The Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are locked in a particularly acrimonious debate after former Union minister P. Chidambaram pitched for greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir.
The word has clearly spooked the party. A barrage of verbal reprimands poured forth from senior government leaders, including the PM himself, criticizing Chidambaram for raising the unholy 'A' word at an interaction in Rajkot, that they said translated to 'azaadi' or independence.
Modi said Congress is "speaking the language used in Pakistan".
"The mother who lost her son and the sister who lost her brother and the children of soldiers who fought to protect Kashmir are asking questions and the Congress shamelessly uses the language of the separatists in Kashmir and the language used in Pakistan."
He went on to say, as reported by the Indian Express, that, "Those in power until yesterday have suddenly taken a U-turn and are shamelessly raising their voice for autonomy in Kashmir. Those doing politics over the lives of martyrs cannot be expected to develop India. They have no shame in doing this. The Congress must give an answer for this."
On cue, BJP's IT cell in-charge Amit Malviya hit Twitter with this comment:
Congress now advocates Azadi for Kashmir! pic.twitter.com/BFUYgTjGKl— Amit Malviya (@malviyamit) October 28, 2017
Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani too called the comment "disgusting". "I think it is quite shocking and disgusting that P Chidambaram today speaks about breaking the Union of India into pieces," she said.
"The position the Congress has taken with regard to 'azaadi' or autonomy to be given to Jammu and Kashmir, goes directly contrary to India's national interest," Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said.
This is what Chidambaram had said: "The demand in the Kashmir Valley is to respect in letter and spirit Article 370. And that means that they want greater autonomy. My interactions in Jammu and Kashmir led me to the conclusion that when they ask for azadi, most people — I am not saying all — an overwhelming majority want autonomy. Therefore, I think we should seriously examine that question and consider on what areas we can give autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir."
The fact is, autonomy is a sensitive word for political rulers in Delhi. On social media, siding with those who want self-rule is enough to get one labelled as an anti-national. Stating, like Union minister Jitendra Singh did, that "there is no such thing as the Kashmir issue", is living in a state of denial. There is a reason why the central government has appointed a new interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma, for the troubled state with the mandate for holding "sustained dialogue" with stakeholders.
In fact the government's own representative is open to talks with separatists, according to this report.
As a former minister told the Telegraph: "If autonomy is not to be mentioned, what will the interlocutor discuss, the weather?"
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah reacted strongly to the bashing Chidambaram took after his comment.
"If seeking autonomy under Indian Constitution is anti-national, then we are ready to be branded anti-national."
"Yesterday Chidambaram shared his experiences on J&K regarding autonomy but union ministers attacked him and said anyone who talks about autonomy within the country is also anti-national. If seeking autonomy under Indian Constitution is anti-national, then we are ready to be branded anti-national," said Abdullah. Article 370 of the constitution gives autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir.
A Union minister, who was not named, told The Telegraph that "The autonomy question is embedded in the accession treaty and Article 370, and has survived accords between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah and Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah. It is settled that devolution of power will happen within the constitutional framework."
But for the moment this controversy has come as a useful tool in the hands of the BJP to castigate Congress and whip up national fervour by raising the issue of patriotism and soldiers again, ahead of a key state poll.