Srinagar: A media blitzkrieg has been launched ahead of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir on Sunday, April 24, his first after the erstwhile state was bifurcated and downgraded into two union territories.
For about a week now, more than one and a half dozen national and local dailies have been publishing full-page advertisements, issued by the J&K administration, to highlight the events that the prime minister will preside over during his one-day visit to the union territory’s Jammu region.
The colour advertisements, distributed by J&K’s Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), have been appearing on the inside pages of four national dailies and front and back pages of more than a dozen Srinagar- and Jammu-based dailies. Most of the local dailies carrying the ads have ‘medium’ to ‘low’ circulation, according to DIPR data.
“The projected cost of the campaign could run in hundreds of lakhs, with each ad costing Rs 50,000,” a source in the DIPR said, adding that the campaign is likely to continue for “some more days” after the culmination of the prime minister’s one-day visit. When contacted by The Wire, DIPR director Rahul Pandey refused to comment. A DIPR official, who didn’t want to be named, said the advertisements will “shed light on pathbreaking measures” being taken by the Union government and J&K administration since August 5, 2019, when Article 370 was read down.
According to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office, Modi will visit Palli Panchayat in Samba district of J&K at 11:30 am on Sunday to celebrate National Panchayati Raj Day. From Palli, touted as the country’s first carbon-neutral panchayat, Modi will address all gram sabhas and panchayati raj representatives across the country.
More than 25,000 panchayat representatives have been ferried from the Kashmir Valley to Jammu to attend the prime minister’s event, sources said.
Pushing the ‘development narrative’
One DIPR advertisement states that the prime minister will attend a “groundbreaking ceremony” for new industrial projects in J&K worth Rs 38,000 crore. Some UAE-based investors, who recently signed investment pacts with the J&K administration, are expected to attend the ceremony in Palli.
According to official data, accessed by The Wire, the J&K administration has received 4,472 investment proposals till April 18, 2022, entailing diversion of 39,421 kanal land in the eco-fragile region for industrial projects worth Rs 53,070 crore. The number of proposals is significantly higher in Kashmir (3,354) than Jammu (1,118), although Jammu will attract more investment (Rs 28,800 crore) than Kashmir (Rs 24,270 crore) if the proposals are cleared.
A second DIPR ad states that the prime minister will lay the foundation stones of “4/6 lane access-controlled Delhi-Katra-Amritsar expressway” which will cut down travel time from the national capital to J&K’s winter capital by several hours. Built at a cost of over Rs 7,000 crore, the expressway is expected to significantly increase footfall at the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in the Jammu region.
According to other advertisements, the prime minister will lay the foundation stones of 850 MW Ratle and 540 MW Kwar hydroelectric projects, which are coming up in the union territory for Rs 5,281 crore and Rs 4,526 crore respectively. He will also inaugurate the Qazigund-Banihal section of the Jammu-Srinagar highway (NH-44), the only all-weather surface link which connects the Kashmir Valley with the rest of the country. The treacherous portion has been built for Rs 2,027 crore and includes a record 8.45 km tunnel.
“‘Social media cells’ have been set up at the district level to share and re-share the advertisements on Twitter and other platforms in order to send out a positive message about the developmental activities in J&K,” the DIPR official quoted above said.
“Since the introduction of constitutional reforms with regards to J&K in August 2019, the government has been focused on bringing about wide ranging reforms to substantially improve governance and enhance ease of living for the people of the region at an unprecedented pace,” an official statement said.
Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, former dean of social sciences at the Central University of Kashmir and a Srinagar-based public intellectual, said that the Union government’s push for connectivity projects in Jammu and Kashmir is a “strategic imperative” amidst simmering tensions along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and the Line of Control.
“In the past, governments didn’t prioritise the connectivity to Kashmir but with the changing geopolitical situation and a growing threat level on the LAC and the western border with Pakistan, the focus on connectivity projects makes sense,” said Baba, adding that the prime minister’s visit “will also reinforce the narrative of the economic integration of J&K with the rest of the country”.
