Kashmiris need good administration, not statehood or elections

Kashmiris need good administration, not statehood or elections

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-led central government has started its first major political outreach in the Kashmir valley on 5 August 2019, when the special status of the erstwhile state was revoked and its geography was bifurcated into the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Under this outreach, New Delhi convened an all-party meeting on July 24 with the valley’s elite club of political leaders—including the chiefs of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC)—which was a significant development. After the meeting, New Delhi said that exercise of delimitation and peaceful elections were important signposts for the restoration of statehood. The political outreach comes days after the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, had a lengthy meeting with Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha in the presence of NSA Ajit Doval and the Union Home Secretary, Ajay Bhalla.

In the past two years, the valley has witnessed an uneasy calm and issues such as restoration of statehood, delimitation, elections, and even further bifurcation have been points of conjecture; however, the trust and aspirations of the common Kashmiris is more important than the political outreach with the political elites of the Union Territory.

In the past two years, the valley has witnessed an uneasy calm and issues such as restoration of statehood, delimitation, elections, and even further bifurcation have been points of conjecture; however, the trust and aspirations of the common Kashmiris is more important than the political outreach with the political elites of the Union Territory.

Bifurcation and the reasons behind it

The revocation of Article 370 was deemed as an inevitable technical necessity by New Delhi to politically transform the state, which has been marred by centrifugal tendencies and violent insurgency for the past 30 years. The revocation and subsequent bifurcation was defended by the Union government, which claimed that the decision would facilitate better administration, good governance, and faster economic development. New Delhi even argued that Article 370 was the “root cause” of radicalism, corruption, and terrorism. These arguments essentially quantified the conflict in Kashmir and suggested that the unending violence is supplemented by the aspirations of the common people.

But these summations by New Delhi do not seem to hold much resonance with the aspirations of the local population. For example, in an extensive survey carried out by this author in the valley in 2017-18, 64.4 percent of the 2,300 respondents held corruption to be one of the major reasons for the unrest. On the other hand, nearly 50 percent Kashmiris blamed the central government for not enforcing accountability on the state administration and accused the ruling political elites of having contributed to the mess. Corruption, used as a strategic tool by New Delhi for political appeasement in the Kashmir valley since 1953, has arrested the economic development of the region.

New Delhi has historically failed to also give good governance to the people of Kashmir. Even the Governor and lieutenant-governors, for the last three years, have become hogtied to the self-appeasing bureaucracy. This has eroded the credibility of centre amongst the masses. The recent tussle between the outgoing Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam and the newly appointed official Arun Kumar Mehta gave the former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah an opportunity to mock New Delhi on its hollow promises of good governance and accountability.

New Delhi has historically failed to also give good governance to the people of Kashmir. Even the Governor and lieutenant-governors, for the last three years, have become hogtied to the self-appeasing bureaucracy. This has eroded the credibility of centre amongst the masses.

After the revocation of Article 370, stone-pelting incidents and violent protests, even at encounter sites, have decreased. According to official data, Kashmir witnessed only 255 stone-pelting incidents in 2020 as compared to 1,999 in 2019, 1,458 in 2018, and 1,412 in 2017. But this positive change cannot be attributed in any way to the dramatic decision of 5 August 2019. The credit for de-escalation of the anti-state activities in the Valley goes to the security forces, especially the army. Army officials have been reaching out to the people in an attempt to redress their grievances and assuage the people through different initiatives; a task that primarily rests with the local civil administration. However, the loyalties of the bureaucrats, doctors, and other government officials in the Kashmir administration have never remained with the society or country but with amassment, privilege, and abuse of power. The Education Department’s insistence for students to fill examination forms offline last year during the pandemic when the rest of the country had adopted the online education system, is a case in point.

Chronic corruption

New Delhi appeared to have identified the problems of escalated conflict and centrifugal tendencies in Kashmir when the Parliament revoked the erstwhile state’s special status. The general public in Kashmir thought that corruption will be reined in and corrupt administrators will be shown the door following the imposition of direct central rule. However, once again, the aspirations of the people have been neglected in the new socio-administrative and economic structures by the power-hungry officials. For example, even during the peak of the pandemic’s second wave, complaints of mass absenteeism of doctors in the Government Medical College (GMC), Anantnag, had to be resolved under the supervision of the Deputy Commissioner (DC) Piyush Singla. The GMC has been in the news for the wrong reasons like shortage of oxygen, high mortality rate, the callousness of doctors, and even lying to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha. The team found 22 doctors absent from the hospital and directed the principal of the college to send the attendance muster to the DC’s office on a daily basis. But instead of admitting the mistake, the principal used his afflation with the Medical Faculty Forum (MFF) of the GMC and attacked the district administration. The principal blamed the DC for acting “hastily and irresponsibly” and “in a puerile manner” over a “petty” complaint but remained mum on the absence of doctors from the hospital.

Such a callous state of affairs can be found in every administrative institution of Kashmir even after the revocation of the Article 370, where affiliations continue to go beyond professionalism. Most officials in the bureaucracy are affiliated with political parties like the BJP, PDP, NC, and the separatists. These blatant misuse of political affiliations have further eroded the faith of the people in the local administration.

Most officials in the bureaucracy are affiliated with political parties like the BJP, PDP, NC, and the separatists. These blatant misuse of political affiliations have further eroded the faith of the people in the local administration

On the other hand, the centre, with its motto of ‘Development with Transparency’, has tried to reach out to the people with promises of economic development and has set INR 12,600 crore of District Capex Budget for 2021-22. This allocation is more than double the previous year’s budget of INR 5,134 crore. But these measures have failed to make a difference in the absence of any proactive and meaningful engagement.

Therefore, the all-party meeting called on 24 June is an important step that conveys the realisation of the country’s political leadership to renew India’s ties with the people of the region. But this engagement has to be expanded to establish a rapport with the people through sustained and sincere interlocution. Such an outreach is the only way to resolve the real grievances of the people that continue despite the revocation of Article 370. It is the only way to rebuild the lost trust between the people of Kashmir with the rest of India. Such interlocution must be conducted by a central government team of the most honest retired bureaucrats and policymakers who must be allowed to work without any interference from the local administration and even police.

Subsequently, New Delhi must look back on its actions that have led to widespread corruption and administrative apathy in Jammu & Kashmir. It must also introspect on how far its actions have been successful for conflict resolution. The ground situation in the Valley has not transformed. People are still dissatisfied with the multiple issues of governance and administration. Many strategists, academicians, analysts, and even the common people believe that until bureaucracy and administration are not overhauled comprehensively and corruption cleaned out, conducting elections and even restoring statehood will be futile. These are, at best, half-hearted efforts that will only take Kashmir back to the troubled days of rampant separatism, centrifugal tendencies, and violence.

Kashmir