Inaugurating South Asia's longest road tunnel recently, PM Modi called on Kashmir's youth to choose between "terrorism and tourism." But the situation in the conflict-ridden state remains tense. Murali Krishnan reports.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated an 11-kilometer (7-mile) tunnel through the Himalayan terrain over the weekend to help ease travel on a highway connecting the troubled Kashmir Valley with the rest of India. It is South Asia's longest road tunnel that runs from Chenani to Nashri in Jammu and Kashmir.
But when Modi opened the tunnel and delivered his speech, Kashmir remained shutdown in protest against his visit to the state.
The cycle of death and injuries continues relentlessly in the Valley. Last week, at least five people were killed, including three armed militants and two civilians, and around 30 were wounded by bullets or pellets fired by security forces.
Expressing anguish at the death of Kashmiris during violent clashes with security forces, Modi reached out to the Valley's youth, saying they must choose between "tourism and terrorism."
"On one side there is tourism, on the other there is terrorism. It has been 40 years, lots of innocents lost their lives no one has gained anything," Modi said.
"The youth of Kashmir have a choice to select one of the two paths - one of tourism the other of terrorism. The path of bloodshed has not helped anyone and will never help anyone."
The tunnel, at an altitude of 1,200 meters, is a part of National Highway Authority of India's (NHAI) project.
There has been an uneasy calm in the Valley over the past several weeks, with the police launching a massive crackdown in South Kashmir by arresting at least 135 youth in the past fortnight.
Almost reminiscent of the 2016 violence, South Kashmir continues to witness frequent gun battles between militants and security forces. Stone-pelting protests near encounter sites have also become a routine feature in the last few months.
"The government is trying to wear down a resistance with force and it will not work. Alienation is growing. More importantly, the polarization between Jammu and Srinagar is just increasing," Sukumar Muralidharan, a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and a close Kashmir watcher, told DW.
According to the latest census, nearly 60 percent of the Valley's male residents are under the age of 30, and 70 percent are below the age of 35.
"The state simply does not have enough jobs to keep its youth occupied. Apart from unemployment, there is also a need to work out a political solution," R K Bhat, a political science lecturer from Srinagar, told DW.
Mukhtar Ahmad, a journalist from Srinagar, who has chronicled the conflict for over two decades, believes that the administration must act swiftly to arrest the downward slide.
"If things continue like this, we will see a very serious problem. This could be a bad summer again," Ahmad told DW.
2016 was a very violent year in Kashmir. The period witnessed massive public protests following the killing of Burhan Wani, a militant leader, in July.
Ignoring political reality
Though the protests drew an overly forceful response from the state that left over 90 civilians dead in security crackdowns which included extensive use of pellet guns, lessons have yet to be learned.
In its report titled "Human Rights Review – 2016," the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a prominent human rights body, said that a total of 383 people lost their lives in 2016, including 145 civilians.
But the government has so far not acted upon the recommendations made by various political groups, including a parliamentary panel that visited Kashmir last year after the unrest and killings.
Kashmir faced a complete shutdown on April 2 when Modi visited the state to inaugurate the Chenani-Nashri tunnel, the longest in the country
In a candid admission, Hansraj Ahir, India's minister of state for home affairs, told the Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament last week that as many as 88 Kashmiri youths took to militancy in 2016, the highest number during the past six years. He also said that last year there was a three-fold increase in infiltration from across the border.
"We can see an action replay again. The situation is still very tense and it could explode if not handled carefully," says Bashir Manzar, a commentator.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has been advocating political initiatives and a resumption of talks with the separatists in the state as well as neighboring Pakistan.
Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
Clearly, the absence of a dialogue with Kashmir's disaffected populace can only spell more trouble for Modi's government. There is more that needs to be done than talk through the prism of development and tourism.