With his happy flair for catchphrases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered Kashmiri youth a choice: between “tourism and terrorism”. Modi was speaking at Udhampur, a district in Jammu division, after having inaugurated the Chenani-Nashri tunnel on Sunday. But his words were directed across the Pir Panjal range, at the troubled Kashmir Valley.
So far as catchphrases go, it worked. It rhymed, it was alliterated, it caught people’s attention. But it also suggests that, in Delhi’s imagination, Kashmir still lives on as Bollywoodised cliché. The Valley’s inhabitants are neatly divided into mad-eyed militants and merry troubadours rowing loved-up tourists across the Dal Lake.
The prime minister went on to speak sentimentally about how Indians from the mainland wished to visit the Valley, how it would have had “the world at its feet” if it had focused on tourism. But his words conjured up a Kashmir in the service of Delhi’s imagination, a region that could be made fit for touristic consumption if conflict did not get in the way.
‘Tourism or terrorism’
What are Kashmiris who do not fit either description supposed to do? There are engineers and teachers in the Valley who are waiting for jobs or forced to work on short-term contracts because there is no place for them, in Kashmir or outside. There are talented journalists and photographers doing odd jobs on the side because their writing and their pictures do not pay them enough to get by.
Unemployment rates among the youth, or people aged between 18 and 29 years, in Jammu and Kashmir are nearly double the national average. According to the Economic Survey Report of 2016, it was 24.6% in Jammu and Kashmir as opposed to 13.2% nationwide. Over one lakh unemployed youth are registered with the Employment Department alone. With the state being the biggest employer, large numbers are left with no choice but to line up for government jobs or sign up for recruitment in the armed forces, even during periods of unrest.
While tourism could absorb some of these numbers, what of the varied and particular ambitions of those who do not join militant ranks and who do not want to run hotels or tours to Gulmarg? They do not seem to figure in Delhi’s imagination.
‘Laptops, not stones’
Of course, the prime minister is given to deploying binaries when it comes to Kashmir. In the same speech on Sunday, he remarked that while some in the Valley were busy throwing stones at security forces, others were breaking stones to build the tunnel, participants in the great project of development.
Last summer, while Kashmir was swept up in mass protests, he said the youth should have laptops in their hands, not stones. It is development versus conflict, jobs and education versus protest and militancy, in this formulation.
Never mind that Modi was advocating laptops at a time when internet services had been cut off from the Valley for months. Never mind that many of the youth killed in the uprising were students who would have written their board examinations months later. And most of those who survived went back to school or college after the protests died out.
As for those who took up arms, it has often been said that this generation of militants came from affluent families and were well educated. Among those killed in encounters with security forces were engineering students and sons of businessmen or landowners. Some gave up jobs or small businesses to join militancy. Where do these youth fit the government’s calculations?
When it is not blaming idleness for militancy, the Centre blames Pakistan for recruiting fighters and paying boys to throw stones, introducing yet another binary. The Valley is not attributed a will or a politics of its own; it is a place that things are done to, where Delhi and Islamabad must fight it out.
The laptops and stones comment became shorthand for government apathy during the protests of 2016. And now Modi’s two options for Kashmiri youth have deepened bitterness in the Valley. There is a Kashmir beyond the cliches, an angry, wounded, complicated place that is increasingly turning to violence. Unless Delhi tries to understand it, the chance for a political dialogue could slip away altogether.