Srinagar: During Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s two-day visit to Kashmir last week, a tradition of sorts was broken. Given his strongman image, many had expected Shah to make a tough nationalist statement against separatist leaders and militant groups and speak about the impending state elections.
Instead, Shah attended security briefings, avoided the media, did not make any statement, and quietly flew back home to New Delhi. But two days later, he spoke in the Rajya Sabha about his optimism of winning the support of all sections of Kashmiri people through non-discriminatory welfare schemes. More importantly, Shah evoked the “Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat, Insaaniyat” policy of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, oft-repeated by his predecessor Rajnath Singh.
Even though many observers here saw Shah’s quiet visit to Kashmir and subsequent evocation of Vajpayee as a contrast to his usual aggressive politics, they also said it was part of a consistent “hot-cold policy” of the Narendra Modi government.
Three senior politicians from Kashmiri mainstream parties said Shah and Modi are set to make renewed efforts to make peace in Kashmir.
According to them, after five years of pursuing a muscular security policy — of killing militants and being tough on stone-pelters and dissent groups speaking up against human rights abuses — Modi and Shah want to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiri people ahead of the elections with soft politics.
From jobs and free dish antennae for border residents of Kashmir to playgrounds, women self-help groups and TV talent shows, the BJP is setting itself up to carve a space for itself in the Valley, where it has so far failed to secure even a single assembly or Lok Sabha seat since the party came into existence.
Soft outreach picks up pace
In his Rajya Sabha speech, Shah underlined, once again, the Modi government’s zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism. But insurgency has been on the rise in the last five years.
According to police data, in 2013, only six locals were recruited as militants but the number rose to 53 in 2014, the year the Modi government came to power. While the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in 2016 led to a six-month unrest in the Valley, militant recruitment kept on rising to an extent that the number reached 191 in 2018, the highest in over a decade. In response, the central government launched a major offensive, killing nearly 600 militants since 2017.
Government data shows the number of civilian and security force killings at an all-time high since 2007.
The separatist groups, too, have faced the wrath of the Modi government, with several of its leaders and cadres currently imprisoned in either Delhi, Jammu or Srinagar.
“We were expecting Amit Shah to announce some confidence-building measures but that didn’t happen. Take a look at the statistics and tell me if the situation here has become better or worse,” National Conference spokesperson Imran Dar told ThePrint. “On top of it, they (BJP) are making things worse by talking about abrogating Article 370 (that grants J&K autonomy).”
While there is no let-up in the Modi government’s iron-fist policy (a prime example being the killing of former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Musa on the day of the Lok Sabha election results), the soft outreach initiatives to engage the people of Kashmir do seem to have picked up pace.
Take, for instance, the slew of measures taken by the central government and the state administration led by J&K Governor Satyapal Malik.
To engage with youth residing in rural parts of J&K, the state administration recently decided to develop nearly 4,500 playgrounds (2,176 of which will be in Kashmir division) for sports like football and cricket, said Skandan Krishnan, a former IAS officer who serves as one of the four advisers to the J&K governor.
He added that the state administration had already budgeted nearly Rs 500 crore to develop 4,483 playgrounds, and had also written to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports for further assistance.
The move, officials said, is meant to make democratic and state institutions more visible and relevant in the lives of Kashmiris, especially the younger people. State government officials also said the administration wanted to project playgrounds as soft symbols of the state.
ThePrint had earlier reported on another new outreach initiative of the state administration, ‘3S’, which stands for skill development, self-help groups and sports. Adviser K. Vijay Kumar said the outreach would play a role in “peace-building” and engineering social changes in Kashmiri society. Women are a primary focus of the administration’s 3S outreach.
Between 20 and 27 June, the state government also launched a programme called ‘Back to Village’ in the state’s 4,483 panchayats.
Under the programme, as many as 4,483 gazetted officers stayed in the villages to collect public feedback about government schemes. The aim was to give “a renewed push to planning and development efforts” at the grassroots level.
Of the 2,176 Panchayat Halqas (subdivisions) in Kashmir, nearly 800 are in south Kashmir, which continues to be hit by militancy. Budgam, which has recently seen a spike in militant activities, has 296 halqas and portions of Kupwara, Bandipora, Ganderbal and Baramulla have also shown militant presence in the last two years.
Among other sections of J&K society that the BJP government is focusing on are the elderly, economically-backward communities and women, through various social welfare and empowerment schemes.
A senior home ministry official said that discussions on the upliftment of women in Kashmir were held by Shah during his meetings in the Valley, following which he directed state civil servants to give him timely status updates about the implementation.
“Women being the key to any development process need to be at the centre of all programmes,” the home ministry said in a statement issued after Shah’s visit. “The state should work in this direction so that women can get better employment opportunities and livelihoods.”
The government also introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Bill, through which people living along the Line of Control (LoC) will get 3 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions.
Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Waheed Para, who served as the secretary of the J&K government’s sports council under the PDP-BJP administration, said moves such as developing playgrounds were good, adding that his party had taken similar steps when it was in power. However, he said, the political problem of Kashmir needs major political interventions.
But for Avinash Rai Khanna, the BJP in-charge for J&K, the outreach initiatives are interventions Kashmir desperately needs. According to him, such measures are not being introduced to develop a constituency for the BJP but are among nationwide initiatives taken by the Modi government.
“The idea behind such measures is to provide basic infrastructure at the ground level and increase accountability among government employees,” Khanna said. “This will help the government connect with youth at ground level, and make political and governance processes robust, which is the need of the hour in Kashmir,” he added.
He praised the current governor, stating that his predecessors had only focused on accumulating personal wealth. “People of the Valley are getting to know the true meaning of governance and democracy,” he added.
The Modi government even announced amnesty for stone-pelters and observed a ceasefire during the Ramzan of 2018.
Entertainment with a cause
A large part of the Modi government’s soft posturing in Kashmir depends on its presentation in mass media. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), with Doordarshan, introduced Kashmir’s own version of the popular TV game show Kaun Banega Crorepati, and is planning to launch other reality TV and talent shows in Koshur meant for Kashmiri audiences.
Similarly, the central government began distributing Doordarshan set-top boxes under its Free Dish Scheme among people living in the border areas of J&K in order to counter the propaganda coming in through Pakistani channels. Both the moves were announced last year and took off in 2019.
A senior official at Doordarshan said that such initiatives — which the official described as “made by Kashmiris for Kashmiris” — helped bring about social change and peace in society.
“Besides providing entertainment and employment opportunities to the Kashmiri population, it also helps bridge the gap between the rest of India and Kashmir,” the official added.
“For example, participants travel to Delhi, their accommodation is provided for, they and their families interact with people in Delhi. All this is a social exercise,” the official added, “And there is a lot for the audiences too. We hear that people in Kashmir are glued to their screen between 8pm and 9pm, the time KBC is aired.”
However, Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the New-Delhi based Institute for Conflict Management, said the soft measures taken by the government will “only work in a context” and not as standalone moves.
“There have been, in the past, many soft measures, such as the Army’s Sadhbhavna mission or medical camps by the paramilitary, but these measures work only if there is a conducive political environment,” Sahni added.
“And the government of the day is responsible to make the environment conducive I don’t know how much of that the current government is doing. These measures will not work in a polarised environment where democratic institutions are being dismantled.”
Kashmir-based political expert Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain said the soft measures were old tactics bound to fail. “They are old tactics with new names that fail to pacify the people of Kashmir,” he added. “Maybe, for a while, they work, but eventually they fail. They will fail because they are not a substitute to a political resolution of the dispute.”