The visit of a Prime Minister to Kashmir is traditionally seen as an important political occasion, both in Kashmir and the rest of the country. In Kashmir, he is expected to announce an economic package or make an important political announcement in regard to the efforts to resolve the festering trouble in Kashmir. In the rest of country, people also expect him to talk on Pakistan, for example, extend an offer of dialogue to the country which leads to a fresh engagement.
And when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kashmir on April 2 to inaugurate 9.2 kilometre Chenani-Nashri tunnel, all such conditions existed: Kashmir has been in a lingering turmoil since last year and the relations with Pakistan have long been frozen.
But as has been the case with all his visits to J&K so far, the PM has strictly refrained from making any statement which signals a government plan to politically address the discontent in Kashmir either through an engagement with the separatist and civil society groups or through talks with Pakistan.
In fact, the PM didn’t drop even a hint of a political initiative. He asked Kashmiri youth to choose between “tourism and terrorism”. He took a jibe at Pakistan saying the country couldn’t even take care of itself.
The visit thus killed the expectation that New Delhi would adopt a political approach to Kashmir following the BJP’s spectacular electoral victories in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Such hopes had also been raised when on April 25, J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti rushed to New Delhi to urge PM Modi to start dialogue on Kashmir only to be told that the time was not ripe for it. In the two years of the PDP-BJP coalition government there has also not been any forward movement on the mutually agreed agenda of alliance. Incidently, one of the key agreements of the alliance was the talks with the separatist groups in Kashmir.
To Kashmir, this has indicated that New Delhi was intent only on a development-cum-security approach to redress the deteriorating situation in Kashmir and eschew altogether the political outreach. That is, unless the dissenting groups like Hurriyat agree to engage on New Delhi’s terms.
But meanwhile situation in Valley has gone from bad to worse. On April 20, the students across the Valley hit the streets to protest against the police crackdown at a Pulwama college in which around 50 students were injured. The student reaction to the beating of fellow students was unprecedented. There were protests in almost every college in the Valley and everywhere the Government had to resort to the use of force to bring the situation under control. More than 70 students were injured in the clashes.
More disturbing is the groundswell of euphoric support for the militants that is visible every time there is an encounter or a funeral procession for a slain militant. The encounter at Chadoora in which one militant and three protesters were killed was yet another evidence of this deteriorating state of affairs. Later thousands of people turned out to join their funeral and shouted anti-India and pro-Azadi slogans. Young speakers pledged to carry forward the “mission of the martyrs”.
This was followed by the widespread protests during April 9 Srinagar parliamentary by-poll in which a meagre 7 percent cast their vote. What is more, eight people were killed during the protests.
Besides, the growing mass support for militancy with the youth at the forefront offers little hope that the situation will improve. Far from acting as a deterrent, the frequent killings of militants and also those of the protesters at the encounter sites are only fanning more militant recruitment and touching off wider protests. But this has not jolted New Delhi into action. As was apparent from the PM’s speech at the tunnel inauguration, the approach has been to sleep over the problem and hope it resolves on its own.
But all that the PM has offered is a hope of development, a choice between tourism and terrorism and a taunt for Pakistan.
“If anything it shows a dangerous complacence in New Delhi on Kashmir. And more so at a time when Kashmir is at the cusp of a fateful transition,” says the political commentator Gowhar Geelani. “But if we go by the rise in the levels of violence in the state, the future looks ominous. The situation is crying for a political outreach”.
But with every passing day, the hope and scope for any political initiative on Kashmir or talks with Pakistan is fading. Both the countries are looking forward to national polls – Pakistan in 2018 and India in 2019.
“Window is fast closing. By the end of this year Pakistan would already be in election mode circumscribing the chance and the space for a sustained dialogue. And by 2018 also, the government in New Delhi will have an eye on the 2019 polls, dissuading it from a troubled engagement with its neighbour,” an editorial in a local Kashmir daily states.
“The period thus will hardly be conducive for a purposeful dialogue. This leaves India, Pakistan the coming few months to try and re-establish the contact and hope to carry it on into the next two years. If they choose to squander the chance, they are unlikely to get it until after 2019”.
Does this mean there is no hope for a political engagement with Kashmir or talks with Pakistan during the present NDA regime in New Delhi? “It does,” says Gowhar. “In fact, the hope only fades with every new month that brings us nearer to election”.