In Modi’s maiden trip to Jammu and Kashmir (hereafter Kashmir), the Prime Minister laid out two goals related to the state. The first objective laid by Modi is “to win the hearts of the people of Jammu and Kashmir through development.” The second is the resettlement of Kashmiri pandits back into the Kashmir valley. While more focus on the Kashmir issue is needed by the central government, hopefully Modi realizes that economic policy alone will not solve the Kashmir issue.
While Kashmir has remained a potential flashpoint between India and Pakistan since the countries’ independence in 1947, the insurgency itself did not erupt until 1989. Although tension grew during the 70s and 80s, it was the disputed state election in 1987 that served as a catalyst for the Kashmir insurgency. The Indian government’s hard handed response to the insurgency has done little but to further Kashmiri resentment, provide Pakistani intelligence services an outlet to help ‘bleed’ India, as well as create a stain on India’s international reputation.
During his trip, Modi declared “My aim is to win the hearts of the people of the state”. He was greeted by a general strike that was called on by separatist leaders. Modi had already put himself on bad footing with the Kashmiri people over his statements declaring that he was for the abrogating of Article 370 (an article in the Indian constitution that provides some autonomy for the state). Many Kashmiris see this article as guaranteeing the rights and culture of the only Muslim majority state in Hindu majority India.
Perhaps the most controversial policy that the Indian government currently has in place is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This law is usually enforced in what is described as ‘disturbed’ areas (e.g. Kashmir, Assam and Manipur, Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s) in order to bring stability to the areas. However, it has been used by the Indian military to inflict punishment onto the Kashmiri people with little to no repercussions to the soldiers who commit these human rights abuses. This has led to extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, rape, and torture, creating a great amount of tension between the Indian army and the Kashmiri people. Some Kashmiris have come to view the draconian law as an attempt by the central government to suppress the inhabitants of the state instead of its stated purpose of bringing stability.
What does this tell us? The driving force of Kashmiri resentment is not due to the lack of economic opportunity, but politics. What is surprising is that Kashmir has had a thriving economy (relatively) compared to most other conflict areas. Kashmir has had a very low poverty rate and positive economic growth, although many obstacles are still present. Although increasing economic development in the state might help to soothe tensions, political stability and security must be achieved first.
The resettlement of Hindu Pandits has also attracted criticism. Hundred of thousands of Pandits were forced out of the Kashmir Valley since the 1990s by Islamic militant groups. Unlike the secular separatist groups, the Islamic organizations sought to impose their own ideal of Kashmir, i.e. an Islamic state without Hindus or other religious minorities. The Modi government has set aside 500 crore (5 billion rupees, or about 81-82 million U.S. dollars) for the resettlement of these Pandits, many who have lived in horrendous conditions in refugee camps.
However, the Modi administration has not been clear on how exactly they plan to resettle the Kashmiri Pandits. If the plan is to create separate settlements for the Hindu Pandits, this will make it easier for the Indian government to protect them. However, it will not allow the Pandits to regain their historical homes that they were forced out of. The creation of separate settlements just for Hindu Pandits will also exacerbate communal tensions in the Valley. Indeed many opinion pieces and several prominent Kashmiri Muslims have called for the return of Hindu Pandits, but that putting the Pandits in separate settlements will be “going against the grain of Kashmiri culture”.
While it is imperative that the Kashmiri Pandits are aided in their return to the Valley, there also needs to be assurances that these Pandits will be protected from attacks by extremist groups. Although the Kashmiri Muslim community has helped to prevent some Hindus from being forced out, their efforts alone are insufficient to guarantee the safety of the community. As I discussed above, there are very legitimate reasons for Kashmiris to not trust the Indian government as well as the Indian army. In order for the resettlement of the Pandits to be successful, there needs to be a general change in the general political situation for the state. Economic policy alone will not achieve this.