Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again sought to put at rest the talk that his government would only use “administrative” methods to deal with the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking at the inauguration of the longest road tunnel (in India) on the Srinagar-Jammu highway on April 2, he did not differentiate between the gun-wielding youth and the one who uses the stone. He, in fact, lauded those young men, who according to him, carved stones to build the tunnel. In a charged speech, the PM asked “misguided” youth to chose between terrorism and tourism.
“I want to tell the misguided youth of Kashmir valley, realise the power of a stone,” he said in a speech that focused on development and evaded the politics of the conflict. “On one hand, there are some misguided youth who pelt stones, on the other hand, there are youth from the same Kashmir who carve stones to build infrastructure.”
Modi came to the state at a crucial time and his assertion to focus on development makes it amply clear how his government is going to pursue Kashmir in the coming days. It is spring in Kashmir and tongues are wagging about how the coming summer would unfold given the traumatic experience of 2016 when life was out of gear for six months as blood was spilled. Fingers are crossed as the developments that have taken place in the past few months do not indicate any let-up in the anger. Increasing attacks by militants and civilians heading to encounter sites to rescue militants tell a story that is altogether different. The director-general of police, SP Vaid, called this tendency “suicidal”. But those who do it have made clear that they can face this dare even if it means death.
Against this backdrop, Modi’s speech was clearly devoid of any outreach and did not hold any promise of reconciliation. The hardline Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Geelani had asked him in a statement to be a statesman while dealing with Kashmir. In a way there is a hope on this side for possible engagement but New Delhi seems to have closed all the doors and the complete dependence on armed forces to hold the fort shows that it does not care about a situation that needs political intervention.
Modi repeatedly talked about tourism as an agent of change. There is no doubt that Kashmir has huge potential and tourism can be a game changer. An air of political engagement that swept the region from 2003 to 2007 showed that things can work. Tourism hit new heights when India, Pakistan and Kashmir engagement was at its peak. But the six-month-long trouble in 2016 showed how it can nosedive too. For tourism, peace and stability is a condition and it cannot flourish when bombs and bullets rain down. The political approach is needed to restore peace. Accepting Kashmir as a political issue can open doors to prosperity.
However, the past few years have seen a shift in the mindset of the people, particularly the young generation, that has turned politically radical. Those who would crave jobs are seen organising anti-India protests. They are aggressive and that is how three young boys lost their lives on the sidelines of an encounter in Chadoora area of central Kashmir in the last week of March. The challenge to deal with such a situation is becoming difficult for the government. Negating political disillusionment is bound to add fuel to the fire. Modi’s development agenda came notwithstanding the fact that his party, the BJP, is in a coalition with the regional Peoples Democratic Party and has entered into an Agenda of Alliance that is centred on the political nature of state issues.
In the last two years of PDP-BJP rule, no issue has been picked up. Only three agenda points that were part of BJP election manifesto are vigorously followed. One is about the refugees of West Pakistan; the other two are related to refugees on the other side of Kashmir and the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. Contentious issues that could help bring stability, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, dialogue with the Hurriyat and Pakistan, the release of political prisoners have not been even looked at after the document was made public. This also brings home the point that the AoA was limited to the paper it was written on and talk of political intervention was aired only to legitimise the handshake between the PDP and BJP. There was hope after the UP elections that Modi would open up to dialogue with Pakistan and possibly with Kashmiris but that seems to have evaporated.
One interesting remark Modi made was about his predecessor AB Vajpayee whose three words Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat and Insaniyat (KJI) had once lured people towards a possible political breakthrough. He did it again as with seven times before. For the first time in 2014 when he was fighting elections to head towards Delhi he spoke about the magical KJI. It was on March 26, 2014 that he told a public meeting in Jammu that he would follow the path shown by Vajpayee on Kashmir. “It is my wish to complete the work started by Vajpayee… It is my wish and I will come repeatedly here for that,” he said. After his ascendency to the Prime Minister’s office, he did not change course and on July 4, 2014 he told a gathering in Katra that, “My message to the people of Jammu and Kashmir is that the government wants to carry forward former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s plan in the state. My aim is to win the hearts of the people of the state.” Similarly, on November 22, 2014, he said in Kishtwar that “democracy, humanity and Kashmiriyat, these words of Atal-ji have a special place in the hearts of Kashmiris and have ignited hope in every Kashmiri youth for a better future.” On August 10, 2016 when Kashmir was burning with political unrest, he talked about this. But did not move an inch in that direction since he came to power. He must understand that Vajpayee entered into a ceasefire with Pakistan, opened up dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen and brought the Hurriyat to the table. Though things fell apart, Vajpayee showed the way to an atmosphere that was filled with hope.
Modi continuously stresses development as key to his work in Jammu and Kashmir. But repeated reference to Vajpayee did not mean development alone but recognizing Kashmir as a political reality and moving on a path where both the people of the state and Pakistan could be taken on board. When Vajpayee initiated dialogue with Pakistan from Srinagar on April 18, 2003, relations between two countries were at a low compared to today’s status. For him it was a big risk to offer the hand of unconditional friendship to Islamabad, which was concurrently supported by a dialogue process within Kashmir. Modi will have to walk the beaten track that can only be done with a political approach. Development can follow politics and not vice-versa.