Economic Downturn, Special Status Issue Worrying Kashmiris: Yashwant Sinha-Led Citizens Group

Attempts to revoke Article 35A seen as attempt by Centre to change special status and may lead to “uprising”, finds report.

With tourism plummeting, hotel business in dire straits and flight of capital and economic downturn leading to unemployment and economic distress, the sense of dismay and despondency in the people of Kashmir has grown. Many who used to “talk reasonably earlier” are now using the language of the militants and separatists, the Concerned Citizens Group (CCG), which visited parts of the state over three days beginning August 17, has stated in its report.

The group, comprising former union minister Yashwant Sinha, Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Kapil Kak, executive director of Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation Sushobha Barve and senior journalist Bharat Bhushan, in its report prepared on its interaction with a cross section of the society in Kashmir, also noted that there was a great deal of concern in the state over the attempts to deprive it of its special status due to Article 370 and 35A and that revoking of the latter, people insist, could lead to an “uprising like no other”.

Situation worse than previous two years

The “most disquieting conclusion” the group drew was that the sense of dismay and despondency had grown not only due to lack of dialogue but also because of economic distress. “The situation was much worse than the previous two years,” the group said adding that “the distance between rest of India and the Kashmiri youth but also others seems to have increased.”

In such trying times, the group said, the only saving grace was that prominent members of civil society continued to use cautious and measured language which suggested that there was still a constituency for peace. Moreover, it said, the response of the people to the prime minister’s message on Independence Day – that Kashmiris need a hug and not abuse or bullets – was also well-received, albeit with the rider that people were hoping that it would be operationalised soon.

“While there were some Kashmiris who rejected the prime minister’s change of tone on Kashmir at this year’s Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort as nothing more than demagoguery, a majority seemed to welcome it,” the report said.

Talk on Article 35A seen as constitutional/judicial aggression

The report said “people complained not only of the military approach to the problem of Kashmir but also of a judicial/constitutional aggression against the people of Kashmir in attempts to undo Article 35A of the Indian constitution which ensured special rights for the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir”.

It noted that while there was “all round opposition” to attempts to revoke Article 35A of the constitution of India, the judicial raking over the issue “seems to have pushed the demand for ‘azadi’ to the background as people see the attempts to change rules for special rights of people of Jammu and Kashmir as an existential threat of changing the Valley’s demographic profile.”

The group said the Centre is being seen as a “passive collaborator” in the petitions filed before the Supreme Court and the statements of the ruling party (read BJP) and its frontal organisations has only strengthened the belief that the judicial attack on Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was “stage managed” by the Central government, which has not only not filed a counter-affidavit, but has in fact argued for a wider debate on the provision.

The group said people in the state believes that the Centre could have told the apex court that this was a political issue which needed to be discussed in parliament. Alternatively, they said, if the government felt that there were some issues with Article 35A relating to the fundamental rights of Jammu and Kashmir women getting married to men outside the state, then the government should have argued that the matter be referred to a 9-judge constitutional bench.

35A removal would lead to uprising; snapping of BJP-PDP ties

There is a general belief, the group said, that if Article 35A is removed through a judicial decision or struck down by the Supreme Court, there would be widespread trouble in the state. It said tampering with it or Article 370 may result in “uprising like no other” and also lead to snapping of the alliance between the Peoples’Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

NIA raids on separatist leaders evoke mixed response

The group reported that the raids by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on separatist leaders and their associates for receiving money illegally from Pakistan had led to mixed reactions. While some insist that government of India and its agencies, after “funding Kashmir leaders of all hues” were now trying to “delegitimise them” as “part of a whole host of hostile acts by the Central government aimed at the Kashmiris”, the ordinary citizens by not reacting to the raids have shown that they were not unduly bothered by these developments.

The NIA raids however, seemed to have instilled some fear among separatist sympathizers, that if they speak up publicly they too could be picked up for questioning, the report said.

Acknowledging that the security forces have had some “remarkable success in eliminating militant leadership” in the last few months, the report said while it has “sent a strong signal”, it could also lead to new recruitment and a surge in more spectacular attacks.

Also, the report said, people in Kashmir believe that the security forces have been setting themselves targets for killing militants – as the word was out that of the approximately 225 local militants, 139 had already been killed and the rest were likely to be eliminated by December this year.

The biggest concern is the economy

One of the biggest concerns for people in the Kashmir Valley, the report said, was the downturn in the economy fuelled by a steep fall in the number of tourists from around 11.43 lakh till mid-August last year to just 6.73 lakh this year. With about 5 lakh people connected to the tourism industry, unemployment has become a major concern.

What is worrying for the sector is that while there has been a dip in the number of tourists – which averaged around 15 lakh per year – due to violence and curfew last year, this year the numbers have further dwindled. What’s worse is that big hotel chains like the Taj Group, ITC and others, who had been partnering with local hoteliers to open new hotels and upgrade existing ones, are no longer going about their operations after two months. Some other hotels have shut up 75% of their rooms because of low occupancy.

TV, social media propaganda to blame

The damage to the tourism sector, the report said, is being seen by many as “a part of a larger conspiracy to finish off Kashmir’s economy”. Some private national TV channels are being seen as playing a damaging role by projecting all Kashmiris as terrorists and making the region out to be a war-zone. It is even being alleged that big travel companies are being told not to sell Kashmir to tourists.

Others have pointed out how social media too was being used to promote such hatred. “There has been a campaign against Kashmir, some alleged and as evidence they pointed to a BJP legislator from Telangana urging people to go for Amarnath Yatra but not buy anything from local Kashmiris,” the report said.

Contractors wary of working in the state

The CCG also noted that work on infrastructure projects is also getting impacted as contractors from outside states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra no longer want to work on projects in the state. It cited the example of a reputed contractor working on the Ratle hydroelectric project on the Chenab who had ‘run away’.

The report said there was also a deficit of trust when it comes to governance and accountability. “Some Kashmiris go to the extent of saying that all institutions in Jammu and Kashmir are discredited and what is worse is that there are no political leaders with unquestioned credentials. So people have no faith either in the system or the mainstream political leaders.”

Noting that one of the reasons why people support the “nebulous idea of ‘Azadi’ “was because they feel that the present system does not deliver and perhaps something else would solve their problems, the group has suggested that to usher in accountability the Centre should “set an example by considering setting up a grievance redress mechanism within the Armed Forces Special Powers Act”.