NEWS
09/08/2019 7:45 PM IST | Updated 10/08/2019 11:14 PM IST

Forget Business, We First Want To Survive: Head Of Kashmir's Chamber Of Commerce

How will Kashmir do business if people are under siege? asks the President of Kashmir's Chamber of Commerce and Industry after Prime Minister Modi's speech.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the Indian government issued an advisory asking Amarnath pilgrims to leave citing a ‘terror threat’ a week ago — an advisory which was later learnt to be a lie — Sheikh Ashiq, the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce & Industry held a press conference and demanded to know what measures were being taken for Kashmir’s indigenous population.

As a prominent face in Kashmir’s business community, Ashiq was familiar with various government functionaries but nobody knew, and more importantly, nobody spoke.

It struck him as strange.

“Even in my wildest dreams, I could not imagine something like this could happen, that they would lock the state up, literally and impose its wishes,” Ashiq, who travelled to Delhi three days after the clampdown, told HuffPost India. Ashiq owns carpet export and tourism businesses in Kashmir.

Yesterday, when Narendra Modi addressed the nation, his faithfuls trended #KashmirWithModi on Twitter even as internet, phone and landline remained suspended in Kashmir. In his speech, the Prime Minister said that the move to abrogate Article 370, scrap Kashmir’s special status and cancel its statehood was done in mind to improve the region’s economy, invite investment and increase jobs for the youth.

For businessmen in Kashmir, it’s a difficult promise to believe as a state under complete clampdown is probably the last sign of a promising economy.

Excerpts from an interview with Ashiq, where he explained why the government’s statements and actions on ground seem contradictory.

One of the reasons the government has said they decided to abrogate Article 370 is because it would improve the region’s economy. Do you believe that?

(Laughs) Is that the only reason they did that?

I think the reason they did this thing is because it was on their election manifesto. They are just fulfilling the promises they made to people.

Which people?

Definitely not Kashmiri people.

Uday Kotak has called for an investor’s summit after Article 370 was abrogated and companies like Amul and Lemon Tree hotels have apparently showed interested. What does that mean to you?

I don’t know why it is being said in the media that talks of big companies investing in Kashmir has begun after this Article 370 thing happened, or that the plan for an investor’s meet is being done now.

This has been in the works for the past 5-6 months and as the head of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, I was a part of it.

I have a whole bunch of documents with details about the investor’s meet that the commerce and industries department of the government had been planning for a while now with us and Jammu and Kashmir Trade Promotion Organisation.

 

Sheikh Ashiq
A logo that had been designed for the investor's summit prior to the Article 370 decision.

 Satyapal Malik, who has the governor ― is he the lieutenant governor now? — had also announced the meet. They were in talks with us and we had assured them complete support.

Who doesn’t want a prosperous economy? We all want it and we were working towards it as well. In fact, a few months back, we had a delegation from the Tata Group which wanted to do a joint collaboration, we said we will provide every support we can.

So, yes, this is not new or so don’t know what all these announcements are about. I will be happy if they work out for everyone. But yes, this government’s Article 370 decision could not be about development I think.

What did the special status of Kashmir mean for the businesses of Kashmir, especially since are mostly small businesses and not big industries?

The special status protected small businesses in Kashmir, to be very honest. It was like a guard to the local industry. It’s very simple actually, be it networking, be it finance, be it distribution, be it competition, local businesses can’t stand in front of big business with country-wide infrastructure. Initially, with the special status, big businesses would have to do joint ventures mostly and in that locals stood to gain and also, production remained with the local businesses in most cases. Now that is no more necessary. Under the old laws, we were not under the purview of GST and things which affected a lot of small business, now we will have to bear the brunt of that too. Small businesses with lose ground to big corporations.

Will it generate more jobs for the region? However, there is the fact that unemployment is at a 45-year-high under the Modi government. Are you optimistic?

What will I say? We need peace and assurance in the region before even begin to talk about these things. Here we are talking about businesses and the labourers who were here to work have all fled in the last two-three days. Common people fear all kinds of backlash and anger. I think they were also issued an advisory and asked to leave. How will the work that was happening, now even continue?

The government has said that economy is Kashmir was suffering due to its special status and this move will open up investments, boost businesses and economy.

Sometimes they say we are doing good, sometimes they say, when convenient that we are doing bad. Now, the economy was suffering, there was no denying that. But why was it suffering?

It was suffering because of the perception that Kashmir is not safe, there is no ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir, we are always in a state of conflict.

Now, look at what’s happening right now? How will we prosper when the situation is very far from being normal in the state. We don’t have working landlines, internet and mobile phones and how can I explain how this will be good for any business?

We don’t have working landlines, internet and mobile phones and how can I explain how this will be good for any business?

We will have to wait and see what happens, but right now, Kashmir is suffocated, Kashmiris are suffocated. We have a right to speak but we have been denied that ―you can barely hear what Kashmiris have to say about all this, because everyone is gagged.

If I had not travelled out to Delhi, would I be able to speak to you? I wouldn’t. How does anyone know how small businesses feel at this moment?

You were in Kashmir when this happened and yesterday you were in Delhi when Narendra Modi delivered his speech about the benefits of his government’s move. Can you explain what you felt, knowing what is happening on the ground?

How many Kashmiris, who are in Kashmir have you heard from? They are under a siege. How would you feel if the government asked you to go back to your house and stay there and not come out? That is what is happening in Kashmir. There is a curfew for so many days.

Why are you only listening to outsiders saying things about Kashmir? Is it because Kashmiris are happy with the government’s decision and decided to stay at home, not come out and speak and celebrate in silence? (laughs)

We are talking about development and I am hearing, businessmen, politicians, civil society members, artistes are all being put under preventive arrest. Why?

We are talking about development and I am hearing, businessmen, politicians, civil society members, artistes are all being put under preventive arrest. Why?

Because they can speak and their voices matter and will paint a true picture of Kashmir? Let us at least speak and then if you find it offensive, arrest us. But we have a right to speak, speaking up is not a sin!

I just got calls from people, who like me, travelled out of Kashmir that a Kashmiri businessman has been arrested and his wife is sick from crying and fear. Now, look at our condition, we cannot even find out if our colleague is safe and this news is true or not.

Farooq Abdullah and people always tried to act as a bridge between Kashmir and India, and we appreciated that, and he was crying on national television. Crying. Maybe, he now thinks he misjudged and made a mistake.

As someone who a lot of businessmen will probably turn for guidance at the moment, what are your priorities?

Just before I came, a friend who is a diabetic couldn’t access medicines or go to the hospital to get supplies because of the curfew. It was frightening, we tried for a whole day and he went without a few dosages after we were finally allowed to the place where we could buy medicines.

What are people’s priorities as businessmen now? They will say, ‘These days we are only talking about saving our lives.. Forget business.’ 

I will also say that, let us survive first, then we will talk about the economy.

There was a lot of chatter about people wanting to buy land in Kashmir. How will that affect local businesses?

I mean, people get to know land is available in moon and in two days they start talking about buying land there. It’s like that.

Say you are a businessman from Delhi and want to invest in Kashmir. What will you want? Chances of the economy to grow, for which you need peace. Where is that peace and normalcy?

The government should have thought 100 times before imposing its wishes without a dialogue. They keep saying they did it for us. Then why is the whole of Kashmir under a blackout and not able to speak their mind while inside the state?

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