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Amit Shah's Friendly Tone & Gestures Not Enough to Alter Kashmir's Reality

Government Medical College is the best metaphor for Kashmir — of the inertia, of how little has changed.

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Amit Shah’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir was marked by accommodative symbolism, subtle signals, and plain speaking. Although the tone of his utterances in Kashmir was mellower than his electoral speeches, the ground reality is much harsher than his projections and that of his partisans.

The events preceding his visit were familiar, old problems festering with novel manifestations — bloodshed, violence, and a litany of subtle mercies of the state apparatus.

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What Amit Shah's Visit Meant to Fearful Migrants 

As soon as he landed in Srinagar, the lens of cameras shifted from the migrant workers and minorities—who continue to be under the crosshair of TRF—to the multitude of events attended by the home minister.

While his cavalcade of 35 vehicles crossed the Abdullah Bridge of Srinagar, scores of migrant workers had gathered 20 metres away outside the Tourist Reception Centre to catch a ride home—away from fear, frenzy and terror.

Traffic stopped for a few minutes but the fear-stricken workers did not even bother to catch a glimpse of the cavalcade. They stood stoically as the skies poured, waiting for the traffic to restore—another snapshot of many broad daylight tragedies that occur on the streets of Kashmir.

On the first day of his visit, Shah extended a hand of friendship to the youth of Kashmir. Speaking to Youth Clubs organised under the ambit of Panchayats in J&K, he said: “I have come here to forge a friendship with the youth of Kashmir. Join hands with Modi Ji and the Government of India and become partners in the journey to take Kashmir forward.”

News channels, as is the new norm, unleashed a cacophony peppered with phrases like “confidence-building measure”, “outreach”, and the much battered “Naya Kashmir”.

Friendship Offer and Firearms Aimed at Kashmiri Youth 

Even as talking heads were dissecting the meaning of Shah’s message of friendship to the Kashmiri youth, a daily wage labourer was shot dead in the Zainpora area of Shopian.

The deceased was identified as Shahid and was returning home from an orchard after harvesting the apple crop. A graphic image of Shahid’s corpse lying against the tyre of a small truck went viral on social media, a few apples and vegetables scattered in front of the body.

The police statement declared that Shahid was killed in crossfire, a claim rejected by his family. The CCTV footage from the incident spot might reveal the circumstances under which Shahid got shot, but the footage is leaked to the press selectively. There is no way of knowing the truth, as investigations in such incidents always fail to conclude.

No doubt, Amit Shah’s gesture of friendship was sincere. But the sincerity of gestures is reflected through policies implemented on the ground. Not long ago, Prime Minister’s “Dili se Duri” gesture never materialised into anything more than a news headline.

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Warm Gestures, Harsh Realities

This year, his outreach to political parties has had no follow-ups, and the harsh policy measures that started from 5 August, 2019, continued with little change. Symbols and gestures look grand on public screens. Removing the bulletproof glass from the podium, shaking hands with attendees during a public event gets drowned out by the everyday realities of living in a place like Kashmir.

Ahead of the home minister’s visit, thousands of motorcycles, scooters and two-wheelers were scrambling for parking space inside police stations. The security forces seized these vehicles without discrimination and with little legal backing, disrupting the lives of ordinary people, the youth.

While the home minister promised to bring thousands of crores of investment in J&K, the restaurants, provisional stores and bakeries—run mainly by first-generation entrepreneurs—had to cancel home deliveries as the two-wheelers of their delivery agents were soaking the sun in police stations.

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Shah's Plainspeak Not Music to Kashmir Based Political Parties

Beyond symbolism and gestures, Amit Shah put across an important message rather bluntly. He unveiled the chronology of Modi Government’s roadmap for Jammu & Kashmir, suggesting that the restoration of statehood will happen after delimitation and elections.

Although political outfits have rejected the timeline in the past, demanding a restoration of statehood before the elections, the home minister appears to be stubborn about the chronology. He outrightly rejected the demands of political parties.

Characteristic of Amit Shah, the snub to the National Conference and the Peoples’ Democratic Party is of great political relevance, in his speeches, he tore apart the “three families”—Abdullahs, Muftis and Gandhis—for all that has gone wrong in Jammu & Kashmir.

The not-so-subtle message here is that Modi government is unwilling to accommodate Abdullahs and Muftis for any future arrangement. While Mehbooba Mufti and her party would not be bothered about Shah’s rebuff, the singling out of NC and its leadership is problematic for the Abdullahs.

It now appears that the only outcome expected from Prime Minister’s all-party meeting was the participation of Kashmir based parties, particularly the NC, in the process of delimitation, to ensure the credibility of the process.

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Undying Kashmir Metaphor

On the third day of his visit, Shah proudly proclaimed that the students of Kashmir do not need to go to Pakistan to study medical sciences as seven new medical colleges are coming up. “Earlier, 500 youths could become doctors... now 2,000 youths can become doctors from these new medical colleges,” the home minister said.

Hours before Shah made this big claim of making 2000 youth doctors, videos emerged from Srinagar's Government Medical Colleges (GMC) in which students were celebrating the victory of Pakistan cricket team over India in the T-20 world cup match. In one video, women students of GMC are singing the national anthem of Pakistan and raising slogans. The video is one of many visuals capturing the jubilation of Kashmiris after the defeat of Team India.

An officer of the J&K Police who has many years of counterinsurgency experience admitted that these celebrations have not come as a surprise. Still, the intensity is “worrisome” despite preventive measures and supposed deterrence. “These celebrations manifest people's frustrations. It is the first expression of anger after 5 August, 2019. This happened not on the streets but inside the drawing rooms of people,” he said.

Government Medical College is the best metaphor for Kashmir — of the inertia, of how little has changed.

Of alienation and anger that persists among the valley's youth population. This metaphor shows how the government’s harshest measures and policies have failed to change people’s hearts and minds. Despite tall promises of ending terrorism and separatism, the changes are cosmetic in reality.

(Khalid Shah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Khalid was previously associated with leading news channels of India and did a brief stint as a correspondent in Srinagar with WION News, reporting extensively on the conflict. He tweets @khalidbshah. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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