Reconstructing Kashmir Society- Need of the Time

Kashmir being a small geographical and social entity, politics in Kashmir has had substantial influence on societal behaviour
Most from outside Kashmir and many uninformed from within may not comprehend this puzzle; by this Bakshi Saheb meant that Kashmiris, by nature and temperament, like to be with the person or party in power to avail the patronage and benefits irrespective of ideology. 
 [Representational Image]
Most from outside Kashmir and many uninformed from within may not comprehend this puzzle; by this Bakshi Saheb meant that Kashmiris, by nature and temperament, like to be with the person or party in power to avail the patronage and benefits irrespective of ideology. [Representational Image] File: Aman Farooq/GK

By way of self derision and joke, we Kashmiris often invoke the famous Bakshi Saheb quote (widely attributed to him), who when asked how much support he has from out of 40 lakh J&K population then ( 1953 or so) and how much support was there for the jailed Sheikh Saheb, his famous reply that 40 lakh were with him and 40 lakh were with Sheikh Saheb also.

Most from outside Kashmir and many uninformed from within may not comprehend this puzzle; by this Bakshi Saheb meant that Kashmiris, by nature and temperament, like to be with the person or party in power to avail the patronage and benefits irrespective of ideology.

The present day ‘out of power politicians of Kashmir’ say the same when asked in private for the reasons behind large turn out in public meetings of the party in power.

Joke apart, the discerning among the Kashmiris see this as an anomaly in the personality of an average Kashmiri, uncommon in many other societies elsewhere where people tend to stand by their political affiliations and loyalties.

There is another common trait (though declining now) which would often be discussed in government circles then, that is avoiding paying  taxes or even service charges like electricity bills etc.

This trait is supposed to have been spawned by the subsidy culture patronized by the governments in power post mid fifties with a view to keep the people happy and away from protests and agitations.

The politicians here have done little over the years in getting people out of this mindset of excessive dependence on government or proclivity to make unreasonable demands at times. Nor was any serious effort made on sustained basis over the years to create a culture in which people as consumers would readily pay taxes and service charges to the government. Surely, efforts would have been made here and there at different times, but apparently, not on any sustained basis.

Some days back, the media carried reports about isolated protests in Srinagar by women against installation of smart meters by the Electric Department. Such isolated protests have possibly become routine. Incidentally, J&K's aggregate technical and commercial losses in power transmission, mainly due to power theft and non-payment of bills, is still among the highest in the country. It used to be over 65% about decade and half back and a matter of embarrassment for the state government while pleading with the central government for additional financial assistance to meet the state government’s expenditure. This dubious reputation of not paying electricity bills along with the dubious distinction of having highest power losses in the country mainly due to non-payment of bills and power theft, needs to be got rid of. We are told that things have improved after recent restructuring and unbundling of the power development department into separate entities for transmission and distribution which has led to greater efficiencies, including in the collection of tariff /bills. More efforts need to be made to motivate people to pay for the services rendered and why not, because that is fair and the right thing to do. Of course, the government is free to extend concessions to the poorest among the consumers or farmers to lessen their burden, as is being done in some other states and UTs. But payment of taxes and payment for services  obtained must be made because this is the sine qua non of any civilized and a self reliant society.

Kashmir being a small geographical and social entity, politics in Kashmir has had substantial influence on societal behaviour. If the quality of politics improves, societal behavior and response will also improve. This is an era when responsible civil society collectives, academics, intellectuals, artists, NGOs can exercise a positive influence on moulding societal character and behavior. The civil society component has been practically missing even though Kashmir has produced many men and women of eminence in different fields like artists, poets, writers, academics, scientists, and continues to produce men and women of high caliber and intellect.

But barring the Sufi saints and their work in propagating tolerant and moderate Islam after Islam came to Kashmir in late thirteenth century and fourteenth century, Kashmir did not subsequently witness any noteworthy social and religious reform movements unlike the nineteenth century social and religious reform movements in Bengal and elsewhere in India.

In the history of India, the social reform movements of nineteenth century like the Brahmo Samaj, Rama Krishna Mission, Arya Samaj, Aligarh Movement for education of Muslims etc., are prominently mentioned, but one can not recall any notable reform movement in Kashmir during, before or after nineteenth century. Two reasons though come to mind.

