The opening of India’s longest road tunnel on Sunday was, for most people in Jammu and Kashmir, an occasion for celebration.
For them, the Chenani-Nashri tunnel – an 10.89 km piece of world class infrastructure – is both a symbol of hope and a growth engine for the region.
For Kashmiri separatists in, however, the tunnel is unwelcome – because it connects people and brings Kashmir physically closer to the rest of India. So they forced a shutdown which impacted on everyday life in the Kashmir Valley on Sunday.
Chanting anti-India slogans, they said infrastructure projects like the tunnel did not address the political issue – Kashmiris’ right to self-determination – that is behind 40 years of bloodshed in the state.
The problem is that Jammu and Kashmir are unquestionably part of India. Pakistan is merely using the separatists to wage a proxy war in the valley
An Indian television channel’s recent sting operation proved how Pakistan-based terror groups are using money, power and social media platforms to incite separatists in the Valley to throw stones at armed forces engaged in anti-terror operations.
This may have prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to send out a a strong message to Kashmiris as he opened the road tunnel. In his speech, he said that while some misguided youths in the Valley were throwing stones at troops, others were breaking stones to open up the path to future.
Stone-throwing and militancy intensified in the Valley after the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, last July. Wani was a terrorist – but Kashmiri separatists, along with Pakistani leaders and terror groups, as well as social and print media – turned this handsome man into a hero. Last year, 50 people died and 300 were partially or completely blinded after being hit by pellets during protests. Meanwhile, 63 soldiers were killed in terror attacks in the Valley or on India-Pakistan border.
Interestingly, late last month, the British Parliament condemned Pakistan’s move to make Gilgit-Baltistan, a region neighboring PoK, its fifth province
Stone-pelting continues as more and more youths are sucked into the vortex of violence as most educational institutions have been either forcibly closed down or destroyed by separatists.
On March 28, stone-pelting youths blocked an anti-terror operation in Budgam. One militant and three youths were killed by police fire, while 63 police personnel and 17 youths were injured in the encounter.
The Supreme Court has asked the federal government to use means other than pellet guns to contain street protests in Kashmir. It has also expressed its concern over the use of minors as human shields by militants during clashes with security forces.
Most Kashmiris are fed up with the decades-long violence in the region. They want peace and a normal life. But they live in fear of terrorists in killing them if they do not give them sanctuary and support.
Separatists want the federal government to involve their leaders in talks with Pakistan. But India has ruled out any talks so long as Islamabad holds an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other. For New Delhi, any talks should be with regard to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and steps by Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism. India will not bow to separatists’ demands to discuss Kashmir’s accession or “independence.”
Soon after India became independent, Maharaja Hari Singh, ruler of the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, agreed to accede to the Dominion of India under the Indian Independence Act 1947. While India views this accession as final, Pakistan regards it as fraudulent.
Interestingly, late last month, the British Parliament condemned Pakistan’s move to make Gilgit-Baltistan, a region neighboring PoK, its fifth province. It said the region was a legal and constitutional part of Jammu and Kashmir that had been illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947.
The 50,000-odd people who watched the opening of the road tunnel on Sunday sent a message loud and clear to all: they want peace, political stability, good governance and development.
Now they have got a safe, all-weather, bi-directional road tunnel that reduces air pollution in the Himalayas and cuts travel time by two hours while commuting between Udhampur and Ramban.
Militancy will be on the wane in the Valley if the federal and state governments focus more and more on welfare schemes for Kashmiris and overall development of the state.
Reports say 11 more similar road tunnels – including the Zojila tunnel between Leh and Ladakh – are planned across the state. Ring roads will be constructed around Jammu and Srinagar. These are positive signs.
The best way to wean local youths away from the path of violence is to provide them with decent education and gainful employment. Such soft offensives by the federal and state governments can foil separatists’ efforts to keep the Kashmir Valley on the boil.