Kashmir’s Standstill Agreement

Chronic suspicion of change, power sharing, modernity and “outsiders” has now entered Kashmir’s DNA.

WrittenBy:Alpana Kishore
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High-wattage industry meets of the rich and powerful don’t usually have much in common with Block Development Councils in rural areas. Yet the two come together on a strangely connected note in Kashmir.


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First off – Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Kashmir with the mighty Tatas, Birlas and Premjis. The buzzwords of its media coverage? There was “emotional” (Tata remembering his childhood stay in a houseboat), “rich potential”, “youth”, “prosperity” and “change”. There was also “do something” – an important indication of India Inc’s apparent sincerity and willingness to go the extra mile for a people whose association with India has been an unhappy one.

Presumably, we as readers were meant to understand that this visit could be a game changer for Kashmir’s situation because opportunity and human capital had at last been brought together as they had not been in the past. It was a feel-good story for everyone with terrific photo ops – but only because no one in the media cared to remember Kashmir’s last serious attempt at pulling in investment just six years ago.

Initiated by then-Finance Minister, Muzaffar Baig of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), it tried to be a game-changer too. The hapless minister must have thought that a rip-roaringly fair election and an unseasonal outbreak of peace between India and Pakistan after years of war and violence were powerful enough catalysts to finally get Kashmir moving towards “prosperity” and “change”.

Unfortunately, his attempt to lease land to hospitality majors in Gulmarg was buried by a public clamour voicing that century-old plaint – the government was “selling Kashmir to outsiders”. Local entrepreneurs raged that the move aimed to “hit the interests of the Kashmiris” and that “outsiders” would “eat up the entire Kashmir”.

Headlines like “For Sale: Yeh Gulistan Hamara” and “Today Gulmarg, tomorrow all Kashmir” accompanied this uproar for economic shutdown in campaigns led by popular papers like Greater Kashmir. The heads of the Chambers of Commerce suggested a remedy: bring in cash but no outsiders. “The Centre should help locals alone come up with ventures. Our industries like that of apple juice cater to countries like US and Germany. We are the best! What is the need of outsiders?”

With that background, expect lemons to come out of the Tata-Birla field trip. Except that no one in the media has put it quite that way!

No doubt a few hundred bright, young Kashmiris will benefit from Tata’s attentions. But it’s time to bust the standard government myth nurtured by unquestioning media reports that economic packages, jobs, investment or even visits by India Inc can actually turn around the state’s Happiness Quotient or even India’s Happiness Quotient with it.

Vanity Paranoia – Withholding the fruits of growth

For years and years, especially post-1990, Kashmir has embraced its peculiar one-way economic street firmly shutting out market reform.

This means Kashmiri vendors/entrepreneurs have opened shop, generated energetic market activity and even been accused of a mafia at handicraft Haats from Bangalore to Delhi. Yet, egged on by their vociferous political elite, they have remained stuck in their own comfortable agro-handicrafts-government employee domestic economy run solely by Kashmiris, for Kashmiris and of Kashmiris. No “outsiders” allowed.

This form of vanity paranoia has been great for the separatist ideologies that want to hold on to an allegedly moral upper ground. It hasn’t been so great for its people.

In reality, it has meant Kashmir’s leading political and religious elite have consistently rejected attempts at market reform and modern economic systems, and held back their people from prosperity. Though India changed economic direction decisively in 1991, Kashmir chose equally decisively not to do so even later when it could – and denied its own people the fruits of growth that have powered the Indian economy since.

Kashmiri faith in their clunky, 19th century model stems not from its inherent efficiency but from the dread, that allowing in the modern development and market era forces could snuff out the by now battle weary ideology of Azaadi. Or worse, dilute its ideological hold over the masses.

Progress as Conspiracy

In reality, this hold is a death grip that weighs down Kashmir’s Gen Next, choking off the “rich potential” that Ratan Tata attempted to address. No bright young thing can defy its ideological demands to say no to things that might benefit them, especially private industry.

Yet even mainstream politicians who exist solely because of the Centre are willing participants in this dead-end understanding that freezes development. Exhibiting hostility to “outsiders” has been perceived to bring electoral gain, and Kashmiri leaders have been masters at convincing people that progress could only be a conspiracy! (Baig’s own Chief Minister, Mufti Sayeed ultimately aborted that particular experiment.)

The unappetising fact that blows a hole in this perception management? The state economy runs wholly fuelled by “outsider” grants, loans, subsidies, packages and large cash hand outs that the Centre loves to dole out in their direction – and the only mode of “development” the Kashmiri elite are happy to accept.

That’s the way it’s worked for 50 years since Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest in 1953. And that’s the way both sides like it – just as in the best Client-Patron relationships. Like Pakistan, Kashmir threatens to self-destruct. Like the US, New Delhi quickly sends bagfuls of cash. Both ensure that any meaningful Centre-State relationship or any actual progressive, growth-oriented, people-friendly economic activity is stifled at birth.

This old school, crony economy has sustained them so well for the two decades of the conflict that Kashmir might even be the only conflict economy in the world where indices for people have actually gone up during a raging insurgency.

Construction activity in urban housing, private cars, private schools, ownership of white/luxury goods, hiring of seasonal labour for orchards, mobile and internet connections etc have all shot northwards since 1990.

Yet, structural changes – the organised growth of manufacturing and private investment in clean industries, the incremental increase of road lengths and railway connectivity, the appearance of Kashmir-specific brands in its famed produce, the opening up of new tourist destinations in the state, even the emergence of new players with stylish boutique hotels, cool restaurants and events that herald an upgrade from the old style economy – can be counted on one hand.

