SRINAGAR: J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has welcomed the recent attempts by the Centre and the ruling party to reach out to Kashmiris, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech where he asked the countrymen to embrace Kashmiris.
This was followed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement that the Centre is willing to hold talks with all stakeholders, and then BJP leader Ram Madhav saying talks can be held with anyone. In his “Mann ki Baat” speech on Sunday, Mr. Modi also praised a poor Kashmiri youth, Bilal Dar, for his attempt to clean up a lake, which became front page news in Kashmir and heavily discussed on social media.
Ms. Mufti said her government was in favour of holding talks with everyone as was enshrined in the Agenda of Alliance between the PDP and the BJP.
She indicated that she is in favour of the peace talks 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 need to take the bull by its horns and finding a way out for bringing in a ‘permanent’ peace in the State,” she said, adding that she was in regular contact with Mr. Rajnath Singh, whom she described as “very supportive.”
In an interview, she said; “These are welcome signs” in the Kashmir Valley, where people are eagerly waiting for peace to return, Ms. Mufti said adding; “The shoots of peace have started sprouting. They have to be watered and fertilized, and I am sure that the fruits of peace will follow,” she said in the interview at her home, with a large portrait of her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, in the background. Ms. Mufti succeeded him as Chief Minister a few months after his death in January 2016.
Ms. Mufti, whose PDP is in an alliance with the BJP in the State, blamed the electronic 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 end up vilifying Kashmiris. This in turn alienated Kashmiris against the rest of the country, and the country against Kashmir, which had a direct impact on tourism, the mainstay of the economy.
Ms. Mufti, who is also the Tourism Minister, gets a report on tourist arrivals every evening, and the figures are grim — arrivals have now fallen to 4,000-5,000 daily 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 was wrong to project the entire 70 lakh population of the Valley as pro-militants when intelligence figures show that there are only about 200-300 home-grown militants.
“You talk about the 200 militants but don’t talk about the thousands of Kashmiris in the Indian Army,” she said. But she did not deny that there is a sense of alienation among Kashmiri youth, and even children as young as eight, because of severe security crackdowns that follow incidents of pelting iof stones.
However, the recent statements from the highest level were an opportunity to build peace and give Kashmiris back their dignity, Ms. Mufti said. “All that is required now is to hold their [people of Kashmir] fingers with dignity intact,” she said.