What the Modi government must do to win hearts and bridge the trust deficit in Kashmir
India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about the major milestones the government has to navigate as it charts a future course for Jammu and Kashmir, in the July 26, 2021 edition of the India Today Magazine.
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Jammu and Kashmir, it can be safely said, is never out of the headlines. Nearly two years after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A reset the entire discourse, ending J&K’s special status and making it a Union territory, the region is back in the news. The June 24 meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and J&K’s political parties signalled a resumption of the stalled political process. The PM gave all the parties a patient hearing but promised nothing. Five of the parties are part of the ‘Gupkar alliance’ that had issued a joint declaration in 2019 opposing the abrogation of Article 370.
The restitution of that Article seems a closed chapter for now. The calls for Azadi have been silenced. The government has proposed a sequence of events in the next few months—a new delimitation of assembly seats in J&K, followed by assembly elections and, finally, restoration of statehood. Internet and 4G connectivity were restored this February, ending an unprecedented 18-month clampdown. All political detainees have been freed. There are no mass protests of the kind seen after the death of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in 2016.
India Today Magazine July 26, 2021 cover, ‘The Promise and the Peril’.
The terrorist threat appears to be under control. Security forces are proactive and have upped their intelligence network. Last year, 232 terrorists were killed, the second-highest number after the resurgence of violence in 2016. Pakistan is preoccupied with events in Afghanistan and dodging the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist for not curbing terrorism.
Yet, the calm in the Valley is deceptive, because anger and sullenness over the loss of statehood still simmer below the surface. Kashmiris feel they are being denied respect and trust. It is echoed by political leaders like Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar, for whom restoration of full statehood is the test of trust. The removal of Article 35A, which gave only permanent residents of J&K the right to buy property, has triggered fears that outsiders will now take over their land and jobs. The government needs to assure them that this will not happen.
J&K’s biggest worries, however, are unemployment and underdevelopment. It has been a perennial problem—despite generous grants from the Centre over the decades, there has been little improvement in Kashmir’s development status. A large part of the blame lies with the corruption and incompetence of the political families that have ruled Kashmir for seven decades. Being a border state, vulnerable to foreign infiltration and internal unrest, the private sector has been reluctant to invest. Tourism, too, has dried up over the years over safety fears.
Kashmir has a huge youth bulge — over 70 per cent of its 12.5 million population is under 35. The endemic unemployment has bred tremendous anger and frustration. Development is the key to luring the youth away from violence. When it abrogated statehood, the government promised development, transformation and investments. Barring an acceleration in public infrastructure construction, this is yet to happen because of the pandemic and the global economic downturn. The government has boosted its spending for the region. This year, Parliament passed a Rs 1.08 lakh crore budget for the Union territory. On a ratio of population to funds, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha says, “it is 7 or 8 times more than that of UP and Bihar”.
‘The Promise and the Peril’ is our 29th cover story on J&K in 45 years. We look at the major milestones the government has to navigate as it charts a future course for J&K. The first is delimitation, where the Centre wants to increase constituencies commensurate with population growth. Kashmiris fear this is an excuse to give the Hindu-dominated Jammu region more seats. It is, therefore, important that the exercise, which begins next year, is transparent. The conduct of free and fair elections the year after is next as it will signal a restoration of the democratic process and an end to bureaucratic control from Delhi.
Where do the people of Kashmir figure in all this? Often forgotten, what they want is an important part of our cover story. Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa and Group Photo Editor Bandeep Singh travelled widely in the region to assess the ground situation. They met with a cross-section of people, from the Lieutenant Governor to entrepreneurs, the corps commander, political leaders and young men and women looking to make a living.
Shortly after the BJP walked out of its coalition government with Mehbooba Mufti in June 2018, elections were held for the 18,833 panch constituencies in Kashmir division in October. Among the 2,735 individuals elected as sarpanches was Arifa Jaan, 26, who became head of the Lalpora panchayat in Baramulla. She exemplifies the new layer of young leadership the Centre hopes to build in the Valley: not steeped in the past or linked to parties like the National Conference but optimistic about change. “Earlier, there was no accountability,” says Jaan. “There was also a funds shortage. Now, funds are being made available and there is greater transparency.” However, it is a battle that is far from won. An assembly election could see voters falling back on the same contentious set of leaders who have been part of the problem all along. The violent extremist fringe remains a threat to normalcy even if it inhabits only the periphery. There is also Pakistan’s role in fuelling terrorism in the erstwhile state and what it will do to stymie the new initiatives. There can be no peace in Kashmir till the government of India can broker some kind of agreement with Pakistan.
Kashmir has seen several turning points and is currently standing at yet another. No one wants to live constantly in the shadow of fear and uncertainty. Like other Indian citizens, Kashmiris too want a better life. Aspirational Kashmiri youth want to be part of the India growth story. There is no greater unifier than prosperity. We must win their hearts and minds. Without this, no strategy can succeed. As Chengappa says, “There is both hope and fear across the Valley and as many opportunities and threats. The process of reconciliation that has just begun must be taken to its logical end—and quickly.”
Between the promise of peace and the peril of anarchy is the middle ground of reintegrating Kashmiris into the mainstream. In this lies the solution to what has been India’s most knotty problem and its most enduring internal security threat.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘The Promise and the Peril’, for July 26, 2021)