constituted with the rest of India in a durable, decent and just way such that indeed Article 370 wouldn’t be needed anymore. But, of course, like any test, the examinees might fail it.

The sad fact is that for the last 70 years, Congress-led governments have failed the test repeatedly, and today, the BJP has abolished the test itself.

So the question turns out to be as grim as the phrase being thrown about on social media in connection with the ending of Article 370, the phrase “final solution”: are the people of J&K abolished by the abolition of the test that Article 370 temporarily and continuously challenged the country with for the last 70 years?

The government’s wager supported by the heavy presence of military forces on the ground in Kashmir is that by overwhelming the situation of Jammu and Kashmir with its Indianist majority, the constitutive idea of a people of Jammu and Kashmir will be fundamentally broken.

The knot that has historically and tortuously knotted together the name “Kashmir” and the name “India” would be, once and for all, cut with just one of those two names effectively remaining. This is the wager.

The trouble is that even this terrifying game, which is heavily loaded in favour of one of the players, must be still played historically, and to that extent it must be played with real historical people.

Who is to say that once the inscrutable silence today on the streets of Srinagar and elsewhere gives way to the first murmurs, these murmurs wouldn’t recommence an earlier journey, an earlier utterance: “we are a historical people, not quite constituted, in search of a constitutive principle...”?

(The author is faculty in JNU, New Delhi. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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