In Kashmir, Amit Shah gives a glimpse of the Centre’s strategy

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New Delhi: During his recent visit to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Union home minister, Amit Shah, declared his willingness to speak to the youth of Kashmir — and not Pakistan. This was a corollary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s earlier statement of wanting to remove Dilli ki Doori (the distance from Delhi) as well as Dil ki Doori (the distance between hearts) in June at an all-party meeting with leaders from the region.

Read together, the statements indicate the Union government’s resolve to reach out to Kashmiris, bypassing the secessionists and keeping out foreign players.

In response to National Conference (NC) leader and former Chief Minister (CM) Farooq Abdullah’s suggestion to New Delhi to resume talks with Islamabad, Shah, who was in the region from October 23 to 26, retorted, “…I want to tell Farooq Sahib, who has been a former CM that we will talk to the people of Kashmir…I will talk to the youth of Kashmir Valley.”

The statement was buttressed by optics, with Shah dressed in a Kashmiri pheran without a bulletproof screen declaring that he was “extending his hand of friendship to the youth”.

The overture towards the young, who may have misgivings about the changes in the status of J&K from a state to a Union Territory (UT) and the effective abrogation of Article 370, came during Shah’s first visit to the region since August 2019. The visit was also significant since the herculean task of drawing up the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 that struck down the constitutional provisions that gave the state special status and paved the way for its bifurcation into UTs, was drawn up under Shah’s watch and tabled by him in the Rajya Sabha on August 5, 2019.

At a public lecture recently, Shah said that even Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers doubted that the abrogation of Article 370 was possible. He also justified the heavily criticised suspension of the internet services in 2019 on the grounds that it led to saving lives that could have been lost had protests been stoked through social media platforms.

Who Shah met, who he didn’t

Since the BJP has hyphenated peace and development in the region with the changes in J&K’s status, Shah’s schedule during the three-day visit (that was extended by a day) in itself carried a message.

Alongside the ceremonies and inaugurations that are highlights of a VIP visit, he met leaders of all communities. offered prayers at Kheer Bhawani, a site of reverence for Kashmiri Pandits, followed by a meeting with a delegation of Sufi saints. To be sure, he did not meet with representatives of the state’s mainstream political parties, an omission that did not go unnoticed.

Meetings to review the security apparatus were balanced with interactions with villagers, and members of various youth clubs where he spoke about skill development and employment opportunities for the young. The home minister’s assurance that development in Jammu and Kashmir regions would be at par was seen as an olive branch to the voices in Jammu that have complained about the disparity in development.

A local political leader, who did not wish to be quoted, said Shah’s visit to the families of slain cops and civilians, and his meetings with only elected leaders from the BJP instead of the “established political set up”, was an unambiguous message of Delhi’s intention to engage only with “pro-India” sections.

Political outreach, to citizens

Apart from Shah, several Union ministers including information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur, minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, were also in the UT in the last two months to inaugurate and oversee new projects, and hold discussions with the locals as part of the Union government’s efforts to signal a change in its Kashmir policy.

“These ministers were sent to ensure that the central policies are benefiting the people on the ground and to reach out with the message that the Government of India (GoI) is committed to the development of all three regions that were part of the state,” said a second functionary aware of the details.

A recent crackdown on officials alleged to have amassed properly beyond their means or for links to terror groups has elicited a mixed response, with a section claiming that the locals are being targeted. But the functionary quoted above said that government functionaries and political representatives (panchayat level) were told to explain how these moves are pro-people, aimed at weeding out corruption that impacts the common people.

The firm line on Pakistan

Shah’s assurance to the people in the Valley that he has come to talk of development (vikas ki baat karne aaya hoon) came juxtaposed with the reiteration of the government’s strategy of not talking to Pakistan or taking on board secessionists. Unlike the United Progress Alliance government and the National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Modi government has been categorical in refusing to bring secessionists to the talking table. The issue of engagement with the Hurriyat was one of the key disagreements between the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party when the two ran a coalition government in J&K that collapsed in 2016.

While media reports earlier this year suggested that the two neighbours had resumed backchannel talks sometime in 2020 to resolve outstanding issues, there are indications that India has chosen to revisit the decision in view of the recent developments in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover as well the involvement of Pakistan and the spurt in targeted killings in Kashmir. While India has extended a rare invite to Pakistan’s national security adviser to visit Delhi for talks for a regional level conversation on Afghanistan, there hasn’t been any movement on the bilateral track since the renewed ceasefire across the Line of Control earlier this year.

Sameer Patil, an internal security expert, said Shah’s affirmation of not talking to Pakistan stems from concern over its support to terrorism and subversive activities against India.

“There has been a flurry of reports in national and international media about backchannel talks picking up between India and Pakistan, but recent developments in Afghanistan combined with a spike in violence in Jammu and Kashmir and reports of infiltration across the border probably led to a change in perception in New Delhi that Islamabad may not be budging from supporting subversive activities against India and supporting militant groups. The fact that the Haqqani network has been given a prominent place in the Taliban cabinet shows that Pakistan has played its hand well, which could be detrimental to India; therefore, New Delhi feels that there is nothing to be pursued here vis-a-vis a dialogue,” he said.

Return of the 1990s

The spate of targeted killings in the Valley preceding Shah’s visit cast a shadow on the government’s claims of a zero-tolerance policy towards terror and about the claims of terror attacks having reduced. The killings were considered a rerun of the terrorism that erupted in the Valley in 1990.

A third government functionary, however, said while the killings were clearly a message to the government, these should not be misread as the return of terrorism in the Valley. “Many anticipated a bloodbath in August 2019, but were proved wrong. The killings were a desperate attempt to stall the ongoing process of rebuilding the economy of the region through the development agenda of the Modi government,” the functionary said.

To a question on whether the absence of protests or violence was a temporary phase, the functionary quoted above said, the incidents of violence were “sporadic” and linked to political developments. “There was no violence per se when the district development council elections were held, but when more people began to participate and reclaim political spaces, we saw thetargeted killing of political workers, Sarpanches and local leaders. This again demonstrates that the common people want peace and development and are ready to participate in the political process,” the functionary said.

Shah, for his part, also addressed concerns about land changing hands in the region and the fear of a demographic change. ”…Many people questioned that after the abrogation of Article 370, will the land of Kashmiris will be snatched in the Valley? You ask in your villages how much land has been lost in the last two years. These people spread lies,” he said during an address in the Valley.

Former lawmaker and NC leader Hasnain Masoodi, however, expressed scepticism about Shah’s outreach. He said the government has not walked the talk on reaching out to the youth. Referring to the cases filed against Kashmiri students who cheered for the Pakistani cricket team and allegedly raised slogans supporting the neighbouring country, Masoodi said;”It (visit) does not seem to make any endeavours to address aspirations and resentment on the ground. We were hoping for a meaningful exercise of engaging with the youth and dialogue but what we have seen in the last few days is cases of sedition and unlawful activities slapped against students for supporting a different cricket team. This when the courts have questioned the need for continuing with the sedition law,” he said.

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