On Thursday, the Goods and Services Tax Council, which counts Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and the state finance ministers as members, will gather in Srinagar. The crucial meeting, which is to slot various goods and services into four tax slabs, will make the city part of “economic history”, it is said.
The state administration has made elaborate arrangements for the visiting dignitaries – about 150 are expected to attend – deputing 69 Kashmir Administrative Service officials to the task. The meeting will take place at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre, built on the edge of the Dal Lake, fringed with tall pines and poplars.
Incidentally, Jammu and Kashmir, because of its special status, is not part of the goods and services tax regime yet. It will have to draft a separate law, and businessmen in the Kashmir Valley are already worried it will impinge on the state’s economic autonomy. They will reportedly seek appointments with Jaitley, who arrived in Srinagar a day early to review the security situation with Army Chief General Bipin Rawat.
Making Srinagar the venue for a key meeting on one of modern India’s most significant tax reforms, ahead of its scheduled rollout on July 1, has been hailed as a symbolic gesture. It is perhaps a well-intentioned move on New Delhi’s part, enlisting Kashmir in national policy decisions, shifting the lens away from militancy and crackdowns to economic debate. Like most of Delhi’s gestures, however, there is little beyond the optics and no real engagement with the troubles of the Valley.
Jaitley arrives at a time when the state is in ferment, with several developments taking place at the same time. It recently became clear that elections are not possible in Kashmir at the moment, and the Election Commission on May 2 called off the Anantnag bye-polls, scheduled for May 25. The original date of polling was April 12 but it was postponed in the wake of violence and a low voter turnout in the Srinagar bye-election on April 9.
Curbs on the internet and social media bans have made the youth restive. While many circumvent the ban by using virtual private network servers, others have come up with local options to social media websites like Facebook. Protests against the state have reached campuses; students from high schools and colleges clash with security forces almost daily. Girl students are newly visible participants in these protests.
In South Kashmir, a village lives in fear and despair after Umar Fayaz Parray, a young Kashmiri Army officer, was abducted and killed by militants. In the national media, the local population was put on trial for its support to militancy. Meanwhile, a new phase of large-scale cordon and search operations has been set in motion by security forces, forcing comparisons with the nightmare of the 1990s. Even as Jaitley landed in Srinagar, about 1,000 security forces had moved into Shopian district in South Kashmir to lay siege to villages there and hunt down militants.
The militancy itself is taking a new, disturbing turn, with civilians as well as security forces coming under fire. There has also been a split in militant ranks after Zakir Musa, a former Hizbul Mujahideen commander, released a video threatening Hurriyat leaders and anyone else who called the Kashmir struggle a “secular movement” for political freedom. They were fighting for Islam and the Sharia, Musa said, quitting the Hizbul Mujahideen on Saturday after the organisation distanced itself from his remark. Both militancy and the anti-India agitation seem to be poised at a crucial juncture.
Jaitley could have used his visit better. He could have tried reaching out to different constituencies of opinion, from students to civil society groups to separatist leaders. Of course, he would have to work through layers of fear and mistrust – Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik on Wednesday spoke out against dialogue with the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the Centre persists in its old ways, consulting the Army, dismissing all dissent as manufactured by Pakistan, treating Kashmir only as a security issue.
A tired politics
What does it mean to hold a major national policy meeting in a place where most voters have rejected electoral processes altogether? Earlier this week, another function at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre ended in disaster. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, whose Peoples’ Democratic Party heads a coalition government with the BJP in the state, was scheduled to address women’s self-help groups in a programme organised by the State Rural Livelihoods Mission but had to leave the premises after women there broke into protest.
Talking economics and livelihoods cannot cover up larger political questions, they seemed to be saying, functions and conferences can only lend the illusion of normalcy to the Valley.
But Delhi’s initiatives in Kashmir have largely been restricted to politics of gestures, especially in recent years, after talks with separatist leaders became a thing of the past. During the rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, it was railway inaugurations and special packages for the state. After the BJP-headed National Democratic Alliance came to power, it was sudden, high-profile visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who promised relief after the devastating 2014 floods and more special packages. Scant government relief reached flood victims, and the special packages are reportedly still on their way. Mere political gestures might have reached their limits in an angry Valley.