Most are big government spends like the railway and the airport which woo the Kashmiri by bringing gift-wrapped to his doorstep the quality of life other states are getting on their own steam and hard work. As a 2007 development report quotes, “the burden of economic activity has to be borne almost exclusively by the public sector; as the private sector which should be the engine of growth is inhibited by restrictive legislation.”

This Task Force report presented by heavyweights including Sunil Mittal, C Rangarajan and Kashmir’s own Haseeb Drabu, talks of a fatal “complacent attitude towards resource generation, fiscal responsibility and accountability” brought on by “excessive and prolonged dependence on Central aid”.

In other words, the Kashmiri isn’t always happy to pay taxes, his electricity bill or sing for his supper – but expects it to be laid out for him. If it is not, he will cry “discrimination” just as easily as he cries “no outsiders”. Or put another way – damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

Yet, time is more or less up for Kashmir’s comfy old model of a government job with fruit orchards and carpet-weaving as back up. With average land holdings size now down to almost the lowest in the country, debt servicing at crippling levels, chronic underutilisation of Central funds and an enormous wage bill to support government employment as the major non-agro economic activity (because “outsider” private investment is discouraged), Kashmir should be desperately looking for ways to change economic gears from 1960 to 2012.

Preservation and Purity

Instead, that’s what Kashmiri political elites want to preserve – in the name of “purity” and the hope of ultimate separation. Securing Kashmiri supremacy by putting up aggressive barriers to economic growth, religious diversity, caste mobility or egalitarian politics is a key agenda.

That brings up the second disparate yet linked event  – the unspoken impulse jointly pushed by separatists and mainstream leaders alike; of hard-line resistance to the devolution of powers to Panchayats in thousands of villages all over the state.

Whether it is Salahuddin who threatens and executes from his safe haven in Pakistan, or elected MLAs who withhold significant powers and key funds to sarpanches under the 73rd Amendment in the name of Kashmiri “autonomy”, neither welcomes power to the people.

Since the 2011 Panchayat polls with an astonishing 79% turnout, essentials like direct fund transfers and creation of Block Development Councils have been postponed indefinitely, crippling the very formation of Panchayats as an institution. Indeed, empowering a grassroots democracy is seen as deeply threatening to the elite running the show.

So is empowering the backward. Last year, the J&K Assembly sneaked in a staggering bit of legislation that bars Gujjars from taking up reserved posts in Kashmir where they may not have strong numbers. In other words, a non-Kashmiri ST (scheduled tribe) resident of J&K cannot avail of his rights inside the Valley.

Just Say No!!

Indeed, rejection seems to be the thin glue that pins down Kashmir to its commitment to the cause of Azaadi, 20 odd years after it surfaced. Saying “no” has become its deepest, most instinctive national motif. Chronic suspicion – of demographic change, power sharing, modernity, diversity or “outsiders” has now entered its DNA. As this closed, unwilling-to-trust society sees threats from everywhere and everyone, moving ahead on any front becomes impossible.

Take a look at the long list of things separatist leader Geelani opposes. He has condemned giving land to the railways to enhance Kashmir’s connectivity, slammed the Abdullah land reforms that freed up land, bashed the Tata-Birla visit as “replicating the designs of the East India Company”, accused migrant workers (without whom Kashmir would shut down) as agents with a sinister demography-altering agenda, threatened an agitation against road widening at Amarnath, pronounced a boycott of Panchayat polls and denounced diverse cultural programs in universities as “intolerable” for Muslims.

In the name of “purity”, therefore, Kashmir will continue to reject economic transformation. Its ethnic nationalism will restrict social justice to a basic minimum. Its Islamist orientation will resist secular diversity. It will raise physical, legislative and ultimately agitational and violent barriers to retain this insularity. This means it will not be a team player even inside its own state and will bat only for itself.

The place that’s “not Kashmir”

The point is if Kashmir wants standstill till Azaadi comes – even at the cost of hurting itself – that’s a fair proposition. Independence struggles demand sacrifice and waiting.

Until Kashmir’s GenNext decides not to pay the price of isolation anymore; the standstill can carry on forever. Delhi won’t let Kashmir truly fail.

Equally though, its hostility to outsiders won’t let it truly prosper in today’s global world. Local pride and joy in one odd Taj Vivanta cannot easily subdue the gradual branding of Kashmir as a place where mercurial, volatile passions suddenly devastate calm, disrupt the daily workforce for months and endanger property – clearly not the best investor draw to attract multiple projects.

Yet there’s no reason the rest of the state should also stand still. Since no one else smells sinister conspiracy in market friendly policies and social diversity, or shivers with dread about demographic outnumbering on a few hundred acres, such initiatives must also go to welcoming environs where help is equally needed.

Rahul’s delegation can go to Doda and transform its road connectivity to Himachal, exploit the stunning touristic beauty of Bhadarwah or beef up manufacturing bases outside Jammu city. It can tackle infrastructure like roads, financing and communication around the Poonch-Rawlakote checkpoint to enhance cross LoC trade. It can better agri yields in arid Ladakh, modernise its wool industry and harness its wind energy potential.

In fact the delegation can go any place it is needed and wanted. If they go to that place, Tata and Birla might be able to “do something” where it actually has a chance of being “done”. And yes, they will find the “youth”, “prosperity” and “change” they are looking for.

Sadly today – that seems to be a place that’s “not Kashmir”. Perhaps tomorrow…

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