Over five months after it silenced Kashmir, the Centre has decided to speak to it. Thousands of Kashmiris are still without internet, several political leaders in the Valley are still under arrest and Opposition leaders are still not allowed to visit. The loudest silence is the one imposed on the cataclysmic political changes that have swept across the Valley since August 5, when it revoked special status for Jammu and Kashmir, guaranteed under Article 370, and split the state into two Union Territories. In the first “outreach” made by the government since August 5, Delhi is laying out the contours of politics now permitted in Kashmir.
On January 21, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nityanand Rai and GK Reddy were part of the first batch of Union ministers deployed in the Kashmir Valley as part of the initiative. They appear to have gone through the same laundry list of promises trotted out over the past few months: development, employment, better guarantees for tribal communities, greater accountability and an end to corruption.
Most of these claims sound absurd in the current scenario: accountability from a government which took unilateral decisions after placing its citizens under lockdown, development when the Kashmiri economy is estimated to have lost close to Rs 18,000 crore since August 5, cleaning out corruption when regular transactions were suspended for months.
It remains to be seen whether the government of the Union Territory performs better in its promises to tribal communities than governments of the former state. In Hindu-majority Jammu, Muslims from the Gujjar and Bakerwal tribes have been routinely harassed over the past few years, often with the blessing of local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. Will a Central government led by the BJP now secure the rights of these vulnerable minorities?
Overall, the content of Naqvi’s address seemed to be bureaucratic rather than political. Indeed, the “outreach” of Union ministers sounds remarkably similar to the “Back to Villages” programme launched by the Jammu and Kashmir government last year. Bureaucrats were expected to fan out across villages, spend some time there, speak to local panchayat members and address developmental concerns. Union ministers have reportedly been instructed to do much the same by the prime minister: stick to development, steer clear of politics, especially Article 370.
In doing so, the Centre fails to recognise that the Kashmiri public is more than the sum of its material needs. It continues to deny the rights, freedoms, ideas and aspirations that make up Kashmiri political identity. For years, Delhi has tried to answer Kashmiri demands for azadi or greater autonomy with developmental promises. Now, it proposes to invent a new, defanged version of Kashmiri politics, suppressing all those who speak differently. But that will not magic away political dissensions. It will only drive them further underground.