Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s decision to spend the weekend meeting Kashmiris, ranging from groups of youth to retired IAS officers from the Valley, may seem cosmetic, but it signals that the Centre is empathetic. It undermines the narrative that New Delhi wants to crush Kashmiri Muslims with armed might.
He must speak the language of accommodation and conciliation, particularly in light of the fresh round of killings that have taken place in south Kashmir since Friday evening. That overshadowed the commendable restraint which the forces had shown over much of the past fortnight of extreme unrest.
Since the situation was still volatile, Singh would have been well advised to wait before visiting. Now that he has come, conciliatory words could still help to demonstrate that the BJP is not dealing with Kashmir with an eye on the UP elections, or through an ultra-nationalist prism.
Singh must be ever watchful that he does not come across as overbearing. He should imagine a similar visit to Chennai, were there trouble there. That comparison would be a good guide, for the sense of a distinctive identity is no less strong among Tamils than among Kashmiris.
Singh ought to emphasise that the Centre backs Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti; he must be cautious not to seem to undermine her authority. Mehbooba did well to transfer the SP of Anantnag district on the eve of the home minister’s visit. It signaled that she is in charge.
To be sure, the BJP’s constituency in Jammu would be pleased to view the home minister’s visit as undermining the state’s autonomy, but he should not play to that gallery. It could prove very costly in the sensitive Kashmir Valley, particularly at this stage.
Singh’s concern must be – and be seen to be – the welfare, security, grief, medical needs and provisions of Kashmiri people at large. Focusing unduly on the Amarnath Yatra or the welfare of Pandits would be counterproductive at this stage, when Kashmir remains volatile.
At most times, Kashmiris tend to respond to empathy from Central leaders more positively than many in Tamil Nadu or Kerala (for example) might. Prime Minister Vajpayee remains a particular favourite. Rajnath Singh has a long way to go, however, if he is to even get near Vajpayee’s league. The current NDA government has gathered a good deal of negative baggage in Kashmir.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to spend Diwali with soldiers at the Srinagar cantonment in 2014 must have gone down well with the soldiers. But it alienated the common people, who were still struggling to cope with the ravages of terrible floods that autumn. These signals are soon forgotten by those in power, and by people across the country, but their negative impact lingers among common people in Kashmir.
The narrative that the Indian state did not care whether the people of Kashmir lived or drowned had some impact following those floods, particularly in light of the Centre’s continued reluctance to send funds. The empathetic thrust of the Rajya Sabha debate as soon as the current monsoon session got underway helped to undo the damage, slightly.
Some MPs blamed Pakistan during that debate. That may work on the international stage – or again, it might not. But within Kashmir, that does not send the right message. It signals that India is only concerned about keeping the territory away from Pakistan, not about the people at large.
Dealing with Kashmir through security forces is even worse. Lt Gen Vinayak Patankar, one of the finest officers to head the army corps in Kashmir in the past two decades, wrote an article on Friday recommending political initiatives. Security forces can help to put out fires. Political, economic, social and cultural initiatives can help to prevent fires from breaking out. Sadly, the Home Ministry has long viewed the police and the Intelligence Bureau as its arms in Kashmir. Instead, it must make space for not only political parties but political and social processes.
In the weeks before Afzal Guru was hanged in early 2013, an energetic youth activist called Touseef Raina had started a signature campaign in Baramulla. He went around asking young people to sign a letter addressed to the President of India, asking that the evidence against Guru be reviewed and the death sentence be commuted.
Instead of appreciating the legitimacy of citizens addressing the President of India, the head of the district police summoned the young activist and threatened to arrest him unless he stopped that campaign. The sort of political process Raina had initiated must be allowed space. The police state which put it down must get off people’s backs.
But sadly, it is this sort of ham-handed police state over which the Home Ministry has presided in the past – for, make no mistake, the Home Ministry sometimes directly gives instructions to the state police, over the head of the state government. One hopes the current visit will signal change.
Last winter, the government had changed tack pretty dramatically with regard to Pakistan. That did no good, for it was too much too late. Let us hope this visit by the home minister will mark a sustained change in the Centre’s attitude towards Jammu and Kashmir.