How slush money is killing the valley

For a hustling, entrepreneurial sort of Kashmiri, politics is not just an attractive option but pretty much the only game in town

In Srinagar, National Conference activist Syed Muhammad Yusuf Shah died recently after being taken into police custody. The government says he had a heart attack; his family and the Opposition parties have alleged torture. Sooner or later the truth will emerge. However, there is a larger issue at stake here.
Yusuf was handed over to the police by Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah after complaints that he (Yusuf) had taken bribes from individuals promising them ministerial positions. This leads to a telling question: what makes ministerial office so sought-after?

It is important to see this as not just a general query but locate it in the specific context of Jammu and Kashmir.
It is an open secret that a politician in power in the Kashmir valley can make a lot of money and get away with misappropriation that would not be possible elsewhere. This is not because Kashmiris are more corrupt than the rest of India but because of the distorted nature of how the Union government — any Union government, not just the United Progressive Alliance — has tended to look at the Kashmir issue.
In both Kashmir and many states of the Northeast, New Delhi has adopted the “pacifying the frontier” approach of colonial administrations. How did a colonial power pacify a frontier? It used a combination of military demonstration and bribing of the elite. This meant it paid frontier chiefs and bought their loyalty.
This also meant that, as a back-up plan, it opened parallel lines of communication with rebel groups and local rivals of the frontier chief.
In Kashmir this has meant New Delhi and its intelligence agencies and slush funds cultivate state governments and ruling parties, as well as leading opposition figures. Given this, for a hustling, entrepreneurial sort of Kashmiri, politics is not just an attractive option but pretty much the only game in town. No wonder in Kashmir — as in Assam or Manipur, to cite two examples — the polity is prosperous but the economy is poor. No wonder too that the imperative to bribe and become a minister is that much stronger.
What does this lead to? It creates a vested interest for politicians and political fixers to perpetuate a “crisis”, as the status quo is lucrative for them. Independent observers have corroborated this. Take two cables from the American embassy in New Delhi, published as part of the WikiLeaks project.
The first, dated February 3, 2006, is titled “Kashmiri Politics as Filthy as Dal Lake”. It said: “Corruption cuts across party lines and most Kashmiris take it as an article of faith that politically-connected Kashmiris take money from both India and Pakistan… A recent newspaper article reported that the retired minister of state for irrigation and flood control is accused of embezzling funds and then using the money to construct two large homes in Srinagar.”
“Money from Pakistani and Indian intelligence agencies and from Saudi and other foreign extremists has further distorted Kashmiri politics, incentivised leaders to perpetuate the conflict, and perverted state and Central government institutions. While this river of dirty money has led to a boom in Kashmiri household income and real estate prices, it also calls into question whether the Kashmiri elite truly want a settlement to their problems. The minute a deal is struck, some must surely worry that the funds will dry up.”
It’s not only the American embassy. In 2004, Wahajat Habibullah, a public servant who knows Kashmir extremely well, published “The Political Economy of the Kashmir Conflict: Opportunities for Economic Peace-building and for US Policy”, a paper he had worked on as a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
The paper urged a reimagining of the Kashmir conflict in terms of economic opportunities. “Across the nation,” it said, “the Indian government generally funds 20 per cent of the cost of state development, requiring the states to raise the remaining 80 per cent themselves. From the 1950s until 1990, however, the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed the reverse, receiving 80 per cent of its funds in the form of a loan from the Central government. Since 1990, when the onset of the insurgency exacerbated the state’s financial problems, 100 per cent of the state’s budget has been financed by the Central government, of which only 20 per cent is repayable.”
Where is this money going? It is being stolen by the political and social elite. Habibullah pointed out this history earned “for Kashmiris the contempt of both Indians and Pakistanis as a people who could be traded. For the Kashmiris, this practice only increased their sense of self-loathing and their resent-
ment towards those in power”.
Why haven’t people protested? One mechanism of protest is the election. Yet Kashmir has not had a tradition of free and fair elections — as opposed to contests “managed” by New Delhi — since before 2002.
In the absence of such structures of accountability, the common Kashmiri has been disaffected. This is not the only cause of the Kashmir problem, but certainly contributes to it.
As such, an expansion of economic opportunities for all people of Jammu and Kashmir, as opposed to merely a political solution that will always be vetoed by one spoiler or the next, is extremely necessary. Hopefully, the report of the three-member team of interlocutors appointed by the Union home ministry will consider this.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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