Isolate dynastic leadership, empower ‘awaam’, Amit Shah’s Kashmir policy may succeed due to its boldness and ideological clarity

What came through during Amit Shah’s interventions in both Houses of the Parliament on Kashmir last week is rare ideological clarity, an attempt to change the Kashmir narrative and a firm conviction in Centre’s plan of action. This is significant. For the better part of NDA-1’s tenure, it seemed as if the Narendra Modi government has no Kashmir policy in place and is as clueless about the troubled region as governments before it.

Shah dispelled such notions in two successive speeches — in Lok Sabha on 28 June and Rajya Sabha on Monday. From the Union home minister’s replies — following a vigorous debate in the Parliament on Kashmir’s vexed relationship with India, demographic changes, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, the hypocritical separatist movements, dynastic politics, subversion of democracy, alienation of the Valley and mistakes of leaders past and present — it is possible to chalk out the rough contours of this new policy.

It seemed from Shah’s addresses that one of the pillars underpinning government’s new strategy is to differentiate between Kashmir’s political leaders and its people.

Holding forth in Rajya Sabha, Shah had said that after decades of failure it is time to look at Kashmir from a new perspective. This “new perspective” is evident in the way Shah tried to separate the Valley’s “awaam” (common people) from the small, elite coterie that controls political power. Shah acknowledged that the common people are feeling alienated, but his recipe for mitigating this alienation is to spread democracy deeper into the Valley by empowering the grassroots and taking power away from the “three families” who have long designed Kashmir’s destiny.

According to Shah, Kashmir’s fate cannot be changed unless these dynastic parties are sidelined, and power is spread to the “panches” and “sarpanches” who will receive funds and take decisions for development of their own tehsils and villages. In order to spread democracy to the grassroots, the security situation needs to drastically improve. Unless the candidates of political parties, officials and the entire election machinery can perform their specific roles free from the threat of terror and violence, it will be difficult to facilitate the empowerment of grassroots.

We now come to the second pillar upholding Centre’s new Kashmir strategy where Shah demarcated a separation of India’s national security policy and foreign policy, complaining that these two have often been conflated in the past. Shah’s indication was clearly towards India’s handling of relationship with Pakistan in the context of cross-border terrorism and proxy war. Shah also clarified that while the government will do its best to end Kashmir’s alienation and provide opportunities for the Kashmiris to shape their future, those who want to break the nation, launch terrorist attacks or sponsor terrorism will get the harshest treatment.

Linked to this is the third pillar of Centre’s new Kashmir policy where terrorism is identified as a ‘hydra-headed monster’. Shah vowed that the government will cut off its many tentacles in concurrence with an effort to assimilate the people with the Indian Union. The NIA, for instance, have “choked the flow of funds”, Modi government has launched surgical strikes across the border and airstrikes deep inside Pakistan’s mainland while crackdown on terror funding has led to 40 arrests and 137 challans.

On the three features of Centre’s new strategy, the first point deserves expansion. Shah’s contention is that Jawaharlal Nehru committed the “original sin” on Kashmir by unilaterally announcing a ‘ceasefire’ when India had Pakistan on the ropes, did not take then home minister and deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel into confidence that eventually resulted in the formation of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and led to the scourge of terrorism affecting India’s body politic.

However, Shah accuses Congress of a bigger crime, that of gullibility in not setting up party units in Kashmir and “putting all eggs in Sheikh Abdullah’s basket” who “ran away with the basket and… became the Prime Minister there.”

Shah traces the beginning of Valley’s distrust of Indian political process with Congress’s holding of “sham elections in 1957, 1962 and 1967 in Jammu and Kashmir”, which, he alleged, led to large-scale disillusionment of the Kashmiris and created space for separatists to exploit.

“All these elections were mockery of democracy. This was the beginning of distrust among the people of Kashmir. There was one Abdul Khaliq, the district magistrate of Srinagar, which then covered half of the Valley. There used to be two types of MLAs back then, one elected by people and the other by Khaliq saheb. Papers were filed before Khaliq saheb, who would accept the papers and ensure that 25-31 MLAs were elected unopposed,” said Shah.

These historical blunders, according to Shah, led to Kashmir’s political fortune being hijacked by “three families” who did not let democracy reach the grassroots. The 1987 elections, for instance, was reportedly rigged by the Congress in favour of its alliance partner, the National Conference, whose leader Farooq Abdullah went on to become the chief minister but had to eventually resign due to his failure to tackle rising terror graph and President’s Rule was imposed. Shah accused the Abdullahs and the Muftis of maintaining an “iron grip on everything from panchayat polls to Lok Sabha election, stifling democracy in the process.”

“So far, only three families were running the entire government in Kashmir. Now, 40,000 people are appointed as Panch and Sarpanch in various villages in Kashmir, we have given power to the people, instead of taking it away from them,” he said in the Lok Sabha.

Shah reiterated the relevance of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s notion of “Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat and Jamooriyat” in the new Kashmir policy but broke free of the ideational mooring of the concepts which his predecessor Rajnath Singh had failed to do. Singh, perhaps in need of validation of the intelligentia, could never go beyond the boundaries set by Vajpayee’s notion even though the realities on the ground had changed considerably since departed leader Vajpayee’s tenure.

Shah kept faith in “jamooriyat” but declared that unless the Valley’s corrupt leadership is disempowered and made irrelevant, “jamooriyat” will remain meaningless. Several times during his speech he professed his trust for the Kashmiri people and distrust of the leadership who, according to him, has held the political process at ransom and has refused to let democracy flower in the Valley for their own benefits — a folly that has contributed to a large extent to the current scenario.

“The peace-loving people of Kashmir are not scared any more, they are happy that after 70 years, the state is finally free from the clutches of three families. People who want to disintegrate the country are the ones who are under fear,” said Shah.

Shah described Kashmiriyat as the need to bring back Sufi tradition of syncretic Islam into the Vallye and facilitate the return of Kashmiri Pandits, while “Insaniyat” was delineated as social welfare schemes such as free gas connections, toilets and healthcare through Ayushman Bharat of which Kashmiri people have been the biggest beneficiaries.

It remains to be seen if Shah’s Kashmir policy is implementable and if it brings the desired results. No policy can be fruitful unless backed by political will. The separation of the awaam and the leadership, for instance, is a bold step that seeks to break free of the current stasis. It has instability written into its design, but such a radical step might be the necessity to break the vicious cycle in Kashmir. All eyes on Shah.