Deteriorating security situation
Modi’s ceremony in Palli is being organised just kilometres away from the site of a terror attack in Jammu’s Sunjwan, in which an assistant sub inspector of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) was killed and more than 10 J&K Police and CISF personnel were injured on Friday, April 22.
The J&K Police said on Saturday that two militants affiliated with Jaish-e-Mohammad were involved in the attack who were later gunned down. They are believed to have infiltrated from the Jammu border and police have detained some suspects in connection with the attack.
Although the Union government has been claiming that the situation has improved since Article 370 was read down, the Jammu attack highlights the precariousness of the security environment across the union territory.
In Kashmir, there has been a sharp uptick in targeted attacks by militants against civilians, mostly members of the minority Hindu community and migrant workers, which has forced many of them to flee. In the past 36 hours, at least seven militants were gunned down in encounters with security forces while two migrant workers were shot on the outskirts of Srinagar by militants.
Deepening political vacuum
The prime minister’s visit also comes amid simmering political uncertainty in J&K, which will complete four years under Central rule later this year after the collapse of the popular People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government in 2018. The Union government is set to approve the draft of the Delimitation Commission, which proposes an increase in the number of assembly seats in J&K from 83 to 90, with six out of seven new seats being added to the tally of Jammu, the BJP’s stronghold.
Regional mainstream parties like the National Conference (NC) led by Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, who have been in the line of fire following the reading down of Article 370, accuse the BJP of tailoring the Delimitation Commission’s new cartography to suit its electoral calculations.
Although several Union ministers, including home minister Amit Shah, have recently said that the elections will soon be held in J&K, the Election Commission and the Union government have so far remained noncommittal about the dates of the elections, deepening the political uncertainty.
The Wire reached out to two former J&K chief ministers – Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – but they refused comment on the expectations in J&K from the prime minister’s visit. Top Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami said the “legitimate constitutional rights” of the people of J&K have been “taken away” over the last more than three years through a “series of rules and land laws”.
“When we met the PM last year, he said the government will bridge ‘Dil ki Doori’ and ‘Dilli ki Doori’. We would like to know from the PM what steps have been taken to bridge this distance. No one is objecting to the developmental projects but we are seeking protection of our land and civil rights,” Tarigami, who is also the spokesperson of Gupkar Alliance, a conglomerate of Kashmir-based political parties, told The Wire.
Asked about the likelihood of elections in J&K, one of the top NC leaders, who spoke off the record, said that the election in J&K “is not yet on the cards” and it is “pointless to speculate” about the prime minister’s visit, “I am not interested in speculating about the possible timing of the election,” the NC leader said, refusing to elaborate. A senior PDP leader and former J&K minister said the Union government is likely to continue its “iron-handed policy”, especially in Kashmir, which will “further alienate” the people. “We have no expectation, except more of what we have been experiencing so far.”
Altaf Bukhari, president of the newly floated J&K Apni Party, said the problems in J&K need a “humane touch”. “Brick and mortar announcements are not what we expect from the PM,” he said, reacting to the content of the DIPR advertisements. “To start with, the PM should announce lifting of the AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] from areas (in J&K) where peace has returned followed by the return of J&K’s statehood and assembly elections, which will restore faith of people in democratic institutions,” Bukhari, a minister in PDP-BJP coalition government, added.
However, a Srinagar-based political analyst said the assembly elections are unlikely to be held in J&K, until the “pieces of the electoral puzzle don’t fall in place” so that the saffron party comes to power in Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state.
“The BJP is confident that it has managed to get a grip on the situation in J&K. Now it will speed up its Hindutva project to correct what the party and the RSS, its ideological fountainhead, believe are historical ‘aberrations’ in not just J&K but across the country.”
“This will only prolong the political uncertainty in J&K,” the analyst, who didn’t want to be named, added.