In conflict-ridden Kashmir, development has to be preceded, or at least accompanied, by justice

Congress scion Rahul Gandhi seems to have decided to focus on Jammu and Kashmir, or more specifically the Valley, after his overtures failed to win over the people of Uttar Pradesh. Given the sensitivities of Kashmir and the trauma being faced by its people, one wishes him good luck in the hope that his decision to take the corporate honchos to the Valley for an interaction with the youth is productive and long lasting in its impact.

It all depends on what he has decided to bring to the table. If it is just an employment generating exercise it will, in all probability, be rejected by the young people as part of the usual New Delhi dole. This is not to say that the employment opportunities if offered by the corporate honchos will be rejected, but to emphasise that while the Kashmiris will make use of the opportunity in limited economic terms, it will not calm their nerves or act as a balm for the trauma of a conflict reared generation.

It can only be hoped that the ‘interaction’ with the bigwigs of Indian industry led by the heir apparent of the Congress party does not turn out to be just a publicity gimmick. It has all the ingredients to attract the media, Rahul Gandhi himself, a host of industrialists always a favourite with the corporate media, and of course Kashmir with all its ‘romantic’ turbulence. A beginning could have been made without the industrialists, by just ensuring that a spate of cottage and small scale industries were set up across the state for the production and sale of honey, saffron, apples, walnuts to name just a few natural goods. Instead apples rot in Kashmir as the governments have not bothered to set up a single bottling plant, with the result that the apples are sent to Himachal Pradesh to extract apple juice, and then the bottles and tetra packs are sold back to Kashmir at far higher prices.

Despite the apparent cynicism there is strong idealism underlying the aspirations of the Kashmiri youth today. Most have suffered the trauma of conflict, the curfews, the humiliation, the arrests, the killings in varying degrees. Hundreds of Kashmiris are languishing in jails across India; thousands have disappeared never to return. There is urgent need for Justice, and development and employment without addressing the issues that have become household issues over the years will be meaningless. Dignity, respect, justice, equality have to be infused with real meaning, and the currently violent state turned into a nurturer and a protector of its people. The Kashmiris do not support militancy, but nor do they support governments that use violence against innocent people.

Rahul Gandhi must have been briefed by the intelligence agencies. And while much of the content must have been edited out, there will be still enough fare on the table. It is for him to decide what to pick from the table. He can pick development without justice; he can pick panchyati raj without trust and confidence; he can pick elections without voters. On the other hand he can learn from the mistakes of UP, and the special nature of the problems of the border state to pick justice as his first priority. It will be a tough path, one that might seem full of thorns as it will definitely attract the ire of rightwing political parties, but it will actually be the only path he can walk with the surety of striking a chord with the people of Kashmir.

Development is of course always good, particularly in a country where corruption and support for the corrupt has eaten into the very vitals. In several states people are sitting in protest as their land has been acquired at throwaway rates, and often without any compensation altogether, by industry in the name of development. Many of these industrialists are in Kashmir now promising the same, and one presumes they will require land in the beautiful Valley to set up their mega-projects. But while giving them the benefit of the doubt, it must be pointed out that in conflict-ridden Kashmir development has to be preceded, or at least accompanied, by justice. That is if this effort is to reach the hearts and the minds of the Kashmiris, and not ‘shock and awe’ them with the big bucks of Indian industry.

The half widows still waiting for their men to return, the women struggling without compensation and rehabilitation; the enforced disappearances; the curfew; the lack of trust in now the partial blocking of Facebook and Twitter; the open suspicion where young Kashmiris cannot even visit their friends after sunset; the taunts and humiliation and rape of Kashmiri women. All this and more has to be addressed even as industry puts its plans into operation, if Rahul Gandhi is at all interested in a real transformation of lasting impact.

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