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Has Congress turned lukewarm to ‘Article 370’ in the Gupkar Declaration?

It was over a year after they signed the ‘Gupkar Declaration’—pledging a joint fight to safeguard Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status, Article 370 and 35-A—that the top leaders of six regional and one national party met at the National Conference (NC) patriarch Dr Farooq Abdullah’s residence in Srinagar on Thursday, October 15.

Ghulam Ahmad Mir, President of the J&K Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) was, however, conspicuously absent.

The Congress party was part and parcel of the Gupkar Declaration when it was signed on 4 August 2019. It was represented by the senior party leader and a former Minister, Taj Mohiuddin. According to some reports, Mir was absent due to a “medical emergency”. There was no explanation as to why Taj or any other JKPCC leader did not represent the party.

Late on the night of 14 October, Mir revealed to this journalist that Dr Abdullah had invited him for a meeting of the Gupkar Declaration signatories. “I told Farooq Sahab that I would try my best to reach Srinagar as I am supposed to attend a remembrance ceremony of our senior leader and former Minister Mohammad Sharief Niaz in Doda”, Mir said. He claimed that he was in Batote, on the way from Srinagar to Doda, in Jammu but did not mention any ‘medical emergency’.

JKPCC insiders later disclosed that Mir and other party leaders had chosen to be absent as there was “no green signal” from the Congress headquarters in New Delhi. According to one of them, the Congress high command was not comfortable with the phrases “Article 370 and 35-A” in the changing situation and ahead of the Assembly elections in Bihar.

“As long as the signatories use the euphemistic phrases like ‘restoration of the rights that have been snatched away in August 2019, we have no problem. But abrogation of Article 370 has become part of the national narrative and it would be imprudent for us to specifically emphasize it. It will only help our adversary—the BJP”, he asserted.

After his release from detention under the Public Safety Act, NC’s vice president and the former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is on record to have said that the Valley-based opposition amalgam had not been fully supported by any principal opposition party at the national level. According to him, some-odd statements had flowed in occasionally from former Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

The Congress top brass has been meticulously cautious in choosing its phrases while speaking about J&K’s conversion into two union territories and withdrawal of its special status. Even in the thick of the debate over Home Minister Amit Shah’s J&K Reorganisation Bill in August 2019, the Congress leaders had raised uproar over the Bill coming from the “unconstitutional route”, rather than categorically opposing the legislation. At one point of time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself challenged the Congress to make restoration of Article 370 as a part of its manifesto.

Notwithstanding their angry interviews to the media in the last two or three months, Dr Abdullah, as well as Omar, have euphemistically used the phrase “fight for our rights that were snatched away on 5 August 2019”. Only after the media grills them over the specifics, they say ‘Article 370’. This is in sharp contrast to the clarity shown in his tweets and statements by their junior party colleague, Aga Ruhullah. Aga has resigned as the party spokesperson and made it unambiguously clear that he would not contest any elections until restoration of the statehood and Article 370.

In a couple of interviews to local news agencies, even Omar sought to make it clear that he would not contest the elections until statehood, Article 370 and 35-A were restored.

However, in contrast to his past, after his release early this year, much of his activity on Twitter has been limited to retweeting. He has remained guarded about making statements like the video Mehbooba Mufti released early this week. While being harshly critical of the Centre’s J&K-related interventions in the last 14 months, Mehbooba sought “resolution of the Kashmir issue”. The establishment in New Delhi interprets it as the “Pakistani narrative”.

Significantly, NC lost no time to ‘clarify’ that Dr Abdullah had not sought any support from China in restoration of Article 370. In a television interview, Dr Abdullah had said that abrogation of Article 370 and creation of the UTs of J&K and Ladakh was “not acceptable to China”. He had gone on to add: “May, God willing, their might help our people to get back Article 370”. NC claimed that Dr Abdullah’s interview had been “misinterpreted”.

The meeting of the seven parties on Thursday—NC, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peoples Conference, CPI (M), Awami National Conference, J&K Peoples Movement and Peoples Democratic Front—decided to name their combination as 'Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration'. Dr Abdullah said, “We shall struggle for restoration of what was snatched from Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Ours is a constitutional battle. We want the Government of India to return to the people of the State the rights they held before August 5, 2019”.

The days to come, after the electioneering in Bihar, would make it clear whether the CPI (M) and the Congress would endorse the rhetorical statements of the Valley-based parties or distance from them for apprehension of possible reverses at the national level. Both, the NC’s founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as well as his successor Farooq Abdullah, have left behind some bitter experiences for their allies. Sheikh’s volte face from Plebiscite happened in 1974-75 while Abdullah ditched a larger national opposition alliance to form a coalition government with Rajiv Gandhi's Congress in 1986-87..