Succumbing to coalition compulsions, the Mufti-led government in Jammu and Kashmir has ruled out Hill Council status for Poonch and Rajouri, a strong demand since the early nineties in what is commonly known as the Pir Panjal region. Statements of intent notwithstanding, successive governments have been unable to address the demand because of opposition from communal forces. Dr. Farooq Abdullah could not do it, and neither could Mufti Muhammad Sayeed in his previous tenure. Despite hailing from the Jammu region, and therefore supposedly familiar with its problems and aspirations, Ghulam Nabi Azad was expected to fare better, but didn’t, and Omar Abdullah, who had promised much, on several fronts, has also failed to deliver.
The demand was a test case for the ‘unity of state’ argument Mr Sayeed proffered for a tie-up with the BJP (which had swept the Jammu region in the latest assembly elections), and an opportunity for the coalition government he now heads to demonstrate its good faith vis a vis regional aspirations, but certain (did anyone say communal?) forces have prevailed once again, and the proposal has been consigned to cold storage.
Quarters that have always been dead set against Hill Councils in the Pir Panjal region were surprisingly silent when the status was conferred on Leh-Ladakh. In fact, regional autonomy, a demand across the state, was a process purported to have begun with Leh, and should not be now held hostage to appease forces which have polarized the state beyond repair. Interestingly, Ladakh has a population of just a few lakh, less than the combined populations of the Batmaloo and Rainawari areas of Srinagar.
The state’s political dispensation needs to dispel the groundless notion that demands for Hill Councils in the Pir Panjal region are aimed at changing its demographic composition. If and when such bodies are created, they would benefit the region’s entire population, not just one particular community. And the demand should not be construed as an attempt to divide the Jammu region, or resisted because of baseless apprehensions voiced by certain sections. The demand for a hill council should not be resisted because of unfounded apprehensions of some quarters.
If anything, the Hill Council demand hits hard at the self-serving concept of Jammu Pradesh, and could do more to preserve the state’s unity than decisions taken on the unreliable basis of head-counts. Communalist opposition to Hill Councils in the Pir Panjal must serve as an eye-opener for Mr Sayeed who insists that people have vested hopes in him through a democratic process. The Chief Minister ought not to belie such hopes for the exigencies of staying in power.