Since prime minister Narendra Modi took office, part of his approach to India’s ever-present problem of Kashmiri nationalism and militancy has involved massive investment in infrastructure. But Kashmiris think the solution lies in dialogue, not in roads and bridges.
Last week, Mr Modi inaugurated a 37.2-billion-rupee (Dh2.11bn) highway tunnel – India’s longest, at nearly 11 kilometres – between the towns of Udhampur and Ramban in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. The tunnel and other projects like it would, he said, hopefully diminish unrest and lead to more jobs and tourism.
The tunnel bores through difficult terrain at an altitude of 1,200 metres, and it slashes the commute between Jammu and Srinagar by 30 kilometres.
“While on the one hand youth in Kashmir were busy pelting stones, on the other some youth were breaking stones to carve out this tunnel,” Mr Modi said. He was referring to protests in Kashmir last summer, which followed the killing of a popular militant by Indian troops.
Those protests were brutally suppressed by security forces. Eighty-four civilians died, and more than 12,000 civilians and troops were injured.
One thread of conventional wisdom in India believes that such unrest is the result of a barren economic landscape. Provide sufficient jobs and opportunities, the thinking goes, and the youth will leave behind their militancy or calls for independence.
The highway tunnel itself is an older project, begun in 2011. But in 2015, during a trip to Jammu & Kashmir, Mr Modi announced a package worth 800bn rupees for the state, intended primarily to build infrastructure.
The projects to be funded by the package include: ring roads around Jammu and Srinagar; the Zojila Pass Tunnel, which will ensure a year-round connection to the high plateau of Ladakh; an expansion of the state’s highways; a rail link connecting Kashmir to the main Indian railway network, which includes the highest bridge in the world, nearly 360 metres over the Chenab river; six hydro-power projects at a cost of 971bn rupees.
Apart from stimulating the economy and enabling industries to function better, the infrastructure projects are intended to strengthen the Kashmir valley’s connection to the rest of India. During severe winters, the valley is dependent on India for many supplies, particularly food.
But Kashmiris view these projects as insufficient at best and malign at worst.
The direct rail link, for instance, will function “as an iron chain that will forcefully hold Kashmir within Indian rule”, said Fahad Shah, the founder-editor of The Kashmir Walla, one of the state’s most outspoken magazines.
“The train … also helps to transport thousands of troops in less time to Kashmir, with enhanced security,” Mr Shah told The National. “As we’ve seen, convoy vehicles come under attack, a train may not as easily.”
Bringing Kashmir within the Indian economic fold in this manner, and thus boosting the claim that the streams of visitors to Kashmir indicates a peaceful valley, is to subvert the Kashmiri nationalist movement, Mr Shah said.
“Mentally, Kashmiris are always looking for and demanding a political solution to the dispute,” he said, referring to the contestations of independence and increased autonomy. The protests last year were, he said, “a big example” of these demands.
Peerzada Irshad, the head of Kashmir University’s political science department, acknowledged that the state – and the Kashmir valley in particular – needed development.
“India does need to address the problems of Kashmiri youth,” Dr Irshad said. “We need more medical and engineering colleges, we need stadiums for sports, we need industries that can absorb graduates and give them jobs.”
Ever since India became in 1947, Dr Irshad said, its successive governments have consciously avoided enabling industries in Kashmir, concerned about security risks or about a successful secession.
“It’s true that without infrastructure, this kind of support of the youth cannot happen,” he said. “So if the prime minister has inaugurated tunnels or medical colleges, it will not go in vain. It will all count somewhere.”
But Dr Irshad, like Mr Shah, emphasised that the problem of Kashmir was primarily a political problem, and it needed a political resolution.
“On that account, it seems that India is just ignoring it, or deferring it for some reason.”
The infrastructure projects, Dr Irshad said, would give India “a say in regional or national forums. They can say: ‘See what we’re doing for Kashmir. We’ve left no stone unturned. This should be counted in our favour.’”
“But the alienation of Kashmiris is deeper, and India has to engage them in conversation. That’s the only way to a lasting solution,” he said. “The more you defer it, the more it will rebound on you.”