Why Modi’s Kashmir Visit Is So Crucial

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IT is unlikely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a sense of irony. If he does, on November 7, when he makes a public speech in Srinagar, he could ponder the words of his party president Amit Shah. In the course of the Bihar campaign, Shah had famously said that crackers would be burst in Pakistan should the Bharatiya Janata Party be defeated in Bihar.

Modi has chosen to be in Srinagar on November 7, after the Bihar exit poll results are out, but on the eve of the counting day. He will be making a speech in that part of India where the Pakistan constituency has only grown since the BJP came to power at the centre. The sonic bursts that Kashmiris are all too familiar with are the sounds of gunfire. The prime minister will make a public appearance amidst the tightest security.

Great Expectations

Srinagar presents Modi with many intriguing possibilities. First – and this is the least that the ruling People’s Democratic Party establishment is expecting – is that Modi will pull back from the divisive rhetoric in the Bihar election where he tried to stoke communal feelings, even if subliminally. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed reportedly had an hour-long meeting with Modi in Delhi recently and has subsequently given interviews saying that Modi is not communal and will act against those who are.

Since he forged an alliance with the BJP in February, Sayeed has often appeared to be marooned in Srinagar, with the Centre forgetting the special economic package for the state, the possibilities of talks with Pakistan fading, and beef politics taking its toll. There is little doubt that in tightly managed Kashmir, whatever credibility the Sayeed dispensation had to begin with, is now undermined. The leadership of the PDP therefore sees the visit as a lifeline. The second hope that Sayeed has from Delhi, of finally getting the special economic package, is what will in all likelihood materialise during the prime ministerial visit.

It is the third expectation, that there should be a “Vajpayee moment” in Srinagar that is the most tantalising. On August 18, 2003, at a time when relations between India and Pakistan had soured after the Kargil war, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then prime minister, had at a public rally in Srinagar, made a call for friendship with Pakistan.  Vajpayee’s peace efforts contributed to the argument that only the hawks (and by inference a BJP regime) can actually make peace with Pakistan.

But such a simplistic thesis does not hold true any longer. It is quite likely that Modi could talk of peace in generalised terms. Besides, there is a hawkish view emerging from his party and influential sections of the media that it is the Pakistanis who have to show good faith, not the Indians.  Since the Vajpayee era, the chaos and internal violence in Pakistan has only worsened and its political leadership looks weaker than before. Sayeed also happened to be chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir when Vajpayee went there but he would know that India has changed since the days of the first BJP prime minister.

The Ground Reality

In Kashmir, meanwhile, one should always remember that the more things change on the surface, the more they remain frozen in its history. There has always been a pro-Pakistan constituency in Kashmir, weakened or strengthened by coordinates such as the conduct of the security forces in one of the world’s most militarised zones, sentiment within the valley where small sparks set off raging fires, where levels of cross border movement change with the seasons, and where the political articulation of India’s national leadership is closely watched.

But what is indeed a perverse reality is that at a time when Pakistan is a failed state on several fronts, the idea of the “two nation theory” is still used as an argument in Kashmir. Indeed, unprecedented support for a Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba  commander has only recently been displayed at a funeral that has been the talk of the Kashmiri media. On October 29, Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Abu Qasim was killed in an operation that was a success from the point of view of the security agencies. But what followed thereafter should deeply worry those who have for years argued that Kashmir is an integral part of the larger idea of secular India.

The attendance at his funeral and the outpouring of anti-India emotion was on a scale not witnessed since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thousands of mourners poured in, the crowd was charged with emotion and militants fired three rounds in the air as Qasim was buried. The local police probably made things worse by making far too many arrests. The scene was familiar: a renewed cycle of anti-India sentiment followed by crackdown in the valley. The incident is a harbinger of worrying trends.

Cynics would say that as winter sets in, everything, including tempers cool down in Kashmir. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the mood that is, to a large extent, a response to anti-minority trends in mainstream India. The growing intolerance is being closely watched and the beef issue has deepened the cleavage. After all, the Dadri lynching had its fallout in the valley, once a Jammu court resurrected an old ban on the sale of beef in the state.

In the valley where the traditional meat is mutton, a furious rage drove many people to begin slaughtering cows as a sign of protest and posting gory images on social media. More recently, in October, a Kashmiri trucker, Zahid Rasool Bhatt, died after the truck in which he was travelling through Udhampur in Jammu was attacked over rumours that it was transporting cows for slaughter. It would be only natural for Kashmiris to worry about their equation with an India where such forces are on the ascendance.

Persona Non Grata

There are many personalities too who shape the protests and nurture the anger of the Kashmiris. Before Eid-al-Adha on September 22, when there was the possibility of mass slaughter of cows during the festival, the person who stepped in to contain the volatile situation was 86-year-old Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most powerful and hardline of the Hurriyat leaders (all of whom see Kashmir as a disputed territory). He asked people not to indulge in acts in a manner that would hurt the religious sentiment of any community. Even members of the PDP establishment, concede that Geelani’s statement at that time helped.

Geelani may be persona non grata for the Indian establishment but he articulates a certain ideology that has support in the valley. At the time of writing, Geelani had called for a “million men march” on November 7, the same day as the prime minister’s rally. He had applied for permission to hold the march at the Tourist Reception Centre ground not far from the Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket stadium where Modi is scheduled to speak.

The moderate Hurriyat factions had all endorsed Geelani’s call, but officials in the state government were clear that permission would not be given and the Hurriyat leadership will be kept under house arrest. That in itself is just par for the course in Kashmir and indeed, it’s hard to imagine the embattled state government giving permission to protest on a day when the entire national media will be watching.

The prime minister will have the stage to himself and all the eyeballs that day. He will have to come out with something that will give the PDP some plausible cover for some more time. Modi knows that he will be addressing both a domestic and an international constituency when he speaks from Srinagar.  –Scroll.in

Since He Forged An Alliance With The BJP In February, Sayeed Has Often Appeared To Be Marooned In Srinagar, With The Centre Forgetting The Special Economic Package For The State, The Possibilities Of Talks With Pakistan Fading, And Beef Politics Taking Its Toll. There Is Little Doubt That In Tightly Managed Kashmir, Whatever Credibility The Sayeed Dispensation Had To Begin With, Is Now Undermined. The Leadership Of The PDP Therefore Sees The Visit As A Lifeline.

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