By Nishit Dholabhai
New Delhi, Jun 3 : The Narendra Modi government’s eagerness to debate abrogation of Article 370 has sparked fears in the Northeast about the future of provisions bestowing special status on states in the region.
Minister of state for PMO Jitendra Singh had last week said there should be a debate on retention of Article 370 that grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The Udhampur MP indicated that the government would try to convince people that Article 370 had worked to the disadvantage of the state.
Article 370 was a concession given to Jammu and Kashmir at the time of the erstwhile kingdom’s accession to India. Under this provision, the Jammu and Kashmir legislature is empowered to make its laws under a separate constitution. The provision can be repealed only on the recommendation of the state Assembly.
While Singh touched on the sensitive topic to trigger a debate, it has resonated in distant Northeast where states like Sikkim, Nagaland and Mizoram enjoy special protection under the Constitution.
Nagaland is granted protection through Article 371A, Sikkim through Article 371F and Mizoram through Article 371G while Arunachal Pradesh is given special provisions under Article 371H.
If the BJP wants a debate on Article 370 and a uniform civil code, there is a threat perceived in the ethnically diverse Northeast.
“Anything that comes as a shadow or dark cloud is not welcome,” Lok Sabha MP from Sikkim, Prem Das Rai, told The Telegraph. He said the Sikkim Democratic Front has it enshrined in successive manifestos that the party would not allow Article 371F to be touched and it will be non-negotiable.
Some within the NDA, especially those from the Northeast, sense the danger of such a debate.
“People should be careful while talking about this,” said minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju when asked about Singh’s statement and its repercussions in the Northeast, hinting about probable reactions to the statement in the Northeast. Rijiju belongs to Arunachal Pradesh, which is covered by Article 371H, wherein the governor has special powers.
Rijiju tried to downplay Singh’s statement by saying that the issue should be seen in a “holistic way”. “It is not that a new government will open a new (Pandora’s) box,” he told The Telegraph.
However, there is growing suspicion in the club of representatives from the Northeast that Singh had not spoken out of turn. “Such things are not spoken, that too by a minister of state, without someone telling him to,” a non-BJP MP said.
Fears are also fanned by propaganda that smack of an agenda dear to the Sangh Parivar. An MP cited an article, Know about Article 370, circulating on social networking sites. It gives out “information” that apparently aims to “provoke” — “Disrespecting Indian flag and other national symbols is not a crime in J&K” or “Because of Article 370, no outsider (Indians) can purchase land in J&K”. It does not explain the conditions in which Article 370 was drafted or raises questions on how a Muslim-majority state decided to stay back with India.
Article 371A that relates to Nagaland grants concessions to the Nagas. Under the provision, no act of Parliament in respect to religion or special practices of Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure and administration of civil and criminal justice involving customary law decisions or ownership of land and its resources apply to Nagaland. Article 371G has the same provisions for the Mizos.
Singh tried to downplay it but the debate has been triggered. However, there is no word yet from the Sangh Parivar if it will be able to avoid the Kashmir yardstick for a debate on northeastern states. Like in Jammu and Kashmir, where people who are not residents of the state cannot buy land, so is the case in Nagaland. Members of ethnic groups not specified in the state’s list cannot buy land in the state except in Dimapur.
Sources close to former Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio said the state’s existence is based on the special provision and it cannot be challenged. “Even all these provisions have not been implemented,” one of them said.
Congress leader from Nagaland I. Imkong said the debate was completely unnecessary. He said if the debate was indeed on, it had to come from Kashmir and in case of Article 371A, from Nagaland. “It is premature for any political party to speak on it. It is a powder keg,” he said.
For the BJP, getting a uniform civil code is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertions during his election campaign. Modi had said in Jammu that Article 370 should be debated in order to find out if it really benefited people of the state. If the provision is discussed in public, fears are that the debate may turn to special provisions regarding the Northeast. Managing the Northeast and its small communities has been a complex challenge for the government.
Press Council of India chairperson Justice (retd) Markandey Katju today said he supports a uniform civil code. An MP from the Northeast said the larger debate could be all-encompassing and pose a threat to special provisions for the Northeast.
A uniform civil code refers to a common law that would replace personal laws of various religions. A Lok Sabha MP from a northeastern state said while this may be aimed at specific personal law, he apprehended wider ramifications with a potential to impact ethnic groups, including Christians.