SRINAGAR: The Jammu and Kashmir Assembly is beginning an exhaustive Budget Session spanning more than a month’s time.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who assumed power on April 4 after renewing the alliance with BJP that her late father had forged in 2015, would be, for the first time, facing discomforting questions. During her seven weeks in chair, Mehbooba has strategically chosen to remain silent. She seldom speaks on issues and mostly restricts conversations to her father’s memories while she describes ‘his vision’ as her ‘mission’.
The Assembly convened its last session in September 2015. Normally, Budget Session should have been convened in Jammu, but Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s demise led to the collapse of his council of ministers and formation of new government got delayed beyond permissible limits. This led to imposition of governor’s rule and the Assembly was put in suspended animation for three months.
Mehbooba would not be worried on what happens inside the confines of the legislature complex. Even if the opposition legislators put her government on notice on various sensitive issues, she knows their limits of agitation. She has herself played the role when she was in opposition to Omar Abdullah-led Congress-National Conference government between 2008 and 2014.
The bigger challenge is emerging outside of the Assembly complex. The pro-freedom political forces are inching towards forging a ‘joint strategy’ against government’s several initiatives, which they refer to as ploys to weaken the Kashmir issue, disenfranchise Kashmiris, and affect the demography of the Muslim-majority region. On May 18, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, head of a faction of Hurriyat Conference that has a distinction of holding talks with the government of India in the past, warned of a public uprising in Kashmir similar to the one held in 2008 summer, when the state government had allotted forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board.
On the same day, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik called upon veteran pro-freedom leader Syed Ali Geelani at the latter’s residence (where he is detained) to discuss the idea of formulating a joint strategy to resist the ‘government plans’. Malik also held discussions with Dukhtaran-e-Millat chief Aasiya Andrabi and Jamaat-e-Islami amir Ghulam Mohammad Bhat.
Five initiatives of the government are being discussed amongst the pro-freedom ranks as well as common circles for their far-reaching consequences. First, the government is planning to set-up an exclusive residential colony for the former soldiers at Budgam district of central Kashmir. Second, the government plans to build concrete shelters for a floating population of non-locals, predominantly labourers, who come in hordes to work in Kashmir during the summer months. Third, New Delhi has given ascent to building clusters for displaced Pandits to bring them back to Kashmir Valley. Most of the Pandits left Kashmir in early 1990s when militancy erupted in the region. Currently, 62,000 registered Pandit families are residing outside Kashmir.
There are also apprehensions about the new industrial policy approved during the governor’s rule. The reports say that the policy has paved way for the non-state subjects to acquire swatches of land in Jammu and Kashmir to set up their industrial units. The permission would be in contravention to the state subject law existing in the state that disallows any non-resident to own, inherit or bequeath immovable property in Jammu and Kashmir. The special status of Jammu and Kashmir actually safeguards this provision.
And, the Supreme Court’s verdict on implementation of National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) in Jammu and Kashmir despite objections from the state government is not going down well with the local population. They say the NEET is yet another ploy to take over the control of educational institutions in the state. The recent flare-up at the National Institute of Technology over cricket match results sets a perfect backdrop for the apprehensions. Kashmiri students are in minority at the NIT unlike when it was a reputed Regional Engineering College before 2003.
Mehbooba Mufti’s government has sent umpteen rebuttals to the reports on the sainik colony and industrial policy issues. The government maintains that even as the proposal was mooted by the former soldiers, no land has been allotted anywhere in the state. They officials also say that the proposal to set-up ‘shelters for homeless’ would not give proprietary rights to the ‘floating population’ but the shelters would remain the property of the state availed by the homeless on rentals. The government spokesman, Naeem Akhtar, held a detailed discussion with journalists last week to throw notions that there was nothing anti-Kashmiri in the proposals. He explained that no land would be allotted to any industrialist who is not a permanent resident of the state. On Pandit colonies, he swears that those would not be exclusive but any state subject can become part of these clusters.
Observers say that the government’s explanations on the contentious issues may not be diversionary or misplaced but they are not sufficient to alley the apprehensions and fears of the common people. The Amarnath land row in 2008, only gave vent to these insecurities when unarmed people came out protesting on streets to face bullets. That was resentment against a formal procedure that had begun to transfer the state land to a Hindu board that operates independently. Otherwise, thousands of acres of land, both in Pahalgam and Baltal areas enroute Amarnath Cave, are literally declared out of bounds for local Kashmiris every year during the annual pilgrimage. There are apprehensions that the newest proposals are other formal procedures to besiege Kashmiri population. This is the notion the separatists have begun to consolidate over and forge a strategy to launch a renewed anti-India campaign.
On the face of it, Kashmir’s weather is awesome. Every day, 34 flights arrive at the Srinagar airport, predominantly loaded with tourists escaping the scorching sun from the Indian plains. The shikaras are rowing in Dal Lake, hotels are packed to capacity and health resorts, like Pahalgam and Gulmarg, are bustling with activity. Such a scenario encourages anyone like Bollywood actor Alok Nath to dismiss the ‘negative portrayal’ of Kashmir. However, those who are able to see beyond the smokescreen of this normalcy are quite apprehensive. There is simmering anger amongst the local population. This anger reflects when thousands of people gather at the funeral of a militant who dies in encounter with the security forces.
Mehbooba Mufti’s government managed the situation after alleged molestation case in Handwara last month that led to killing of civilians at the hands of police and army. This incident has added to the discontent among the people. The state machinery is now exploring newest methods like locally blocking the internet to smother public resentment. This situation is bringing down Mehbooba’s old castle of dialogue, engagement and healing touch, brick by brick.