Three months ago, while inaugurating the Chenani-Nashri all-weather tunnel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a word of advise for the "misguided youth" of Kashmir — "Choose tourism over terrorism". While it worked as a perfect catchphrase, Modi completely ignored that it wasn't really a choice. Violence never is a choice.
On Monday, Modi gave US President Donald Trump and his wife a number of gifts. A folio containing an original commemorative postal stamp issued by India in 1965 to mark the death centenary of Lincoln, a wooden chest with intricate inlay pattern that is a speciality of Hoshiarpur in Punjab, handcrafted Himachali silver bracelet, tea and honey from the Kangra valley, and hand-woven shawls from Jammu & Kashmir.
Yes, a shawl from the same place where a shawl-maker, 26-year-old Farooq Ahmed Dar, was tied to a jeep bonnet by the Indian Army apparently to "avoid" stone pelting on the armed forces.
He was on his way back after casting his vote in the by-elections when he came across Major Leetul Gogoi, who tied him to the jeep's bonnet as a shield against stone pelters who had allegedly surrounded a group of armed personnel. A video of Dar tied to the bonnet of the vehicle went viral, triggering a public outcry.
Dar's story was an addition to the disturbing series of violations in the army-civilian conflict taking place in the Kashmir valley.
While there were editorials criticising the Army for turning a man into a 'human shield', there was not a word from the prime minister of the county on this act. All this happened just a month after Modi asked the people of Kashmir to choose tourism over terrorism.
"I am not a stone-pelter. Never in my life have I thrown stones. I work as an embroiderer of shawls, and I know some carpentry. This is what I do," a visibly injured Dar told The Indian Express.
The shawl-maker said he was "thrashed severely with gun butts and wooden sticks and in an almost unconscious state tied to the front of the jeep and paraded".
After an inquiry by the Army, Major Gogoi was praised for his "presence of mind" in being able to avoid casualties and injuries. Dar was left asking one question, "Was this bravery?"
Kashmiris protest in America
While Modi and Trump exchanged pleasantries and hugs, hundreds of Kashmiri-Americans stood outside the White House and chanted slogans demanding "azaadi", freedom.
Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai, Secretary General of World Kashmir Awareness Forum (WKAF) told Kashmir Life, "Now is the time that President Trump listen to Candidate Trump who said on October 17, 2016 that he would be honored to address the 'very, very hot tinderbox' of Kashmir between India and Pakistan."
There's no way of knowing if Trump and Modi discussed Kashmir in their "strategic issues" meet. At least, nothing was mentioned in the joint statement.
For Prime Minister Modi, a shawl from Kashmir may have been a symbol to show that the conflict-ridden Valley is a part of the country after all, a gesture to show the diverse culture India is apparently proud of. But to not speak a word on the Kashmir problem at home while giving gifts to world leaders abroad is odd indeed.
What about unemployment?
Three months ago when Modi wanted the youth to be productive, he probably didn't realise the state of unemployment in the Valley.
The unemployment rate among the youth in Jammu and Kashmir is nearly double the national average. According to the Economic Survey Report of 2016, it was 24.6% in Jammu & Kashmir as opposed to 13.2% nationwide.
In fact, tourism is not easy to choose as a career option in Kashmir either. The official figures of tourist-inflow to Kashmir speaks to the unfortunate reality. In 2014, there were 94,38,544 domestic tourists and 86,477 foreign tourists visiting Jammu and Kashmir. However, in 2015, the corresponding figures fell down to 91,45,016 and 58,568 respectively.
"We have nobody to take on a ride," Rizwan Ahmad Bhat, a boatman, told Firstpost.
The Firstpostreport notes that until July 2016, before militant leader Burhan Wani's killing, Bhat and other boatmen used to earn Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 a day. Now they barely make Rs 400 a day.
The violence following Wani's killing has still not subsided, almost after a year since the event.
A report in Economic Timesnotes that the looming insecurity has brought down the number of tourist arrivals in the valley down to around 200 to 250 per day from around 12,000 to 15,000 per day earlier.
How can the youth choose "productivity" if the government is unable to fix the unemployment problem in Kashmir?
The gifts from Kashmir
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had also gifted a Pashmina shawl among other things to then US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle during his State Visit to Washington in 2009. Gifts from Kashmir are not unusual at all. However, while gifts from the state to a world leader are a good way of showcasing India's cultural heritage, the government must ponder what it is doing to protect that culture back home.
It's unfair to put the blame on the Modi government alone, since the situation in Kashmir wasn't resolved by any of the earlier dispensations either.
As Shivam Vij points out, "The old establishment consensus in Kashmir continues. The consensus is to repeat a collective national lie until we believe it. We delude ourselves into thinking the only problem in Kashmir is Pakistan and terrorism. Pak, terror, Pak, terror, Pak, terror — repeating it ad nauseam isn't going to solve the problem."
Last year, after Wani's killing and the beginning of the months-long violence, Modi invoked Atal Bihari Vajpayee's mantra of 'insaniyat, jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat' to say that this motto alone offers the way forward through dialogue.
"I want to tell my brothers and sisters in Kashmir that the strength our freedom fighters gave this country, they gave the same strength to Kashmir. The freedom every Indian enjoys, that freedom is also enjoyed by every Kashmiri," he said.
What the Prime Minister failed to acknowledge during this speech was that Kashmiris and freedom can't be said in one sentence without irony. No, they don't enjoy the "azaadi" he claims they do. They are trapped in a prison of history, a vicious cycle of torture and violence, and often lack the most basic human rights.
The fact that a Kashmiri shawl artisan was turned into a human shield is a matter of grave concern. The fact that the security forces violated a civilian's dignity in the name of safeguarding democracy cannot be glossed over. Certainly not by offering his very means of livelihood as a gift to the heads of state in other parts of the world.
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