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David Devadas
October 11, 2012
The disruptive intrusion into the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly recently was only the latest in a series of indicators that the state faces economic distress. A couple of young men leapt into the assembly from the visitors' gallery shouting that they wanted jobs for the unemployed. Indeed, a very large number of young people across the state perceive economic distress in terms of joblessness. In a survey of several thousand college and high school students across the Valley last summer, the largest number by far identified unemployment as the biggest problem facing Kashmir. This has become a key issue, albeit largely unnoticed. It causes alienation -  although, ironically, the issue too often gets buried under the tenacious clamour for 'azadi.' Inadequate focus on economic distress has had another dangerous consequence: it has caused anger and conflict among different communities in the state - between the Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley, between Gujjars and Paharis, between Hindus and Muslims, between Buddhists and Muslims, and so on.

These distressing effects were in play during the agitations of 2008, but the economic dimension was barely noticed in the heat and dust of the issue that sparked trouble, the transfer of land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board. But for months thereafter, newspaper reports in both Srinagar and Jammu focused on (and heightened the perception of) the other side being favoured by the government for development and recruitment. Even though there is no longer the sort of guarantee of pensions that once made government jobs seem secure for life, most people in the state still crave government jobs. So, angst over 'unemployment' tends to be perceived as government bias against one's community. This sort of resentment remained in play when elections were held later in 2008. It brought electoral advantage to the BJP, which may not have won a single seat were it not for those agitations, and the perceptions of inter-regional and inter-religious discrimination which they exacerbated.

During that campaign, a surprisingly large number of citizens across the Valley also spoke of unemployment as their chief concern as they got ready to vote. (There was a 49% turnout in the Valley, despite a boycott in the cities - Srinagar, Sopore, Anantnag and Baramulla - which together contain perhaps a quarter of the Valley's population.) Obviously, the young men who intruded into the assembly the other day, and their political mentors, see unemployment as the most effective issue to make a splash, and promote themselves in the run-up to the 2014 assembly elections too.

Unfortunately, many in government are blinkered to such concerns as they focus on projecting electoral participation for geopolitical propaganda. The result: most of those who participated in the 2008 elections hoping for better economic prospects have been disappointed. To top that, the ham-handed response to the widespread agitations in 2010 against human rights abuses, especially the murder of innocent citizens branded as terrorists, added hugely to the alienation. The Valley appears calm enough on the surface now, but there have been several straws in the wind this year that could indicate trouble ahead.

During his recent visit to Kashmir, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi tried to respond to the demand for jobs: he got some of India's leading industrialists to go, so that they might set up industrial units that could generate private sector employment. However, his effort did not register in many Kashmiri minds as the limelight was grabbed by a group of Kashmir University students displaying pro-Pakistan banners outside the auditorium in which Gandhi was addressing other students. That is a common enough pattern. A large number of young Kashmiris, among whom there are large proportions of young women and the relatively less well-off, appear to want peace with dignity, citizen's rights, and economic opportunity. But they are often vigorously intimidated by their vociferous, more eloquent classmates. Politicians and administrators need to speak up, and listen, sensitively beyond the clamour of the noisiest.

The Congress's army of propagandists failed to project Gandhi's visit in advance as being meant to promote investment and employment. The visit was perceived by many Kashmiris as an effort to strengthen chief minister Omar Abdullah politically. When Gandhi went to Sonamarg to inaugurate a tunnel project through the main Himalayan range, his speech could have concentrated on infrastructure investment, and the importance of connectivity. Talking of his great-grandfather's support for Omar's grandfather, and of the accord between their fathers (which preceded the disastrous 1987 assembly elections and set the stage for the insurgency which began in 1988) was unimaginative, to say the least.

Tragically, even the most powerful in New Delhi seem to rely on a political arrangement for Jammu and Kashmir that has repeatedly proved counter-productive. Not only that, it goes against the basic premise of the Congress Party -that it represents all communities. The idea that the Congress should restrict itself largely to representing the Jammu and Ladakh regions (and mainly certain communities in those), leaving the Valley to Valley-based parties, is insidious. It gives a political edge to the sort of inter-region, inter-community animosities that the perception of government bias in recruitment has already promoted.

David Devadas is the author of In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir

The views expressed by the author are personal