Exponential growth in Jammu & Kashmir compared to Azad Kashmir – time for Pakistan to learn and reorient

Jammu & Kashmir

Jammu & Kashmir’s great leap forward economically, socially, and politically can only embarrass Pakistan, for it both shows the failure of Islamabad’s stewardship and highlights its cynicism.

In 2019, just weeks after Indian president Ram Nath Kovind abrogated Article 370 of India’s constitution, ending Kashmir’s de facto autonomy, Michael Rubin, Senior Fellow in American Think Tank AEI visited Pakistan. According to him, anger was palpable. Electronic billboards, depicting barbed wire and dripping blood, counted the time since the Indian government imposed a curfew on the territory. At a Pakistan National Defense University conference, both officers and civil society leaders spoke about the horrible situation of Indian Kashmir. It was described to be like the Gaza Strip.

Three years later, he took the opportunity to see Kashmir for himself. His conclusion: Pakistan is in trouble. While Kashmiris under Pakistani control remain hobbled by a moribund economy and lack of support and initiatives from the Federal government, Kashmiris in India have benefited from the exponential development from all domains.

The signs are everywhere. The emergency is over and life is normal. At the height of the day and long after dark, both in the capital Srinagar and in the hinterlands, there were no active checkpoints. This extended to southern Kashmir, where in years past, terrorists exploited the night to bring commerce and life to a halt.

Evidence of Kashmir’s growing confidence is everywhere. The new Inox multiplex, Srinagar’s first operational cinema in thirty years, where young men and women as well as families can see the latest films was filled with crowd. It may sound simple, but many Kashmiris spoke about the cinema as a sign of normality after militants began to harass and even kill Bollywood fans in the 1990s.

During his visit, he met a seventeen-year-old girl who badgered her father into allowing her to do karate. She is now a national gold medalist and competes in international tournaments. Her schoolmates and friends now demand similar freedom from their families. With militancy pushed back, Kashmir’s traditional moderation and even liberalism again prevail. Her friend, a blackbelt and power lifter, had a similar story. In the nearby town of Ganderbal, the Sikh president of the local university showed off new athletic fields and preparations for a multi-university football, volleyball, table tennis, and kho-kho tournament. Indian Kashmir has become an oasis of freedom for women to pursue activities forbidden elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest cause for local optimism was the normalization of education and commerce. For almost three decades, separatists sought to show their power by forcing schools and businesses to shutter. The losers were the Kashmiri people, as India’s regimented exam system does not make exceptions for those forced out of school for months at a time.

Today, not only do schools operate smoothly and without interruption, but new opportunities also exist as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management open local branches to accommodate the hundreds of well-qualified Kashmiris.

Business was apparent as was the growing wealth of Jammu and Kashmir. Tourists, mostly from India but also many from Europe, Israel, and the United States have returned to Dal Lake, and its famous houseboat hotels. The line to enter the nearby Mughal gardens stretched outside and down the block. This growth in tourism was not just limited to Srinagar. On a mountain slope outside of Ganderbal, a young couple had purchased a plot of barren, rocky land and transformed it into a thriving eco-lodge and conference centre. Inspired by their intervention, their neighbour founded a fish farm.

Government’s special focus on creating transport infrastructure is quite evident in terms of roads and new railway lines connecting hitherto unconnected areas. Not everything was tourism: Much as Morocco won over the Western Sahara by pumping money into a long-deprived region, today India spends more per capita on Jammu and Kashmir than it does in any other state. Saffron stores flourished, attracting business from the heavy traffic along the Srinagar to Jammu highway. Not far away, near Pulwama, infamous as the site of a February 2019 terror attack that killed more than forty Indians, new cricket bat factories dot the highway, planks of willow wood piled high. Each supports nine or ten families or perhaps 70 to 100 people. These, and handicraft and artisan factories and shops on the road to Gulmarg, the government now supports with low-interest loans and marketing support. The result is tremendous: Kashmiris now build expansive villas in the countryside. This is an important barometer of progress. When locals fear the continuation of conflict, they invest in gold because they can take it with them if forced to flee, but when families feel confident in their future, they invest in real estate and build a house to last generations.

During his visit, Rubin met a Lashkar-e-Taiba veteran. He related how he was brainwashed into believing Hindus prevented Muslims from praying in Kashmir and closed mosques. After he infiltrated into the territory, he realized they had lied to him as mosques thrive and people pray openly. It is high time Pakistan starts focusing on the actual needs of the Kashmiris as India does and work towards peace, prosperity and development which is the real freedom. (Courtesy – Michael Rubin of American Enterprise Institute)