Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s day-long visit to Jammu and Kashmir on May 20 was not very different from his past forays to the state. Although he departed from his usual hard line positions, he seemed broadly in sync with the state policy while dealing with the volatile situation on the ground.
New Delhi announced a conditional ceasefire ahead of Ramazan that halted operations against the militants. The rumour that Modi wanted to play politics by not publicly endorsing the ceasefire by Home Minister Rajnath Singh was dismissed when he spoke on the issue. Modi’s and Rajnath’s policy vis a vis Kashmir has been at crossroads since the 2016 uprising after Burhan Wani’s killing. Rajnath chose to remain silent after his efforts for a political truce were sabotaged by a section in the power corridors of Delhi which enjoyed patronage from Modi himself. So, it was believed that the call for ceasefire would be left to Rajnath, as Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had earlier rejected the same call from Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti only three days before it was announced.
Modi spoke, not only to put to rest such speculations but also to appeal to the youth to return to “the mainstream” – which he hurriedly explained meant their homes and mothers. This was in contrast to his previous approach towards Kashmir. A year ago, he had offered a stark choice to Kashmiris. “I want to tell the youth of Kashmir that they have two ways ahead,” he had declared at a function to inaugurate a tunnel along the Srinagar-Jammu highway on April 3, 2017. “On one hand, you have tourism and on other hand you have terrorism.”
This time, however, he offered them development and asked them to come back to their homes. Has Modi softened his stand? It is difficult to say since the prime minister did not come out of the mind set Delhi is plagued with i.e. to look at Jammu and Kashmir through the prism of development, security and strategic needs. He pushed former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s line to follow Kashmiriyat, maybe the ninth time since 2014, though he omitted Jamhooriyat and Insaniyat (democracy and humanity) this time.
Modi said the only solution to Kashmir’s problem was “development, development and development.” He is wrong, given the history of the conflict and the resistance the people of this region have shown since 1990. If development alone was the answer, then Modi himself announced a mega package on November 7, 2015. Though it is a matter of debate that a major portion of the package had been envisaged during Rajiv Gandhi’s time, still these offerings have not diluted the political content of the resistance on the ground.
Modi’s speaking on the development question alone tells us that he is against the past and present of Jammu and Kashmir and a great deal more needs to be said before he can secure its future
One is reminded of the destruction that had taken place during the peak of the militancy from 1990 to 1996. When Farooq Abdullah came to power in 1996, he took up the herculean task of rebuilding thousands of schools, hospitals, bridges and other infrastructure. He also gave jobs to roughly 150,000 people. But he could not change the politics of the conflict and even lost the election in 2002. Others also followed the development mantra but failed. If this was the real answer to groundswell for azadi(freedom) then after Modi’s package and the jobs created after 2015, Kashmir would not have witnessed the 2016 uprising with a strong current of anti-India sentiment. It must be remembered that thousands of youth line up in front of recruitment centres of the same army that they chase in towns and villages with their stones. Modi’s speaking on the development question alone tells us that he is against the past and present of Jammu and Kashmir and a great deal more needs to be said before he can secure its future.
The May 21 incident in a village in Shopian, where the Indian army had organised an iftar for the people, is a grim reminder of how Kashmiris do not see Indian soldiers as their own. They resisted the iftar and protested, which led to the army opening fire and injuring many. This battle for winning hearts and minds has already failed. Dinesh Sharma, who was also mentioned by Modi in his speech, has also not made any difference. Meeting people to address the issues of breakdown in transformers and pot holes in roads was not something he was supposed to do. But since he lacked the mandate to talk about the political issue, his relevance has taken a hit and pushed him into oblivion.
Certain developments need to be connected to Modi’s not-so-harsh tone in Kashmir. First, that Delhi has been facing a tough time defending civilian deaths during encounters and Operation All Out was becoming counterproductive in many ways. Hence, a ceasefire was needed to change the situation. Peace overtures with Pakistan, that first came with reconciliatory messages from the army chiefs of India and Pakistan and the latest being Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman saying on May 21 any comments on wanting peace would definitely be taken seriously, when he was asked about Pakistan Army’s recent indication of supporting a peaceful resolution. Reopening of Track-II after the Neemrana Dialogue resumed last month and other measures through the backchannel suggest that Delhi was willing to do business, despite heightened tensions along the border which has claimed many lives last week.
Since Modi is facing pressure on many counts ahead of the 2019 elections, he is preparing the ground to see that SAARC summit takes place and instead of rhetoric, he might prefer to sell the idea of peace to the electorate. Relations with Nepal and Maldives are also indicative of this desire. In order to get Pakistan on board for a successful SAARC, it is imperative to cool tempers in and around Kashmir. The next few months will an interesting time.