Chill wind in the Valley

The irony is that till the precipitate evacuation of pilgrims and tourists that prefaced the “integration” of Jammu & Kashmir by parliamentary vote, the Valley was having its best summer season since the killing of terrorist-turned-martyr Burhan Wani in July 2016.

The hotels and houseboats of Srinagar were packed, hardly a spare room available in Gulmarg and Pahalgam, and the bazaars buzzed with shoppers and holidaymakers. Friends and colleagues returning from vacation reported that (despite the paramilitary presence) a mood of relative calm prevailed. No major protests or encounters took place and travel to the Mughal gardens and monuments in provincial districts of Anantnag and Baramulla was unhindered.

Perhaps it was this lull, a fleeting illusion of normalcy, that prompted Home Minister Amit Shah to execute his elaborate plan of “unifying” Kashmir with India — part of a long-held BJP promise to abolish its special status — with electrifying stealth and speed. Almost overnight the Valley went dead, an eerie chill wind funnelling the might of the Indian state with massive troop reinforcements. 

It may well be that Article 370 serves no particular purpose in ensuring the security or progress of the Valley's Muslim majority; but revoking it by smothering their voices — and arresting their leaders — is another turn of Narendra Modi's Hindutva juggernaut moving inexorably forward. The withdrawal of special status for J&K has found both popular and political support among opposition parties — dividing the Congress in its ranks — because many regard it as an unfair privilege. (Swathes of voters who handed the BJP its spectacular victory in May tend to regard many Valley-dwellers as spoilt, self-serving and unpatriotic.) 

While dumbing down the J&K legislature from statehood to union territory —and unshakably putting it under New Delhi's thumb for the forseeable future - Mr Shah in the Rajya Sabha thundered: “[Kashmir] was heaven on earth and will remain so … Give us five years and we will make Jammu & Kashmir the most developed state in the country.”         

Mr Shah’s reference to Kashmir as paradise (albeit a bleeding, violent one) isn't new. Further fishing in troubled waters he evoked a clichéd vision of akhand Kashmir: “When I talk of J&K, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Aksai Chin are included in it. Don’t you consider PoK a part of J&K … I will give my life for it … We are ready to give our lives…”

Therein lies the rub: Amit Shah’s nationalist rhetoric supersedes his knowledge of topographic ground reality. Anyone who has been to Muzaffarabad (as this columnist has) will testify how dull, dusty, and featureless the hilly area on the banks of the Jhelum is. Its Mirpuri inhabitants don't speak Kashmiri but a dialect of Punjabi, akin to Dogri and other hill dialects of the Jammu region. Nor do they bear any resemblance to the people of the Valley being, as one analyst writes, “culturally and linguistically … totally different from Kashmiris. To that extent the term PoK is also a misnomer and should be appropriately called PoJ&K.”

The contrast between PoK and the Valley is so glaring that it is patently obvious why no one really wants PoK (except possibly Amit Shah) and everyone down the ages has coveted the fabled vale of alpine meadows, saffron fields, lake-studded peaks, and picturesque shikaras and houseboats. Certainly Nehru’s sentimental attachment to the land of his forbears led to expedient political compromise as did “Sher-e-Kashmir” Sheikh Abdullah's grasp in founding a regional dynasty.

The ban on outsiders buying property is an old restriction and, in fact, led to the advent of houseboats as popular holiday homes for colonial administrators and outsiders. (Similar restraints exist in many northeastern states and also in parts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.)

Despite the prime minister’s assurances of investors' summits and a host of opportunities for the disaffected Kashmiri youth, development in the Valley has been skewed since the rise of insurgency in the late 1980s. While it is true that J&K is ahead on social indicators as compared to backward parts of the country (thanks to generous infusions of Central subsidy) there are few jobs outside the government sector, no industry to speak of other than tourism, fruit-growing and handicrafts, and zero investment in skill development or business promotion.

Corruption has grown manifold during decades of militancy and on-and-off civil administrations have been paralysed by the overwhelming dominance of armed forces.

Most small businesses that flourish during the summer's tourist season wait for a surge of visitors in late August-September, when the Valley’s gigantic chinars catch fire in a blaze of breathtaking autumn colours.

An enthusiastic young entrepreneur I know who has converted his charming family house and garden on the shores of Nigeen Lake into a successful small hotel was telling guests in June that he was forced to turn down bookings as he was full up till October.

But a sudden blast of chill wind from New Delhi has ruined his chances of profit and struggle in holding his family legacy together. There are many such who face an uncertain future with frustration and hopelessness.


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