Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on Tuesday has said that she can see “shoots of peace sprouting” in Kashmir. The 58-year-old chief minister welcomed recent overtures by the union government and the ruling BJP to reach out to Kashmiris, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech in which he asked Indians to “embrace” Kashmiris.
“These are welcome signs,” she said. “The shoots of peace have started sprouting. They have to be watered and nurtured, and I am sure that the fruits of peace will follow,” she said in the interview to a news gathering agency.
“All that is required now is to hold their (Kashmiris’) fingers with their dignity intact,” she said.
She said her government is in favour of holding talks with everyone, as had been enshrined in the Agenda of Alliance between the PDP and the BJP.
She said she is in favour of the strategy employed by the Vajpayee government in the early 2000s when Kashmiri separatist leaders were allowed to talk to Pakistan as part of peace-building efforts, while New Delhi and Islamabad were also simultaneously engaged.
“There is a need to take the bull by its horns,” she said, “and finding a way out for bringing in a ‘permanent’ peace in the state.” She said she is in regular contact with Home Minister Rajnath Singh, whom she described as “very supportive”.
Mehbooba noted that Ram Madhav, the BJP general secretary, has a clear understanding of Kashmir and has been extremely supportive of the alliance government. “I am sure that together we will be able to steer the state to new heights,” she said.
She said Prime Minister Modi’s singling out 18-year-old Bilal Dar (praised for cleaning Dal Lake) in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ speech had made young Kashmiris proud. “These steps have a tremendous impact on the psyche of the younger generation and their hope for recognition at the national level. They are not seen or labelled as mere stone-pelters,” she said.
Seventeen months into office, Mehbooba said she felt that talks between India and Pakistan should begin at the earliest, but she held Islamabad responsible for the present tension.
“The prime minister made a wonderful gesture by stopping at Islamabad and meeting the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But what happened after that? It was followed by the attack at Pathankot, and increased terror activities in the state,” she said.
“However, there is a need to bring Pakistan to the negotiating table, once again. After all, the relations between India and Pakistan have a direct bearing on Jammu and Kashmir,” she said.
“Smooth relations between the two countries have always meant a better life for people in the state,” she said.
The chief minister blamed the Congress-led UPA government for not carrying forward the “gains” made by the peace process of the Vajpayee government. “They were there for 10 years but could not make any headway. It was an opportunity that was never cashed in by them,” she said.
Mehbooba blamed the electronic news media for making even minor incidents of violence into national events, portraying Kashmir as a region in perpetual flames. She said the high-pitched debates that follow such incidents end up vilifying Kashmiris. This, in turn, alienates Kashmiris against the rest of the country, she said.
Mehbooba, who is also the tourism minister, said she gets a report on tourist arrivals every evening, and the figures are grim. Arrivals have now fallen to 4,000-5,000 a day from a peak of 10,000-12,000.
Most hotels and houseboats are empty, taxi companies have virtually no business, and shops are shut.
She said it is wrong to project the entire 70 lakh population of the Valley as pro-militant. She said that intelligence figures show that there are only about 200-300 homegrown militants.
“You talk about the 200 militants but don’t talk about the thousands of Kashmiris in the Indian Army,” she said. She did not deny, however, that there is a sense of alienation among Kashmiri youth, and even children as young as eight, because of severe security crackdowns that follow stone-pelting incidents.