For someone acclaimed as Bharatiya Janta Party’s ‘Chanakya’, who drove the party to a historic landslide victory in the 2019 Parliament elections, getting the crucial assignment to head the Home Ministry was supposed to be the next big challenge.
But for Amit Shah, his Chanakya-neeti as the country’s Home Minister seems to have worked out even better.
If well-begun is half-done, Shah looks already halfway through — at least with regard to how politics in Kashmir has changed since the day he assumed office on June 1, 2019.
From mainstream to separatist camps, some of the most vociferous faces have transformed.
The winds of change started blowing from the historic Jamia Masjid, Nowhatta in Srinagar — otherwise seen as the hotbed of the “Azadi” sentiment. Addressing devotees from the mosque's pulpit, Kashmir’s head parson and senior separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, now dedicates his Friday sermons mainly to social and environmental issues.
On June 15, 2019, addressing the Jamia gathering, the Mirwaiz, who heads the Hurriyat (M), highlighted how people and government were responsible for frequent threats of flooding in Kashmir. The next Friday, he dedicated his weekly sermon to highlighting drug abuse.
As per the national media, this change is now perceptible across all such mosques in the restive region.
“Kashmir mosques that blared ‘Azadi’ slogans will now launch a war on drugs” read the headline of a Hindustan Times report published on July 3, 2019. “Mosques across the Kashmir Valley, which blared slogans for “Azadi” (independence) in the early nineties, amplifying a separatist movement, will soon be using their loudspeakers to spread a message against the use of drugs, rapidly becoming a huge problem in the state of Jammu & Kashmir,” the report said.
While Mirwaiz was already seen as a moderate face of separatism, even his hardliner counterpart from the Hurriyat (G), Syed Ali Geelani, now sounds a bit soft.
It was for the first time in the last 30-odd years of militancy, that when the Home Minister made his maiden visit to Kashmir on June 26, 2019, there was no strike call from Geelani or his colleagues. In another significant development, separatist leaders have joined hands with Kashmiri Pandits to find ways to facilitate the latter’s return to the homeland. As per a news report published in India Today on July 6, 2019, “This is the first such effort in 30 years after thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were forced to flee the state after facing widespread violence.”
Keeping the situation under control on July 8, 2019 — the death anniversary of Hizbul Commander Burhan Muzafar Wani — was supposed to be another challenge. However, as compared to last year, Burhan’s death anniversary this year passed off peacefully, and the public response to a hartal call was debatable.
As per news reports, despite a customary hartal call, traffic jams were witnessed on the Boulevard as many used the strike as an opportunity to visit the Mughal Gardens and Dal Lake.
This time, even social media wasn’t that provocative.
Otherwise, on Burhan’s second anniversary, the separatists had tweeted this:
The change in regional mainstream parties is similarly palpable.
The National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — who had otherwise championed the “Kashmir cause” — have gone for posturing. Out of power, the Abdullahs and Muftis would usually sound no different from separatists. But now, the ‘pampered dynasts' seem to be behaving more responsibly.
During the previous ban on civilian movement on the national highway after the Pulwama suicide bombing on February 14, both the Abdullahs and the Muftis had personally led roadside protests to publicly defy the curbs, bravely asking people to do the same.
For the security of the Amarnath Yatra, a similar ban is again in place. However, this time, the senior leaders from both parties have refrained from taking the law in their hands.
Instead of the NC and PDP, this time, such roadside protests have mainly been organised by the Peoples United Front (PUF), an alliance between Engineer Rashid’s Awami Etihad Party (AEP) and Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Movement (JKPM), led by Shah Faesal.
But then, it is no more of the traditional anti-India ranting by Engineer Rashid. His protests have reduced to serenading demonstrations — he either walks barefoot outside the Civil Secretariat or brings along drummers, who play the dhol.
Such musical demonstrations are constant reminders of a scene from the Shahrukh Khan-starrer Mohabattein wherein Shahrukh Khan’s character, Raj Aryan, protests by singing the song “Duniya Mein Jitni Hain Nafratein”.
For around a month, Omar Abdullah’s tweets are more on issues like his cabin baggage and pictures of blooming flowers in Gulmarg than the “Kashmir-issue”. His firebrand colleagues also sound equally softened.
Controversial NC leader and former Speaker of the J&K Assembly, Muhammad Akbar Lone, who won the Baramulla Parliament seat, is yet to stoke any new controversy. Known for his reportedly controversial statements previously, especially an appreciation for Pakistan and use of abusive language, Lone is largely silent in Parliament.
Forget politicians, even the Srinagar-based media houses have reformed.
Previously, a section of influential newspapers would use phrases like “government forces” and “troopers”. Now, they have switched to “security forces”.
But then, though for Amit Shah, it is a well-begun moment, it is only a halfway point.
The other half is an altogether different story.
And that half is not about politicians pampered by New Delhi and Islamabad to be beneficiaries of the Kashmir conflict — the other half is about the Kashmiri youth, who either pick up guns or take to the streets.
And the dissent of this youth matters.
On the one hand, the killing of the poster-boy of new-age militancy, Burhan Wani, led to months of unrest in the state and prompted New Delhi to appoint Dineshwar Sharma as Interlocutor. On the other, on February 14, 2019, a 20-year-old lesser-known local militant, Adil Dar, pushed India and Pakistan to a nuclear flashpoint through his suicide bombing in Pulwama.
Since killing the militants has failed to kill militancy, Shah’s Chanakya neeti is expected to be beyond Operation All Out.
And then, in a state where 70 years of corruption — allegedly fueled by the regional dynasts — has been among the reasons for alienation, things haven’t improved much during the last one year of Governor's Rule either.
On June 12, 2019, Raj Bhawan called an interaction with accredited journalists. I was one of the invitees. Five of the 10-odd questions were on complaints of rampant corruption, prevalent during the Governor’s rule, with the Raj Bhawan unable to give convincing replies.
So, though halfway there, Shah has bigger challenges ahead. But then, there is hope.
And this hope is strengthened by his historic speech on Kashmir in Parliament on June 28, 2019.
Shah said that taking the people of Jammu and Kashmir into confidence was the top priority of the Modi government “even if it means giving more.”
Call him a new-age Chanakya or Sardar Patel’s avatar, the strongman who brought perceptible change in Kashmir in just a month is expected to perform even better hereon.
All the best, Amit Shah!