CHANDIGARH — While the Congress leadership in Delhi has struggled to articulate a coherent political response to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s decision to nullify Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and bifurcate the state into two union territories, veteran Congressman and Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh has leveraged his “army veteran” status to both condemn the decision and avoid being drawn into a debate over his “patriotism”
When Home Minister Amit Shah first announced the decision on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on August 5, the BJP and its supporters went on overdrive to describe anyone who opposed the decision as “anti-national”.
Singh appeared unruffled by this strategy. He described the decision as “totally unconstitutional and undemocratic”, even as he banned any demonstrations in favour of, or against the decision.
As the Chief Minister of a state with a border with Pakistan, Singh criticised the Home Minister for jeopardising national security by not seeking a political consensus on a significant departure on India’s Kashmir policy.
A week later, on August 12, the Chief Minister hosted 125 Kashmiri students for lunch at Punjab Bhawan in Chandigarh on the occasion of Eid-al-Adha — thereby burnishing his, and the Congress party’s pluralistic credentials.
The next day on August 13, he harrumphed angrily at Pakistan minister Fawad Chaudhry’s appeal to Punjabi soldiers to refuse to serve in Kashmir.
As a consequence, Singh has managed to appear tough on national security, empathetic to the Kashmiri people, and opposed to the de facto abrogation of Article 370.
The Lunch Diplomacy
Punjab has over 8000 Kashmiri students enrolled in the state’s public and private universities. Most of them could not go home for Eid this year, because of the unrest in the Valley after Article 370 was nullified.
Singh’s decision to invite a group of students for lunch appears to have paid off.
In a worrying sign that his government is following the Modi doctrine of avoiding the press and relying on Twitter, journalists were barred from attending the lunch, and students were frisked for their phones by security.
Singh’s office, meanwhile, tweeted a set of laudatory videos.
“Woh Kehte hain na, Singh Is King. Aapne sahi kar dikhaya. I was crying from the last four days in my hostel as I was unable to meet my parents on Eid this year. But all my resentment vanished when I heard that CM Punjab has invited us for lunch,” said student in a video tweeted by the Punjab CM.
“We feel much safe here. This is our second home. We feel safer than we are in our own homes,” said another student in the video.
“We could not clicked selfies with the Punjab CM as mobile phones were not allowed inside,” one student told HuffPost India in an interview.
According to the students, they had apprised the Punjab CM about the situation back in Kashmir, they were assured full safety and support by the state government.
Abrogation of article 370 is ‘Kabzaa’, feels Kashmiri students
“I feel that the move has both advantages and disadvantages of its own, the manner in which it was implemented was nothing less than a ‘Kabzaa’ (forceful occupation) by the Indian government,” said Salman, a student who along with three of his friends Nasir and Aadil was invited by Punjab CM.
Though all three along with one more female student had booked a flight from Chandigarh to Kashmir on August 14 but could not board it as they reached 10 minutes late behind the reporting time.
As per Nasir, the flight was to depart at 12:40 pm and they reported at the counter at 12:10. “We were not allowed to board the flight and were told that the booking counter got closed at 11:55 am,” said Nasir.
He broke down while speaking to HuffPost India on phone. He was worried about his family and also about her sister Soliha who along with her one year old daughter came from Srinagar to stay with them in Baramulla.
“During such shutdowns there is an acute shortage of food and other essential supplies as we do not keep much cash at homes. With this sudden shutdown, all the ATMs and shops are closed. I am worried as to how my family was procuring milk for my little niece,” said Nasir.
He further added that students from Kashmir had hoped that the government will open lines for 10 minutes on Eid allowing them to speak to their parents but that did not happen.
Many other students who accompanied Salman and his friends to CM’s feast said that they were in a state of shock and were not able to concentrate on studies.
While they claim that Punjab is like a second home to them and they feel safe in the state, they couldn’t hide the pain of getting frisked on the gates of every public place in their eyes.