On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated his way through Jammu and Kashmir while asserting that “development, development and only development” was the answer to the state’s problems. In Leh, he flagged off work for the Zojila underground tunnel, which is to connect Ladakh to the rest of the country all year round. In Jammu, it was a power project and a ring road. From Kashmir, it was a semi-ring road and the Kishenganga Hydroelectric Project, dedicated to the nation.
At the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre in Srinagar, Modi name-checked the holy month of Ramzan (which started on Thursday), Kashmiriyat, jamhuriyat (democracy), Atal Behari Vajpayee and Bharat Mata, all in the same speech. He spoke of his pride at young Kashmiris entering the civil services and a five-year-old girl cleaning up the Dal Lake, holding up the ideals of Swachh Bharat. He entreated Kashmiris to join the “mainstream”, for it was their “family”, their “mother and father”.
While Modi invoked the Ramzan ceasefire and suspension of security operations declared by the Centre on Wednesday, the amnesty granted to stone-pelters identified as “first-time offenders”, and the interlocutor dispatched to hold talks in Kashmir, development was clearly the centrepiece of his speech, the only answer to “every problem, every issue”. Modi conjured up a glittering array of projects and smart cities that were to turn Kashmir once again into the “crown” of New India. Outside, the empty streets belied his words.
As Modi spoke of “modern conveniences” for the ordinary Kashmiri, mobile internet was blocked in the Valley. As he spoke of the best hospitals, the best roads, the best educational institutions for the state, schools and colleges across the Valley remained shut. A road leading to one of the major hospitals in Srinagar was reportedly closed and Lal Chowk, the central town square, was sealed off. As Modi spoke of creating a tourist-friendly environment, Boulevard Road, curling along the Dal Lake and leading up to the conference centre, was shut. In summer, it is the main haunt of tourists in Srinagar.
Separatist leaders who had wanted to hold what they insisted would be a peaceful march were put under house arrest. Several parts of the Valley shut down to protest the prime minister’s visit and Srinagar was encircled in a three-tier ring of security.
Even accounting for the security threat, it is not clear why the lives of ordinary citizens must grind to a halt. Over the last few years, the state administration has dealt with any potentially volatile situation in the same way: restrictions on movement, internet blockades, a clampdown on any kind of dissent. It does not augur well for a leader when his visits to a place are identified with a sense of siege.
Kashmir and aspiration
Modi’s speech this year was only marginally less tone deaf than those of previous years. In 2016, when mass protests raged across Kashmir, he suggested that the youth carry “laptops, not stones” in their hands. In April 2017, speaking from the relative safety of Jammu as the Valley imploded after Lok Sabha bye-elections, he asked the youth to choose between tourism and terrorism. Both speeches contained a determination to unsee the political grievances that roiled the Valley.
This year, he invoked the image of the aspirational Kashmiri again, the conduit of development who acquired degrees and contributed to the gross domestic product, casting aside petty politics. Once again, the prime minister invokes binaries that do not hold: several among the new generation of militants belonged to affluent families, entered institutions of higher education and had promising careers before them.
Years of civil protest and civilian killings by security forces have given rise to wellsprings of rage and despair among the youth. In the towns of South Kashmir, college students say they have no career plans because they cannot imagine a future beyond the next day. In a place where three decades of conflict have left one in five adults with post-traumatic stress disorder, there are wounds that the promise of jobs and roads cannot heal.
Claims of development
The lure of development in the Valley may also have worn thin because previous promises have not been kept. Visiting Kashmir after the floods of 2014 that left over 250 people dead, Modi had pledged Rs 80,000 crore to rebuild the state. This weekend, he talked up the package again, claiming projects worth Rs 63,000 had already been sanctioned, and Rs 20,000 crore had already been spent.
Yet, this package has been the cause of much bitterness. This March, a parliamentary committee report on it stated that only 22% of the promised funds had been released by the Centre till then. As for projects sanctioned, the committee had a more generous estimate than Modi: Rs 67,047 crore rather than Rs 63,000 crore. But progress on the projects was slow and “little outcome was achieved”, it said. Given such a track record, Modi’s claim on Saturday that Kashmir would get development projects worth Rs 25,000 crore gave little reason for cheer.
Of course, the convention of leaders from Delhi jetting down for inauguration sprees was not invented by Modi. Under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, too, Central leaders visited the Valley to inaugurate railway and power projects, in a bid to bring peace and link Kashmir to the country’s growth story, they said. Even if the trains arrived, peace did not.