What Prime Minister Narendra Modi did with his address to the nation was to return the focus of his government’s decision squarely to the internal domain. After Pakistan’s extremely negative response, the focus was in danger of getting hijacked to the international domain, which would have sent a negative message to the local Kashmiri population. The address was perfectly timed because the question that was arising was whether India would squander the difficult decision at the altar of unnecessary triumphalism without looking at the sensitivities of its implications.
Like many citizens, I too supported the government’s decision but had one qualification: I had always hoped that whenever such a decision was taken, it would be with complete political consensus. We have a tremendous precedent for this. In the Joint Parliamentary Resolution of February 22, 1994, all Indian political parties came together to communicate to the world that every inch of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir belonged to India and that the nation would aspire to get it back. However, the circumstances in terms of a fractured polity exist today to a far greater extent, although the geopolitical challenges are somewhat similar. Through his address to the nation, PM Modi kept the discourse of political differences limited and handled it with finesse.
A day after images of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval sharing a meal with locals in Shopian hit the headlines, many people were wondering when normalcy would return, given the fact that routine events which can disrupt peace in Kashmir were approaching as a part of the calendar — eid and Independence Day give anti-national elements a chance to upset things and bring turbulence to the environment. The NSA’s presence in the field was appreciated as well as met with cynicism. What the PM’s address did was to dent that cynicism. After his Independence Day speech in 2017 — with its references to “na goli se na gaali se” — this address is the first one which shows complete sensitivity towards the plight of Kashmiris. The essence of the earlier thoughts, along with current sentiments, can actually mainstream the people of Kashmir with India. It will, however, need patience, the ability to execute outreach and retain sensitivity in the face of Pakistan’s attempts to enhance the alienation of the people against India.
Before attempting to outline a rudimentary strategy to achieve what the PM has outlined, I need to mention two facets of the government’s decision that will work favourably. The first was mentioned by the PM extensively in his address — the dilution of J&K to union territory (UT) status. The PM outlined how exactly J&K had been kept away from development without adequate central oversight. This was one of the major lacunae responsible for the lack of development, high levels of corruption and lack of distribution of wealth to the common people. The UT status brings the region under far greater political and bureaucratic scrutiny, an aspect which perhaps got missed out in the strategy of 1996 when it was decided to counter Pakistan’s proxy war through the early return of democracy. Of course, then there were mindsets about the special status of J&K being cast in iron.
The second facet, not noticed as much, is the fact that the government undertook a bifurcation of the state and not a trifurcation. The latter was expected but did not happen much to the chagrin of the people of Jammu division and especially its strong political community. I think the people of Jammu will ultimately thank the government for this decision. Here is how I justify it: Jammu’s linkages with Kashmir are historic and deeply ingrained. The communities may temporarily be at odds with each other due to extraordinary circumstances but the mutual interests bound together in the ties across the Pir Panjal are far in excess of the prevailing negatives. Someone who knows J&K well has obviously advised the government. If a geographical division would have taken place along the Pir Panjal, it would have been perceived as a religious division and that is something which would have been exploited by adversaries. Retaining the integrated nature and ultimately returning the UT to the status of a state in the same make up, mainstreaming Kashmir through the Jammu route, will work far better. In fact, the people of Jammu would have done a yeoman service to the nation for which we need to be grateful.
The PM also made a few promises. What stood out was the extension of central government facilities for staff and security personnel. This must be executed early, as one of the crucial organisations which must remain fully motivated is the J&K Police. Its efficiency and morale makes a difference. The promise to return full statehood should act as a good motivator for the polity and the people. Once the PM has stated this, no other reassurance is required. There is no doubt that the PM’s virtual soft power message directly to the people would surely have had an impact. How many in Kashmir heard it with the current lockdown in place, though, remains in doubt. The government networks must spread the video through social media and channels must telecast recordings as soon as the networks in Kashmir are restored.
Enhancing the self-esteem of the Kashmiri people and improving the governance to deliver quality administration appears the PM’s clear intent. There are three issues for his advisors to dwell upon. First, develop a basic consensus and form a few all-party committees for direct outreach to the people. Second, make arrangements for the empowerment of the panchayats to deliver grass roots governance. And third, revamp a part of the J&K bureaucracy, bringing highest quality administrators to the UT. This will facilitate the PM’s promise of early restoration of the state’s status. Finally, early elections are needed. The can help the polity of the sub-region rebuild its self esteem.
This article first appeared in the August 10, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Denting cynicism in Valley’. The writer, a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is chancellor, Central University of Kashmir