Prime Minister Narendra Modi is undertaking an unprecedented outreach to Kashmir. He is a man with a mission and the mission is to bring the restless Kashmir valley into the mainstream of Indian polity and more significantly of Indian consciousness. He has visited the state more often than any recent prime minister - six times in his first six months in office - and in October chose to spend Diwali in Kashmir.
Modi went to Srinagar's Sher-e-Kashmir stadium last week with the same message which he has been delivering across the country - that of delivering jobs, prosperity and an end to nepotism and corruption. But this was Kashmir, so he acknowledged the concerns of the Kashmiris about the heavy-handedness of the army. And though he has received considerable flak for his declaration that for the first time in 30 years, the army had acknowledged its error in the recent killing of two young Kashmiris, he was underscoring that the buck stops with him. Modi also ignored Pakistan in his speech, underlining the irrelevance of Pakistan in the evolving debate on Kashmir.
The numbers were smaller compared to his usual rallies but the exercise was not about getting the numbers right. It was about something much more substantive. Here was an Indian national leader addressing Kashmiris in the very heart of the Valley - an ostensible no-go area for Indian politicians.
Critics are merely focusing on small-bore issues - that numbers promised were not there, that a large chunk of the audience was brought in from Jammu, that the Prime Minister did not chant his usual Bharat Mata Ki Jai at the end of his speech. While important for Modi's political opponents to score a political victory, these are irrelevant issues in the larger scheme of things. Where the Prime Minister is changing the game in Jammu and Kashmir, his critics are content at taking swipes at him.
Though Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have come to the same grounds in Srinagar earlier, Modi's was a political rally. He was in Srinagar asking for votes from Kashmir much like he has been doing in the rest of the country. This is the biggest triumph of Indian democracy where a BJP Prime Minister can go to the heart of Srinagar and ask the Kashmiris to elect his party's candidates. The Congress Party for the past several decades has been riding piggyback on regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir. But the BJP is making a bold pitch to win power in a state where it has had a marginal presence so far. And Modi's focus on integrating the state with the rest of the country, therefore, acquires an altogether new dimension.
Let's not forget that just a few years back sections of the intelligentsia in New Delhi had started wondering if the time has not come to give in to the demands of those who wanted nothing to do with India. A sense of fatigue over the issue of Kashmir was prompting suggestions that Kashmir should be allowed to secede. Some were pointing out that the costs of holding on to Kashmir were far too great even as others were suggesting that India should not be a colonizer, ruling people against their will.
The saga of Kashmir is one of competing nationalisms and political philosophies. On one hand, the Indian government has continued to champion Muslim-dominated Kashmir as a symbol of India's secular democratic ethos and failed to acknowledge that a majority of Kashmiris indeed felt alienated from India. On the other, the separatists who want the right of self-determination have refused to account for the aspirations of the Hindus and Ladakhis as if they're not a part of this dispute at all.
In fact, if there's been any success in the India-Pakistan "peace process" in the last few years, it's been recognition on both sides that redrawing territorial borders is strictly out of bounds. Moreover, broader geopolitical ramifications of an independent, landlocked Kashmir remain dependent on the kindness of its neighbours. India, Pakistan and even China would try to enhance their own strategic interests and compete for the loyalty of Kashmir. It's not readily evident that an independent Kashmir would be less a bone of contention between India and Pakistan than the present state of affairs is. Islamist extremism would get a boost worldwide even as India, already under assault from rising Islamist fundamentalism, would find it difficult to manage growing tensions between Hindu extremists and Islamist radicals. It's no exaggeration to suggest that it would be the end of India as the world has come to know.
Today there is a churning in Jammu and Kashmir with record voter turnout in the elections despite dastardly terror attacks and calls for boycott. People are willing to give Indian democracy a chance and choosing ballot over bullet is their way of telling those who believe in the politics of violence that enough is enough. Despite Pakistan's repeated attempts to destabilise Kashmir, it is Pakistan that stands isolated. And the rise of Modi in the larger Indian political spectrum also has had a cascading effect on the politics of the state.
Modi's interest in Jammu and Kashmir is significant for the signal it sends to the state's populace as well as to the international community that the state remains an integral part of India. The Modi government is signalling that Jammu and Kashmir is not there to be put on the negotiating table with third parties. It is only the disaffected people of the state that India has to engage with and convince that the Indian state has right intentions to secure their needs and aspirations. Pakistan is best left ignored. Modi is being audacious in his bid to reach out to the Kashmiris. He should be given a chance to prove that he would remain true to his words.
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