One, that the society was already under oppressive autocratic rule and severely impoverished and therefore economic rather than social issues were more important to the common people. Secondly, in conditions when forced labour (begaar) was resorted to as punishment for disobedience and non-conformity with autocratic diktat, there would have been little scope for activism for social reform.

Kashmir's society was more at peace with itself when it was diverse before the 1990 migration of the ethnic Kashmiri Pandit community and other minority groups. The temple damage incidents in south Kashmir in March-April 1986, though not widespread, and consequent sense of insecurity that engulfed the Kashmiri Pandit community, necessitated provision of police protection to temples and Pandit localities at many places in Kashmir. However, the fall of the G.M. Shah government and imposition of Governor’s rule in April 1986 got the administration into another gear and situation returned to near normal quickly.

But it appeared even then, that Kashmiri Pandit feelings were hurt by the incidents as never before in recent memory, giving birth to distrust of the majority community. Subsequent migration four years later must have added to the distrust.

Facilitating the return of migrants, of those among them who want to return to resettle, is a challenge but necessary to rebuild the plural and inclusive society that both Kashmiri religious communities were proud of and which was arguably the finest example of peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims in the entire Indian subcontinent. Not without reason, there was no bloodshed here in 1947 partition days, as Gandhi sighted the only ray of hope coming from Kashmir.

In the absence of competitive politics and local threats to disrupt, the 8th day Muharram procession from Gurubazar to Dalgate via Badshah Chowk became possible this year after over three decades. Otherwise, Shias and Sunnis in Kashmir have coexisted peacefully for centuries and never had any serious issues dividing the two. This harmony and unity needs to be protected and preserved sans politics.

In terms of systemic improvements in the administrative systems in J&K, looks like some positive changes have been effected recently by the UT administration. E-office and Digitization have simplified operation of complex governmental processes and e-governance has made hundreds of services available online thus obviating the need to visit government offices repeatedly for chasing files or meeting government officials. However, the feel good factor among the common people does not seem to be commensurate with what one gets to read and know about the changes every other day through the media.  For now, the bottlenecks in the trickle down effect by way of providing seamless services to the people due to these measures, may be due to poor access to online services for the common man because of limited number of common service centres, his or her (a commoner) not being well versed with the use of apps on mobile phones, less than desired familiarity with the use of gadgets and technology and less than up to the mark internet connectivity at many locations. Expectedly, arbitrary exercise of discretion in day to day decision making in the government may have been substantially reduced or largely eliminated due to transparency brought in by e-office and digitization. These changes are intended to be irreversible. J&K secretariat is reportedly operating e-office in full measure and paper files are hardly in use. This, as claimed, has eliminated the need for bi-annual office move and saved Rs 400 crore to the UT exchequer. Majority of the ministries and departments in GOI have already shifted to e-office and some have become completely paperless. Same is true about most other states and UTs but J&K’s ranking in the country in this regard is in the top bracket. It has the unique distinction of creating Good Governance Index (GGI) right down to the district level, the only one among the UTs and perhaps even among the states.

The old guard politicians in J&K may not adjust smoothly or even happily in the changed work systems of e-office dominated by use of information technology once democratically elected government assumes office. So, they need to facilitate promotion of promising and educated youngsters in their party organizations as many among the younger lot would already be tech savvy or can be trained to become tech savvy to fit into the new systems. For Jammu and Kashmir, to get highly talented, bright and committed political leadership is absolutely essential for political and social stability and public good .

The ideas expressed above are intended to help understand the broad pattern of social behavior in Kashmir although things are also changing positively in certain ways, for example, better compliance with laws of the land, accessing government services through politically neutral e-governance portals, accepting the reality of near elimination of patronage for preferential treatment and reduction of petty corruption due to these measures, becoming more aware of rights as citizen customers of the government and in many more ways.

Responsible politics accompanied by debate, dialogue and democracy, modern education and socially directed reform initiatives by the civil society groups, small and big, will help to spawn healthy social behaviour and scientific temper among the vast majority. Kashmiri is a quick learner and if provided an enabling environment, Kashmir society will transform, evolve and progress in the right direction.

Khurshid Ahmed Ganai is a retired IAS officer of erstwhile J&K cadre and Former Advisor to the Governor

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