by Aroon Purie
Jammu and Kashmir 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 Modi and J&K’s political parties signaled a resumption of the political process. The PM gave 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. All political detainees have been freed. There are no mass protests of the kind seen after the death of Burhan Wani in 2016.
The terrorist threat appears to be under control. Security forces are proactive and have upped their intelligence network. Last year, 232 terrorists were killed. Pakistan is preoccupied with events in Afghanistan and dodging the FATF blacklist.
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 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. 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.
Over 70 per cent of Kashmir’s 12.5 million population is under 35. The endemic unemployment has bred 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. This year, Parliament passed a Rs 1.08 lakh crore budget for the Union territory. On a ratio of population to funds, Lt Governor Manoj Sinha says, “it is 7 or 8 times more than that of UP and Bihar”.
Looking at the major milestones the government has to navigate now, the first is delimitation, where constituencies will be increased commensurate with population growth. Kashmiris fear this will 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 will signal a restoration of the democratic process and an end to bureaucratic control from Delhi.
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. Arifa Jaan, 26, 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 fueling 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 is at another turning point. 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.
The author is India Today Editor-in-Chief. The OpEd first appeared in DailyO.