Thursday, January 8, 2009

Picking up the threads in Kashmir

One of the most abiding symbols of Kashmiri culture is the pheran.  A combination of an overcoat and a gown, the pheran is a great leveller.  For generations, all sections of Kashmiri society — young and old, men and women,   Pandits and Muslims, aristocratic and subaltern — have depended on this long, loose robe to protect them in the harshest of winters. This traditional Kashmiri dress has, of course, been both a symbol of resistance and fashion. The militant’s Kalashnikov virtually disappeared under the creaseless layers of the tweed variant, while embroidered pashmina designer-pherans have rarely been out of fashion even in Paris’s Gallery Lafayette. Not surprisingly then, the pheran is also a potent acronym for the agenda that the new Omar Abdullah led National Conference-Congress coalition government should follow, with each one of the alphabets expanding into a weighty policy direction: planning, human rights, education, reconciliation, autonomy/ self-rule, and a new culture of  governance. The Omar Abdullah government must begin the exercise of stitching this new pheran within the first 100-days of his government. 
ammu and Kashmir does, in a manner of saying, conduct an extensive planning exercise. But like much else in the state, the reality is starkly different. Earlier this week, the Financial Commissioner Planning and Development Department, presumably to endear himself to the new government, delivered a lecture in which he pompously declared that Jammu and Kashmir has pioneered planning decentralisation in the country by creating district development boards. In fact, the planning department is the most overcentralised, inefficient, and idiosyncratic part of the government. Other than token meetings, there is rarely any significant consultation with stakeholders.
Omar Abdullah has signalled that he may set up a planning board, and this would be a very important initiative. The planning board must be manned, however, by primarily professional economists (and sociologists) and those who understand the importance of a more imaginative, organic, and a truly decentralised perspective to planning.
 One of the most sensitive areas where the new government will be tested is the issue of human rights. Will it be able to strike the right balance between ensuring the dignity of the average citizen while continuing the fight against militancy? There are four fronts on which the new government must act. First, the state human rights commission must be given real teeth. This should be possible through an immediate ordinance, to give citizens greater confidence. Second, the government must plead with the centre to seriously review the applicability of some of the draconian laws and gradually repeal them, district by district, if not in their entirety right away. Third, it is time to consider giving general amnesty to all political detainees from the state. Finally, ensuring the dignity and human rights of the Kashmiri Pandits must also form a centrepiece of the agenda. 
Investing in education, training and skill development have to be part of the fundamentals of the new government if it has to take advantage of the huge demographic dividend in the state. The youth can become the state’s greatest strength, its soft power, in the years to come. Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed, in recent years, a massive expansion of educational infrastructure from the school to the university level. Much of this has been unregulated and there has been little attention paid to issues of academic direction, equity, excellence, public-private partnership and the needs of the market. The state has, consequently, witnessed high levels of educated unemployment and low levels of vocationally skilled human resources. 
It is essential also to give the youth of Jammu and Kashmir a greater stake in the country’s booming knowledge economy. Public-private partnerships are also needed to enhance international connectivity by extending broad-band access in the state — with stronger incentives provided through the existing universal access funds for telecommunications. Given the geography of the state, and its growing endowments of skills, electronic exports of services may play a more significant role in its beneficial economic integration than the export of apples and handicrafts.  
The state has rarely been as polarised as before, and, let us face it, with both a regional and a religious divide.  Reconciliation should not remain a slogan. It cannot merely be the embroidery on the pheran, but become part of the fabric itself. There is the need for multiple reconciliations: within the valley between the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kashmiri Muslims and between the separatists and those within the mainstream; between the valley and Jammu and Ladakh; and between the sub-regions in Ladakh and Jammu. While a reconciliation commission may be a formal mechanism, much more can be done at the civil society level. In the long term, dealing seriously with the issue of autonomy, self rule and regional balance are critical. While key decisions may have to await backing from New Delhi, the state government must initiate a dialogue. It must not hold its own views/ reports sacrosanct, but generate real creative thinking while considering other models and experiences across the world. 
Finally, the new government must initiate a new work culture rooted in the politics of positivism. It must seek to channelise the immense talent within the state through inspirational leadership, which learns from the past, but does not remain a prisoner to past divisiveness and bitterness.
 (Source: The Indian Express, 08/01/09)

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