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Kashmir - a contentious issue

Murali Krishnan, New DelhiJuly 7, 2014

During his first visit to Kashmir, Indian PM Narendra Modi said he wanted to win the hearts of the people by developing the conflict-ridden region. But separatists demand a political compromise.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) waves to the gathering as railway minister D. V. Sadananda Gowda (L) stands next to him during the inaugural function of the first train Shree Shakti Express, from Udhampur to Katra railway station, about 45 KM from Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir, India, 04 July 2014.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On his maiden trip to the area on July 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-held Kashmir amid a total shutdown called by separatists. He was greeted by almost empty streets and government security forces, some of who had placed separatist leaders under house arrest ahead of the PM's arrival.

Modi went on to inaugurate a hydro-power project in the town of Uri closed to the disputed border with Pakistan and a railway link in the Jammu region. After launching the new train service, near Katra at the foothills of the famous Hindu Vaishno Devi shrine, Modi said: "Jammu and Kashmir has passed through very trying times. It is every Indian's desire to ensure that the state makes progress and youths here get employment."

An Indian paramilitary soldier frisks a Kashmiri man during a search operation in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, 04 July 2014.
Modi was greeted by almost empty streets and government security forces in KashmirImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"My aim is to win the heart of every citizen in Jammu and Kashmir through development. This is my priority," he added.

A lukewarm response

But Modi's development rhetoric was met with a lukewarm response, especially against the backdrop of demands by members of his ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to scrap Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gives special status to the state.

"Kashmir is a political problem. Unless the issue is addressed in its historical context and in agreement with the political realities, there is no possibility of restoring of ever-lasting peace and ending the uncertainty," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq chairman of the separatist Huriyat Conference told DW from Srinagar.

Mirwaiz is convinced that Kashmir does not pose a security issue for the government, but stresses that only a meaningful political dialogue with all relevant stakeholders can end the political deadlock. "What is the point of talking about development when the core issue of Kashmir is not settled? Development cannot happen in a vacuum," hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani told DW. Moreover, Muslim groups argue that Kashmir is not an economic, but a "political issue" which thus requires a political solution.

Modi's attempts to reach out to the populace in the country's only Muslim-majority state - which has been wracked by an insurgency since 1989 - acquire further significance as the state is scheduled to hold assembly elections in October this year, which have in the past been boycotted by the separatists.

Elusive peace

The federal government in New Delhi accuses neighboring Pakistan of fanning the militancy that has seen frequent outbursts of violence and cross-firing along the Line of Control. The Himalayan region is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, but they administer separate partial areas. To this day, India maintains an estimated half a million troops in Kashmir, down from 700,000 at the end of 1989.

“Being a strong Hindu nationalist leader, Modi cannot go against the grain of his party’s credo, which is to do away with the autonomous status Kashmir currently enjoys. Let us see if he can walk the talk of development ushering in prosperity," Fayaz Bhat, a professor at Kashmir University told DW.

Others believe that development and welfare of the state cannot happen unless political dialogue with Pakistan is renewed to resolve all contentious issues.

Soldiers have laid barbed wires, created check posts and bunkers to stop election boycott campaigners and stone pelters.
The Himalayan region is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, but they administer separate partial areasImage: Bijoyeta Das

"People have seen death and destruction in the state for over two decades. Modi did the right thing when he invited Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration ceremony. And now he must pursue that dialogue vigorously to arrive at a settlement,” said Izar Wani, a Kashmir-based businessman, told DW.

Restoring peace in the troubled state has been a big problem for several prime ministers. Though political dialogue was also initiated by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his 10 years in office, his approach failed to produce any lasting results. Modi, too, has a huge task at hand. Political consensus among Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders, many say, is a must for initiating any worthwhile dialogue.