Need actions rather than words, says Kashmir Valley to Delhi

Kashmir residents skeptical of government's promises

Politics

June 29, 2021

/ By / Gurugram

Need actions rather than words, says Kashmir Valley to Delhi

Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, former chief ministers of J&K, have refused to accept Centre's decision on Article 370

Residents of Kashmir valley are disappointed over the June 24 meeting that the Prime Minister had with leading political parties of Jammu and Kashmir, nearly two years after the state was dismembered and its special status as per the Constitution ended abruptly.

The Indian government tried to put all the right optics at the first all-party meet organised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi almost two years after the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gives limited autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, was revoked in August 2019. At the meeting Modi reiterated ‘commitment to strengthening the democratic process’ in the region and insisted that delimitation of assembly seats in J&K was critical for restoration of democracy.

Modi also told the parties that despite political differences, people should trust and cooperate with the new government in order to restore safety and security. He also assured Gupkar Alliance parties that action would be taken to release political prisoners.

Time to walk the talk

As is Modi’s penchant, another slogan emerged at the meeting, his pledge to “Dilli ki doori” (distance from Delhi), in other words, rebuild trust between the people of Kashmir and the central government.

Modi’s comments were received with acerbic cynicism in the valley where residents doubt that such slogans, after almost two years of total radio silence on the matter, mean anything. Ashfaq Ahmad Gassi, a tour guide from Srinagar, says what the government did in 2019 was unconstitutional and hugely upsetting for residents of Kashmir.

“They didn’t take public opinion, they didn’t ask us anything. All our ministers here were put on home arrest at the same time, which should be against law. Suddenly, two army men with guns came and knocked on everyone’s door. The government shut down all internet, phone calls, and I could not contact my family for 3 months. They did that because they wanted to supress our voices. What happened was not fair. If you’re doing what is supposedly best for me, I should be a part of that. If I don’t agree, how is it good for me?” Gassi tells Media India Group.

With the deployment of hundreds of thousands of army personnel, residents of the Kashmir Valley were effectively silenced. These severe measures also triggered international rebuke against the Modi government.

“By doing this gundagiri (bullying), the government just wants to show their strength,” he adds.

The residents say that rather than properly acknowledging the harsh manner of Article 370’s removal, the Centre chose to focus on ambiguous promises about restoring statehood and elections, with absolutely no mention of the Constitution or even a proper timeframe for the next step to restore democracy in the region.

Abandon theatrics, take steps

Rather than continuing these theatrics, Kashmiri residents believe the Centre needs to take appropriate measures to restore the Valley to normalcy. Rafiq Shalla, a houseboat owner from Srinagar, says his business was badly affected after August 2019. The government had issued an emergency advisory asking tourists in Kashmir as well as pilgrims who had visited for Amarnath Yatra to quickly return to their homes, citing “latest intelligence inputs of terror threats” and “the prevailing security situation in the Kashmir Valley”.

“We had good business until 2019, but overnight, the Home Ministry gave the advisory to evacuate the tourists out of Kashmir. From that day till today, the central government has not put any kind of advisory back that Kashmir is normal and safe again for tourists. They should have done at least that to promote tourism again,” Shalla tells Media India Group.

“The day came when I was unable to find a job or even earn a wage of INR 500 a day. Because I could not pay a fee for my children for a year, they were thrown out of school. In my lifetime I have never seen such bad business as now,” he adds.

Although the J&K government announced a relief package of INR 30 million for people in the tourism sector, it excludes travel agents and owners of Kashmir’s famous houseboats, and is therefore useless for people like Shalla. He explains that a good way to help would be to put out a proper public advisory about tourism in Kashmir being safe again.

Turning a deaf ear to citizens’ opinions

Two former chief ministers of J&K, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have now declared that their participation in assembly elections is dependent on restoration of J&K’s special status.

“I know restoration of Article 370 and 35A is not something the Centre will give on a platter, but you have to begin somewhere. This issue is not merely a political slogan and I will not contest any election till 35A and 370 are restored,” People’s Democratic Party president told media.

In response, J&K BJP president Ravinder Raina confidently asserted that the people of Jammu and Kashmir were happy over the revocation of Article 370 as it was the main reason for Pakistani ideology and separatism.

But Raina does not seem to be taking the Kashmiri citizens’ viewpoint into account at all. Gassi says that middle-class Kashmiri citizens are worried about the effect it will have on the environment and their livelihoods.

“The consequence of removing Article 370 will not be seen now, it will be seen in the future. Kashmir is a small place in the North, its one of the few places in India where you get fresh oxygen and greenery everywhere. If you make construction or industrial areas in such a state, pollution will increase, snow glaciers will melt. A lot of people say Kashmir is the only “jannat” (heaven) of India, but when Article 370 goes, that beauty and uniqueness will also go,” says Gassi.

He also explains that promises of economic prosperity, if at all, will as usual be unequally distributed across the board.

“When the rich industry people like Ambanis come and buy everything, where will we go? This is good for the big businessmen and millionaires in India. But middleclass people will be affected,” he says.

Disaffected youth

After the meeting, Modi also tweeted, “I told the leaders of J&K that it is the people, specially the youth who have to provide political leadership to J&K, and to ensure their aspirations are duly fulfilled.”

Ironically, Shalla says it is the youth who have been some of the biggest losers in this debacle, referring to the recent suicide sprees among teenagers and young people in Kashmir. “The obvious cause of suicide attempts is financial stress in the families,” Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (JKHBA) had said in response to the cases. Shalla highlights how important it is for life to go back to normal.

“Two, three decades back suicide rates were not so high. But nowadays, being in lockdown for the last two years, people feel like they are in jail, and depression is a big disease here,” he says.

He explains that at the end of the day, the government needs to stick to their word. Although there is strong disagreement among political parties about the restoration of special status, people want to be able to trust the central government again and get out from the social-political turmoil that has plagued the Valley for decades.

“The Kashmiri people want to get out from the stress of this situation, they want peace,” he adds.

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