Rahul Gandhi vows to restore Kashmiri statehood in ‘Unite India March’ campaign

NEW DELHI (Agencies): Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi vowed on Tuesday to restore the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, as his Congress party’s long march reached the Muslim-majority region that in 2019 was stripped of its special autonomy.

Gandhi’s campaign, Bharat Jodo Yatra, or Unite India March, went from the country’s southernmost tip in Tamil Nadu to its mountainous north. It entered Kashmiri territory last week.

The region lost its statehood when the Indian government revoked on Aug. 5, 2019, its special autonomous status, and split it into two federally governed territories, promising security and reform.

The abrogation was followed by a total communications blackout, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, detention of hundreds of local political leaders, and dissolution of its assemblies.

“Jammu and Kashmir should get statehood as soon as possible and your assembly should start functioning and the democratic system in the state should again become vibrant,” Gandhi said in a press conference in Jammu.

He did not make a clear statement, however, on the restoration of the region’s autonomy, which was granted by Article 370 of the constitution that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had unilaterally scrapped.

Article 370 had governed for seven decades India’s complex relationship with Jammu and Kashmir — part of the larger Kashmir region and since 1947 subject of international dispute after the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Gandhi’s lack of clarity has produced mixed reactions in Kashmir.

“Gandhi has not taken a bold stand on the restoration of Article 370 … he is not saying that he would restore the constitutional autonomy,” Altaf Hussain, analyst and journalist from Kashmir’s main city, Srinagar, told Arab News.

“Article 370 was a solemn agreement between India and the erstwhile king of Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi promised to protect the internal sovereignty and that has been unilaterally taken away. There is anger in Kashmir.”

Gandhi’s long march will end when he reaches Srinagar next week. The 52-year-old politician, whose family has been the face of Congress for decades, has already covered about 3,300 km so far, walking with hundreds of others from his party, celebrities and civil society members.

Congress is hoping that the crowds Gandhi is attracting will eventually translate into votes in next year’s general election. The party, which spearheaded India’s anti-colonial struggle, has been on the margins of Indian politics since the rise of Modi’s nationalist BJP in 2014.

For Prof. Siddiq Wahid, Kashmiri historian and political commentator, the very fact that Gandhi has arrived in Kashmir and spoke about the restoration of its statehood was already significant.

“After Aug. 5, 2019, this is the first time an Indian politician has shown the courage of conviction in the face of a government that neither consulted the Congress party nor its own parliament about an act that represents a constitutional contradiction,” he told Arab News.

“It is a reason for hope that at least the Congress party is showing signs of being in a dialogic mood with the people of the former Jammu and Kashmir. In the present circumstances, that is significant progress.”