In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestured to a more compassionate policy on Kashmir when he said that the war against separatism would be won “neither by abuse nor bullets but by embracing all Kashmiris”. From the outset of his four-day visit to the Valley, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has echoed and amplified the tone the PM set on August 15. Singh has said he is willing to talk to “all stakeholders” and had come with an “open mind”. He has promised compensation and better equipment to the local police and security forces but also addressed the recently stoked fears among the people about the challenge to Article 35A and stated unequivocally that “kids below the age of 18 should not be treated like criminals…” They must not be sent to prison, the Home Minister said, but to juvenile homes. For the governments, both at the Centre and in Jammu and Kashmir, the challenge now is to follow through on the hope his visit has stirred of a government more willing to respond to the people’s concerns.
Since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, and the protests and unrest that followed, there has been a hardening of positions and the space for political dialogue and engagement has shrunk in Kashmir. In by-elections held in April this year, the voter turnout was an abysmal 7 per cent. Army chief General Bipin Rawat seemed to draw sharper lines between the people and the armed forces when he defended the use of a civilian as a “human shield” and stated that “people have to be afraid of us” if the army has to “maintain law and order”. More recently, the raids on separatist leaders by the National Investigation Agency over allegations of terror funding, followed by arrests, have appeared to preclude possibilities of a wider political engagement in the Valley. Murmurs from the BJP’s state leadership questioning the validity of Article 35A — which enables the state government to provide special provisions for “permanent residents” — united players across the political spectrum in Kashmir in its defence.
Singh’s statements during his visit hold the promise of denting, if not breaking, the deadlock that has been in place for over a year now. The first step must be to reinvigorate the BJP-PDP alliance that governs the state, which must be more deft in managing its internal contradictions. Second, Singh’s desire to talk to “all stakeholders” must include the entire spectrum of non-violent political actors. Finally, the message that the youth of the Valley must not be criminalised, and reform rather than retribution should be the defining feature of engagement, needs to be internalised by all organs of government and the state. The home minister has said he would be willing to visit the Valley “50 times in a year”. If the openness he displayed translates into political and policy action, that may not be necessary.