I visited Srinagar, Baramulla and Sopore during the course of an extraordinary outreach programme of the central government envisioned by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who directed more than 30 Union ministers to visit various parts of Jammu and Kashmir. It was my first visit to J&K after the revocation of Article 370 and a unique one indeed — in minus five-degree temperature in the Valley.
The cold was biting but the warmth and openness of the people of J&K was energising. The areas which I visited had seen some of the worst terrorist activities in the past and repeated instances of public alienation. I was keen to see the ground reality myself.
I met hundreds of people at Srinagar, Baramulla and Sopore, which included more than 30 formal delegations. Besides interacting with nearly a hundred newly-elected panches, sarpanches and chairpersons of block development councils, representatives of the municipal councils and various representatives of the civil society, including young people. Apart from holding formal consultations, I also met some civil society leaders and had free and frank exchanges with them. These deliberations helped me form an idea of the changing narrative on Jammu and Kashmir, post the abolition of Article 370.
One professional made a critical comment: “Hamein hamare netaon ne poori sachhai kabhi nahin batai (our leaders never told us the entire truth)”. There was one group of elders in the Valley who had an emotional connect with Article 370 and who were made to believe by elderly leaders that it was only in this provision that their redemption lay. Hence, the entire polity of J&K revolved around the nuances of Article 370, regardless of whosoever was in power.
The other was the deliberately stoked narrative of alienation fomented by the separatists and terrorists actively patronised by elements across the border, which also created a cloud of uncertainty, violence and killings.
One of the strongest comments I heard was about how separatists sent their children to study abroad and engineered the burning of schools in the Valley. With the opening of the border during the Vajpayee regime, when Kashmiris from the Valley got to know of the pathetic condition of Kashmiris in PoK, the hollowness of the promise of a new dawn became evident. All this was further compounded by an abject lack of governance and accountability towards the people and widespread corruption. A favourite refrain of governance I heard was, “Markaz se paise le lenge (will take funds from the Centre)”.
This was the vicious scenario when President’s Rule was imposed and despite the strong opposition from the conventional political parties of J&K, the prime minister and home minister took the bold initiative to hold elections to local bodies and gram panchayats. Despite many threats, a large number of voters participated in the polls.
It was so assuring for me to see the enthusiastic participation of young men and women, who faced all odds, including physical threats, to contest elections. I was impressed to meet a young elected representative in Baramulla who greeted me by giving me the Azad Hind cap of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, as January 23 was Netaji’s birthday.
There has been a divide in J&K between the Kashmir and Jammu regions for variety of reasons but I distinctly noticed a yearning for change, a quest for a new narrative and an overpowering desire for development and good governance.
This was evident when I inaugurated a 24,000 square feet incubation centre of Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) at Srinagar, laid the foundation of girls and boys hostels in the campus of National Institute for Electronics and IT (NIELIT) and most importantly, the glowing smile of women employees of the post office when I inaugurated the first all-women post office in Srinagar.
However, the most striking and emotional moment for me was the experience I had while inaugurating the indoor stadium in Baramulla. I noticed the creative and athletic energies of young boys and girls of Baramulla. Dozens of boys and girls were engaged in yoga, boxing, badminton, karate, table tennis and host of other games. I could clearly see, in their eyes, a lurking question: Why was this denied to them for so long? I noticed the same yearning in Sopore, where the first demand of the people was to have a good indoor stadium for young people to play in. This was quite natural because with heavy snow, sports activities can happen only in an indoor stadium.
A bigger surprise was in store for me when I learnt the details of apple production and commerce. Nearly 300 varieties of apple exist in Baramulla and Sopore and the apple mandi in Sopore transports 450 apple-laden trucks to different parts of India and also to Bangladesh every day during the harvest season.
Their demand was so simple — make our mandi an e-mandi — which I readily agreed to. The obvious question troubling me was why this was not done for so long. Everywhere there were demands for roads, for new electricity connections, hospitals, ambulances, snow cutters, schools, degree colleges and a common demand for a more meaningful involvement of the panchayat and urban body representatives in governance. Representatives of the Pahadi communities, Gujjars and Bakarwaals openly conveyed that they were left out of the social, political and governance architecture of J&K for a long time, though they have a substantial population. Now, their voice too shall be heard.
J&K, particularly the Valley, is keen for a new narrative — effective and accountable governance with timely delivery of results on the ground. They are also becoming aspirational. There was demand for an IT park in Baramulla. In Sopore, I also mentioned the extraordinary cultural and civilisational heritage of J&K, beginning from the philosophy of Shankaracharya to the profound springs of Sufi Islam. We need to reclaim this culture and heritage, which was paralysed with the pain inflicted by terrorism. I could see some moist eyes too. Therein lies both hope and redemption.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 4, 2020 under the title “Yearning for change.” The writer is Union Minister for Law & Justice, Communication and Electronics & IT.
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