Winning the hearts of youth needs an omnibus programme engulfing acceptance; respect.
Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Jammu & Kashmir weekend last, his first to the Union Territory after its paradigm was modified and transformed with the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, was full of symbolism. It came on the eve of the 74th anniversary of the accession of J&K into the Dominion of India on 26 October 1947. Indian Army had landed on 27 October that year to repulse the Pakistan-sponsored Kabaili attack on Kashmir, which heralded the longest-ever conflict in the history of modern mankind, which now enters its 75th year of strife and bloodletting. Shah made no reference to these dates. He instead used his visit as an outreach exercise with the citizens of J&K, particularly the Kashmiri youth. He also boosted the morale of the armed forces and paramilitary personnel deployed to combat Pakistan’s proxy war of a “thousand cuts”—he spent a night with the brave hearts at Pulwama, sharing dinner and listening to the experiences of the troops—an unprecedented gesture by any leader of the Union of India in a troubled theatre.
The political discourse in the Vale of Kashmir is no longer overshadowed by talk of independence, self-determination or autonomy. Distrust persists and this is accentuated by occurrences like stray cheering of Pakistan’s cricket victory in Sharjah. Kashmir no longer is an abrasive item on the discourse of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) though Pakistan’s belligerency still gets applauded by Turkey, while Saudi Arabia, most Gulf States and a large section of West Asia no longer has Kashmir’s “self determination” in their agenda. The demand today is that statehood be restored prior to the much delayed delimitation exercise and holding of elections to the state Assembly. Mainstream political parties—J&K National Conference, People’s Democratic Party (both former allies of BJP at Centre and state levels, respectively) and Indian National Congress—have demanded restoration of statehood be accorded priority. The Bharatiya Janata Party, whose footprint is embossed on the Jammu region and is slowly making inroads into the Valley, is proud of its Central government’s performance since 2019—elections have been held to 25,000 panchayats and elected representatives, predominantly first-timers, empowered with funds which percolate directly to enable development work. According to available statistics, Rs 1,736 crore have been disbursed through direct transfers (DBT) to some 50 lakh people in recent times; new medical and nursing colleges have been set up and some 56,000 houses have been built. To top it all, the J&K administration signed an agreement with Dubai for infrastructure development in the run-up to the Shah visit. Manoj Sinha, the Lt Governor, was initially seen as a potential CM of Uttar Pradesh in 2017—he was sent to Srinagar after Yogi Adityanath emerged as the choice in Lucknow. He had distinguished himself as a Union Minister and organiser of Narendra Modi’s Varanasi poll campaign. His hands-on approach has borne fruit.
Shah’s visit to the Khirbhawani shrine, in Ganderbal, revered by Kashmiri Pandits and to the Digiana gurdwara in Jammu was designed to boost the morale of the Hindus and Sikhs who in recent days have been subjected to killings by Pak-sponsored terrorists. Eleven slayings preceded the Home Minister’s trip—local people as well as migrants from other states were targeted. This perhaps caused preventive arrests of some 700 persons. The use of the draconian UAPA to arrest students who rejoiced at Indian cricket team’s trouncing by Pakistan at Sharjah Sunday last somewhat clouded the sunshine of the visit. Shah met a prominent Sufi leader and visited the family of Pervaiz Ahmed, a slain policeman and included in his outreach close proximity to cheering crowds, shaking hands occasionally. His gesture of taking off the bullet-proof glass shield in an outreach meet in Srinagar was applauded.
However, the preventive arrests and the action under UAPA against students in Kashmir and the incidents reported from Sangrur (Punjab) and Agra (UP) where Kashmiri students were harassed as an aftermath of the Sharjah match threw up scars which marred the bonhomie of the historic visit. Stone pelting is no longer the bane of Kashmir youth. They seek acceptance and respect as citizens of India. In 1947, majority of Kashmiris had welcomed accession to secular India. Islamic Pakistan in fact had never caught the fancy of the majority in the valley, though there were always elements whose presence even today is felt in the form of Jamaat e Islami (JeI), a banned outfit since 2019, whose activists were raided by NIA in as many as 17 locations in the valley a day after Shah’s return. National Conference leader Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah too had fought JeI—he banned them in 1975 as they opposed the Accord he signed with the Indira Gandhi government. The ban had to be lifted due to law and order pressures.
Since 2002, the regime of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed of PDP, the majority of school teachers appointed in Kashmir have been drawn from JeI ranks and the efficacy of their obtrusive presence in educational institutions is seen from the disconnect among the youth. Among the few modern institutions of learning in J&K is Srinagar’s Delhi Public School, where the day’s curriculum does not begin with recitations from Quran (as in most valley schools) and there is a beeline for admissions to this DPS branch (which has facilities for the blind and special children—a unique niche in the valley). However this institution, run by Vijay Dhar, son of the hero of Bangladesh war strategy, the late D.P. Dhar, does not get any special facilities from the instruments of state. It bore the brunt of militants’ ire some years back. Another Kashmiri Pandit, Sandeep Chattoo, has promoted the Real Kashmir football team which won nationwide recognition. Neither Dhar nor Chattoo unfortunately are treated as “frontline warriors”. Promotion of quality education and sport can go a long way in changing the mindset of the youth.
Kashmir is a relatively prosperous society. The poverty rate in the Union Territory is 10.25%—less than half of India’s national average of 21.92%. While DBT has its benefits, it is not commensurate with this ground reality. Tourism, horticulture, dairy farming (Kashmir has surplus milk) are areas in which investments and skill development of J&K youth can go a long way in creating local employment and engagement. Little thought has been given to these areas. For Amit Shah’s yeoman effort to bear fruit, a new approach to the idea of Naya Kashmir has to emerge. And that has to be sans preventive detentions and disruption of internet services, which provide sinews to the youths’ aspiration for progress, development.