Jammu must seize the opportunity yet again

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd)
For too long, elections to the Jammu and Kashmir State Legislative Assembly (especially in the plains of Jammu) were reflective of a reactionary instinct. It was perennially conflated to its hyphenated existence with the troubled ‘Valley’, and seemed more concerned at voting against it, as opposed to seeking anything for itself, beyond a point. Add to this the admixture of the larger national emotion (and therefore of all national parties) that was invariably fixed onto the affairs of the restive ‘Valley’, the Jammu region was perennially ignored. While multiple developmental ‘packages’ were routinely announced for the ‘Valley’ by all dispensations of varied persuasions – Jammu was effectively ignored by each one of them, without exception.
While Jammu was once the thriving epicenter of affairs for the grand Dogra kingdom pre-independence, the epicenter shifted to the ‘Valley’ after independence/accession. The politicians (again, of all national and regional hues) polarised the environment to such an extent that the vast swathes of the erstwhile Dogra Kingdom (the largest Princely State of India, pre-independence) started to get viewed with the lamentable lens of religion – so it came ‘Hindu majority Jammu region’, ‘Muslim-majority Valley’ and ‘Buddhist majority Ladakh’. Not only was the wonderful compositeness of the Dogra rule diminished, but private-political fiefdoms based on religion, emerged.
While much has been said (often justifiably) of the biased approach (pro-Valley) of the successive Governments, or even of the neglect by ‘Delhi’ – an honest introspection of the role, conduct and silence of the Jammu based leaders needs to be done. Why did they not voice the concerns of socio-economic neglect of the Jammu region, effectively? Unlike many other regions that were neglected from the national investments and focus, in the immediate aftermath of independence, in terms of infrastructural development e.g., Northeast States, it could still be argued that they did not have too many people representing them in ‘Delhi’, but this was not the case for J&K politicians (even from Jammu region). Many eminent, visible, and well-versed politicos from the Jammu region were present in all major national parties, yet the ‘voice’ of Jammu went unheard. The same status effectively holds true, even now. Nonetheless, in hindsight, many were complicit with their telling silences, acquiescence, or sometimes, by just remaining content in retaining their substantially decreased boroughs. There clearly hasn’t been enough soul-searching done and questions raised, within Jammu and of its leadership, across the partisan divide.
Even today, the major discourse is about breaking away from ‘Valley’ – a tempting, seductive and lazy simplification of a complex issue. As if, the embarrassment of severance from a full-fledged ‘State’ to a ‘Union Territory’ Is not enough, or that, even if the ‘Statehood’ is restored, it would be without the vast swathes of Ladakh – that conversations still veer about an even smaller tract of exclusive Jammu region, as if that were to be panacea from all ills. It never is, as one will still always find yet another way of cutting oneself, further. It is a slippery slope of a solution. The day Jammu wakes to the realisation that it is not just ‘Valley’ or ‘Delhi’ that is responsible for its diminishment, but perhaps the problem could lie with ‘Jammu’ and its historically inefficacious presentation of its woes, is when it truly does itself a big favour. The Jammu leaders failed it. Period.
Now, the great opportunity to talk about matters that truly matter e.g., employment, infrastructure, public investment in health, education, water etc., beckons yet again, with the looming elections to Jammu and Kashmir State Legislative Assembly. Can Jammu rise beyond the usual rhetoric and polemics that have defined its impulses for so long? Can it articulate (or force the various political forces in the fray) to change the tune from the rote ‘Valley-versus-Jammu’ line? Can it think beyond religiousity? Can they ask for accountability for delivery-on-ground beyond grandiose announcements and promises? Can they (like some places like the National Capital, Delhi) differentiate between national-issues and local-issues, to make electoral preferences basis whichever partisan persuasion can represent and deliver best?
It is almost as if Jammu has been the incubator and expressor of national passions on the rebound, without any recourse, agenda, or specificity of its own. The national parties have seemingly exploited that sense of Jammu’s isolation to only enforce larger national passions, without doing anything substantial for the socio-economic development of Jammu, itself. J&K has amongst the highest unemployment rates in the country – far worse than Northeast States, Bihar, Orissa etc. To suggest that one party has been better than the other, or that things are poised to change (or worsen) is only to take partisan sides. Fact is, Jammu does not feature in the national imagination as a pressing concern or a place wanting to change. Its leadership across the partisan divide has suggested no such urgency or tension from Jammu’s side. It is this failure that needs to be acknowledged rather than the age-old script of politicians from the ‘Valley’ or ‘Delhi’, as pandering to the old script is to do more of the same, which has never delivered.
This election, Jammu must sharply articulate its wish list with clear specifics – these specifics must go beyond vacuous symbols like (re)naming monuments, declaring holidays, declaring places of national importance, installing statues or sprucing places of historical importance etc. It should list key infrastructural projects with expected time of completion, upgradation of existing infrastructure, investments in public-private sphere (beyond announcing MOU’s that runs in thousands of crores, but tangibly leaves the state high and dry, as it does in any state). It should announce big policy changes that are truly and economically transformational, impactful and progressive. It is a mammoth exercise that creates a laundry list of non-distractive (symbolic or partisan) demands, that fundamentally improves livelihood and quality of life. For too long it has been subjected to divisive, meaningless, and polarising agenda that may temporarily lead to a sense of emotional redemption, but effectively changes nothing. Jammu simply has had no clear demands or at least those which improve basic livelihood.
The political parties must be forced to think about such issues rather than galvanise the local mood towards ‘national’ issues. Also, the citizenry should disallow those who seek to ‘divide’ between people of unparalleled diversities that are natural to J&K – they should force a discussion on the substantial/transformational and not the emotional. The ‘Valley” (and much larger tracts of Ladakh and across the Line of Control) were always a part of the noble Dogra Kingdom – and therefore it does not behove Jammu or its leadership to act petty or petulant in its conduct. It must look to heal, embrace, and synergise opportunities with the ‘Valley’ than to play the old songs, albeit, by demanding its fair share, strongly. This opportunity cannot be allowed to be hijacked, yet again. All the unhinged political parties must not be allowed to get away with typically insincere ‘promises’ as insistences on ‘shadow plans’ with details of sources of investment to fund the same must be showcased for public consumption – people must choose basis such detailed plans, and not basis their ancestry, purported muscularity or even roles in history. This means that even if smaller or regional groups emerge, so be it – if the regional/national parties agree to be transformational for once, then even better. But old loyalties, emotionality and ‘manufactured outrage’ should not count, as only those with concrete, plausible and transformational plans for the future ought to be chosen.


(The author is the former Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)

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