In addressing the residents of Jammu for the first time since the removal of special status for Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out a rosy picture of increased connectivity of the Union Territory with the nation’s capital, promised more investments, and hailed the boom in tourism as a harbinger of progress. The UT, conflict-ridden for decades, had fared better on several development indicators compared to the rest of India, except in per capita net State GDP. Data from FY2017 showed that J&K ranked 21st among States then. The investment proposals and development projects inaugurated by the Prime Minister, in particular the connectivity projects between Jammu and Srinagar and Jammu and Delhi should help shore up the UT’s economy. After a period of harsh lockdowns and communication restrictions, the UT went through a tough period, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic between 2019 and 2021. But significantly, the Kashmir Valley has seen a substantial increase in footfalls with a revival of the tourism industry during the recent winter despite security concerns, with its natural beauty proving a magnetic attraction for international travellers in particular, who had been affected by global travel bans. This has come as a balm to the residents of the Valley, with political forces cutting across mainstream and separatist sections calling for unhindered access for tourists in the region.
Does this mean that there is an unequivocal acceptance of the status imposed on the erstwhile unified State of J&K (that included the present day UT of Ladakh), among the people in the Valley and beyond? That certainly does not seem to be the case in the Kashmir Valley, at least if recent events such as the district development council elections in late 2020 are any indication. The Gupkar Alliance, which has steadfastly demanded a return to status quo prior to 2019, had decisively won in the Valley and the group has also vociferously protested the delimitation exercise whose proposals clearly seek to repurpose the politics of J&K through arbitrarily providing greater electoral prospects for Jammu-based parties over Kashmir-based ones. Notwithstanding the recent uptick in economic activity after the prolonged turmoil post-August 2019, there is no indication that the resultant discontent has diminished; security risks continue to remain preponderant as the spurt of terrorist violence shows including the killing of two “fidayeen” militants barely 14 km from Palli village, where the Prime Minister made his address on National Panchayati Raj Day. Beyond doubt, New Delhi must engage in substantive outreach in the form of gestures that reverse the hostility towards the political representatives in the Valley. The return of J&K to statehood will be a good beginning.