As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is going ahead with its “public outreach” programme in Jammu and Kashmir, key Kashmir watchers and political scientists are seeing the move of “parachuting ministers” to the restive region as a “propaganda in panic mode”.
On its part, the BJP claims over 30 union ministers, including the likes of Ravi Shankar Prasad and Smriti Irani, would be travelling to different parts of the two provinces — the Kashmir Valley and Jammu division — in a visit coordinated by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. The BJP says “a group of central ministers would also visit sensitive parts of the Kashmir Valley. They will create wider awareness about the developmental activities initiated by the Modi-led government” since revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood on August 5 last year.
Why has the BJP’s plan to send 36 ministers and party leaders to J&K drawn ridicule from the Congress and the formidable Kashmir watchers? Why is the BJP’s Kashmir Mission being dubbed as panic and propaganda programme?
There is a context.
In the last Legislative Assembly elections held in 2014, the BJP drew blank from the Kashmir Valley and the mountainous Ladakh region. However, the saffron party won all 25 assembly segments from the Hindu-dominated Jammu province.
It is being widely reported that 51 trips are planned for Jammu while only eight for Srinagar. This lends credence to the argument that under pressure from the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests across India, the BJP is focusing on consolidating its Hindu vote bank in Jammu by telegraphing a message that the Article 370 purge was not an anti-people decision, but would pave the way for development in Jammu.
Predictably, on Kashmir’s slippery political turf, the BJP’s programme is facing sharp criticism. Kashmir, it is said, is a graveyard of many a reputation.
Prof Siddiq Wahid, a well-known academic and historian, is of the view that the BJP’s so-called outreach programme is “very little, very late”. The former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) situated in south Kashmir’s Awantipora said the BJP has demonstrated that it does not really care what people think.
“The BJP has lost its credibility. It didn’t have much in the first place. They want to sell Kashmir’s ‘normalcy’ and ‘all is well’ story for those in mainland India who are ignorant about Kashmir’s ground situation,” Dr Wahid tells The Federal.
With growing intensity in anti-CAA protests across India, Dr Wahid believes, the BJP’s Mission Kashmir “will not make much difference”.
Another renowned Kashmiri political scientist, Prof Gull Wani, notes the BJP has “lowered the prestige” of neighbouring countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan by suggesting that minorities, especially the Hindus, are being persecuted there while the CAA in itself is under the scanner for being anti-minority.
A BJP proxy propped up?
The dominant perception in the Kashmir valley is that the BJP, after restricting real politics, essentially relies on a loose congregation of stooges and opportunists. It is also believed that the saffron party is helping fuel former People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Altaf Bukhari’s political ascent.
Alluding to the patronage being provided to Altaf Bukhari and his sudden political ascendancy, Prof Wani tells The Federal, “In terms of stature, there are more formidable people than him (Altaf Bukhari) who are behind the bars. Those who surround Bukhari are literally the Trojan Horses or constituency-specific leaders.”
Prof Wani believes the political situation in Kashmir is not favourable to Bukhari. “Altaf Bukhari is being seen as the extension of the Indian State at a time when Kashmir’s top leaders, including three former chief ministers, are under detention. More specifically, Bukhari is being seen as BJP’s proxy,” he adds.
Similarly, senior leader of the National Conference (NC) and Member Parliament Mohammad Akbar Lone also thinks that “BJP’s game plan for Kashmir has no future”. “The people of Kashmir have rejected the BJP’s stooges in the past, they will do so in the future too,” he says.
The Congress too has trained its guns at the BJP’s outreach programme. Two senior leaders of the party, Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad, have criticised the ruling dispensation over the party’s proposed visit to J&K.
Rajya Sabha member Sibal wondered: “This does not reflect normalcy (in Kashmir), but panic. What is the need for the BJP leaders to visit J&K when everything is supposed to be normal as the BJP claimed?” He added, “This itself reveals the BJP’s unease over the abrogation of Article 370.”
“The home minister (Amit Shah) says it is all normal. If it is normal then why 36 ministers are visiting? They’re going prove that problem is still there; it is not normal,” Sibal said while dubbing the visit a “propaganda mission”.
Former J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also slammed the NDA government over its Kashmir policy. He said “the BJP was sending handpicked ministers, diplomats and foreign envoys to the Valley, all of whom are tutored to speak on the issue of normalcy in Kashmir.”
Veteran journalist Bharat Bhushan, who has been a part of the civil society delegations to the Kashmir valley on regular intervals, also thinks “the Modi government may be looking for ways to create some semblance of a return to ‘normalcy’ in J&K.”
In his trademark style, he wrote a scathing piece in the Business Standard in which he argued that “three developments indicate that the gridlock in Jammu and Kashmir may be loosening. These include the visit of foreign diplomats to J&K, the ruling of the Supreme Court criticising both the indefinite internet restrictions and the misuse of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to prevent expression of dissent. A third indicator is the meeting between eight former legislators and Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu demanding restoration of statehood to J&K.”
Bhushan said the recent meeting of the Bukhari-led delegation (with L-G Murmu) “creates an illusion of restarting the political process. Their 15-point charter contains only two noteworthy demands: the restoration of statehood to J&K and assurances about jobs and land rights for locals. Both point to ways that the Modi government has already signalled it intends to move in J&K.”
He described Bukhari as BJP’s “stooge”, adding, “The demand for domicile rights by the eight political stooges, therefore, seems right on cue.”
Starting Saturday, 36 ministers would be on multiple trips to various parts of J&K. BJP leaders part of Mission Kashmir include Ravi Shankar Prasad, Piyush Goyal, Kiren Rijiju, Gen VK Singh, Smriti Irani, Purshottam Singh Rupala, Mahendra Nath Pandey, G Kishen Reddy, Gajender Singh Shekhawat, Anurag Thakur, Jitender Singh, and Hardeep Puri.
Meanwhile, three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir continue to remain under detention while around eight million inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley are without all forms of internet since August 5, 2019. However, prepaid mobile connections were restored in the Valley on Saturday (January 18).
A word on the Kashmiri streets is that “the BJP is confused about the exit strategy” in Kashmir!
(The author is a Kashmir based journalist and political commentator)