Opinion: 4 Years Without Article 370 And Kashmir’s Transformation

On 5 August 2019, by abrogating Article 370 and 35A and bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, the Modi government let the world know “impossible is nothing” was not just a catchy tagline. However, deep down, the ruling establishment knew the task was only half done. There were many miles to go.

The government had taken adequate measures to overcome any challenge – regional, national and international, particularly with relation to the two hostile neighbours. The legal and constitutional integration of J&K had become total.

The biggest challenge now was the integration of people in Kashmir Valley with the rest of India.

For 70 years, people in the Valley were indoctrinated by regional and central leaders of various parties, except for the former Jan Sangh and the BJP. They were told that Article 370 was their armour against India, that they held special status because of protections granted under Article 370. Generations of people had developed this psyche of Kashmir versus India.

For those who cared to listen with an open mind about how discriminatory Article 370 was, even for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, benefiting only a handful and three modern day political dynasties in particular, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s speeches in both houses were among the finest in parliament.

Shah was right. A famed political advisor to a past regime had once narrated to this writer how over the years, conflict politics in Kashmir had mushroomed into cottage, medium and large industries, domestically and internationally. Entrenched beneficiaries wouldn’t let that go at any cost, he had said.

How generations of Kashmiris were brainwashed and incited into picking up stones and guns was brilliantly explained recently by Shah Faisal, a well-known Kashmiri bureaucrat-turned-politician-turned-bureaucrat. He shared his personal experiences as a Kashmiri and as an officer of the state — how young boys of 9-10 years would pick up stones and sticks and enforce “curfew”, as directed by the masterminds. These kids would ask the elderly to show their ID cards and even attack them with sticks for violating “curfew”.

This was the depth of the challenge before PM Modi after Article 370 was scrapped.

The first confidence building measure came from National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on August 7, 2019; he walked down the streets of Srinagar without security personnel glued to him, chatting with people, sharing a meal with them.

Days later, he visited Lal Chowk, Hazratbal Shrine and downtown Srinagar on Eid. That was to send the message that the government of India cared for ordinary people and there was nothing to fear. What had happened was for the best.

The political leadership at the Centre felt the need for a person in charge in Srinagar and Jammu to translate PM Modi’s vision into reality – someone of integrity, motivation to do better, someone with an unassuming personality and charm, who was approachable and could easily connect with people. Manoj Sinha, a former Union Minister, appeared to fit the bill.

He was called from Varanasi to Delhi by Amit Shah and PM Modi and was immediately despatched to Srinagar as its new Lieutenant Governor.

On 7 August 2020, Sinha assumed office. Besides other issues, Covid threw up a host of other challenges. Sinha picked up from where Doval had left. His first stop was the Government Medical College in Srinagar. The outreach was an instant hit with people. Some wrote on social media that the Lieutenant Governor had done what chief ministers hadn’t done in the past.

After that, Sinha made it a habit to travel by road to every event. A chopper was a no-no, unless his destination was really far or there was some urgency. This made his ground understanding better and improved the people’s perception of him. He went to areas seen to be hotbeds of terrorism. His recent presence at a Muharram procession (being held after over three decades) and his mingling with the gathered crowd surprised even critics of Modi government in the Valley. One can imagine how his security officers must have reacted to his decision to take such trips.

Anyone who has visited Kashmir before and after 2019 can tell what has changed.

First, there is still some scepticism among people in the Valley about the BJP, but PM Modi and ‘LG Sarkar’ are accepted and acceptable realities.

Second, the notorious Pattharbaji (stone pelting), which destroyed the youth and the future of the younger lot, besides landing security personnel in dangerous scenarios, is a thing of the past. No stone pelting incident has been reported since August 2019. There are many creative avenues for channeling the younger generation’s energy, sporting arenas and opportunity, stadiums constructed across the Valley, skill development opportunities, self-help groups, schools and colleges and so on. The record tourist inflow has rehabilitated old businesses and greater connectivity with the rest of India has sprouted new businesses and opportunities. Incidentally, women and girls are said to be more receptive to this change.

Third, “Bandh ka Bandh ho gaya (shutdowns have shut down)”. Bandh or shutdown had become a culture in the Valley; a bandh could be called by militants and separatists and terror outfits on anything or everything. This would manifest even more during any VVIP visit.

But in July 2021, when President Ram Nath Kovind visited Kashmir on a three-day tour, the administration ensured there was no shutdown. Again, on August 5 that year there was no shutdown.

A statement by Manoj Sinha at a public function was most noteworthy. When someone confronted him by saying that he used the Danda (stick) to ensure there was no bandh, he responded by saying, “If Pakistan and terror outfits could enforce shutdown by using the gun, what’s wrong in use of danda by the administration to negate that.”

Fourth, local polls like the District Development Council elections and the Urban Body elections threw up new grassroots leaders of all hues who are more accessible and are alive to local concerns and aspirations. Roads and small bridges were built and electricity provided to areas that craved it for ages.

The DDC election results were also a reflection of how popular faith in traditional parties had diminished. Ideally the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) comprising the National Conference (NC), the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the CPI(M), CPI, J&K People’s Conference, Awami National Conference and the People’s Movement, should have swept the polls, not leaving any scope for rival parties or formations, but the results didn’t go that way.

Fifth, the opening of cinema halls, music, lit fests. It took the abrogation of Article 370 and the return of normalcy for cinema theatres to open in the Valley after 33 years. The first was a multiplex in Srinagar. More and more cinema halls followed in other districts. The reopening of cinema halls proved to be a resounding success, sending a strong message to those who wished to push Kashmiris into obscurantism and fundamentalism. So is the opening of the Jhelum River Front, which brought music, literature and enjoyment to life along Dal Lake and the Jhelum River.

The successful conclusion of the G20 tourism summit in Kashmir stands as a clear indication of what has changed. But even before that, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra inadvertently told the world how Kashmir has changed in the last four years, through their playful pictures and videos in Gulmarg.

(Sanjay Singh is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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