Fifteen months after constitutional changes nullified its seven-decade-old special status, Jammu & Kashmir is set for the District Development Council (DDC) polls, breaking the political ice in the turmoil-prone region. On the face of it, the eight-phase elections, beginning on November 28, are meant to bolster grassroots democratic institutions. They will be a barometer of the popular mood and security challenges – chillingly brought home last week by a foiled Nagrota terror plot – before the Centre decides to wade into deeper waters on the assembly elections. They will also be a litmus test for Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, 61, who, in his over three months at the helm, has started a quiet outreach to prepare the ground for the Union territory’s first political exercise in which the mainstream Kashmir parties are taking part.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with Ramesh Vinayak at the Raj Bhawan in Jammu, Sinha spoke on a range of issues, including the security dynamics, the Gupkar alliance, the Roshni land scam, and a road map on economic revival. Edited excerpts:
It’s been more than three months since you were appointed lieutenant governor of the country’s most sensitive region. What has been your experience?
After taking over, the biggest challenge I sensed was that common people here didn’t have a platform to air their grievances and get redressal. To that end, I took decisions to create a regular and robust mechanism. All deputy commissioners and superintendents of police will meet the public for an hour five days a week. Likewise, commissioners and inspectors generals of Jammu & Kashmir divisions are meeting people three times a week. There are block divas programmes from 10am to 4pm every Wednesday, when officers of all departments attend to public grievances, including those related to ration cards, revenue records, and social pension.
People are more interested in government construction works than social security schemes. A balance between the two is crucial for development. So I focused on 100% saturation of the Government of India’s 55-odd social welfare schemes. After a three-week public awareness programme, the implementation has gathered momentum, and reached 95% in 16 (of the 20) districts. In J&K, people are talented, but there has been a scarcity of opportunities. We are trying to get them maximum opportunities. People want peace and development. That is our prime focus.
A key reason, it was speculated, that you were picked was because of the Centre’s keenness to have a political hand. Has lending a political touch helped?
Now I don’t belong to any political party. I have no political leanings at all. Yes, democracy needs a political process, which we have initiated. For grassroots democracy, the most vital is Panchayati Raj institutions. When, in 1992, Parliament enacted the Panchayati Raj Act, it was formulated as a three-tier system – gram sabha, block development council, and district development council (DDC). But for some reasons in J&K, it was only a two-tier system which had the provision for the district development board, on which, instead of elected representatives, MLAs used to be nominated. It was felt that the system elsewhere should be implemented here too. So an amendment was brought to have directly elected district development councils for which the poll process is now underway. It is heartening that a large number of people have enthusiastically filed nominations for DDCs, which will be the third tier. Polling will be the real test of people’s fervour, but feedback suggests an overwhelming response. We want to create a strong Panchayati Raj system in J&K.
What is your assessment of the security scenario in J&K?
Security forces have an upper hand. A few incidents [of terrorism] have taken place, including the recent one at Nagrota. The coordination between security forces is good. J&K Police is now fighting on the front, which is seen as a new development. Security is not a concern. Our forces are fully alert to deal with any situation. There are people in our neighbourhood who want to destabilise the situation. But there is nothing to worry.
When the Centre made constitutional changes in J&K last year, a key argument it made was that this will deal a decisive blow to militancy in Kashmir. But the security situation still appears fragile.
The government has successfully met the challenges on the security front. I don’t agree that the situation is fragile. It is fully under control. You know what was happening here earlier. One can see the difference between then and now.
How do you see the situation at the Line of Control? There has been escalation in ceasefire violations and infiltration attempts.
Yes, there is cross-border firing. But our forces are giving muhn tor jawab (a befitting response). No one in the country now needs to be told how we retaliate to such situations. The country knows it well, and so does the other side. There has been a considerable decline in infiltration. This is not happening on Kashmir’s LoC. There is a new trend of infiltration from the border in Jammu, and in Punjab. We recently discovered a cross-border tunnel in the Jammu sector. There are attempts to drop narcotics and arms and ammunition through drones. Security agencies are upgrading the technological wherewithal to deal with the new challenges.
In the run-up to the DDC elections, there have been targeted killings of political workers, particularly of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Valley. What steps has the government taken to ensure a secure environment for contestants and voters?
Such incidents are aimed to diminish the people’s faith in the democratic process and create fear. We got an assessment done and made solid arrangements for security. Attempts to disrupt the election process will not succeed. People want to participate in elections, and our forces are vigilant. Let me assure the people of J&K and the rest of the country that we will make sure that the polls are free and fair.
Leaders of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration allege that their candidates are confined in security camps, and are not allowed to move freely for canvassing.
Following their complaints, the state election commissioner has assured a level-playing field for all parties. There will be no discrimination. Candidates will have all the freedom to canvass.
How will you build on the DDC elections for the revival of a broader political process in J&K?
Broadly, each district will elect 14 representatives. In some districts, four to five former MLAs are in the fray. So, in a way, it is a mini-MLA election. When the district development board will be constituted, the DDC members will have a pivotal role to play on development priorities of their districts. This election will be a milestone for grassroots democracy and development.
What is your road map to holding elections to the legislative assembly?
The nation and people of J&K have faith in what the Prime Minister said in his Independence Day address with regard to assembly elections here. The delimitation commission is doing its job. It is also working in four states of the north-east. Once delimitation is done, it will be up to Election Commission to hold the polls. The country has constitutional institutions whose rights are defined and no one can interfere in that.
Is there is a time frame for the delimitation exercise?
I can’t tell that. The question as to when will be elections be held should be addressed to Election Commission. Constitutional institutions have their dignity. They should be allowed to do what they are mandated to do. What the Prime Minister and home minister have said in Parliament [on elections in J&K] carries a lot of significance and should be trusted.
What is the trend on locals joining militant ranks? Has their number gone up? Former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti say that militancy is on the rise?
I will go by the numbers put out by security agencies and J&K Police. Their number has considerably declined.
Mainstream Kashmiri leaders allege that the government is not allowing the public to express dissent…
Only India’s Constitution permits one to use unconstitutional language. There is full freedom here for those who want to do political activities. There is no restriction on them. But permission is only for politics, not for anti-national activities.
Security agencies are encouraging Kashmiri youngsters who took to arms to surrender and return to the mainstream. You have promised rehabilitation, which drew criticism in Jammu. How will you strike a balance?
Many youngsters [in militant ranks] are realising that they are on the wrong path, and are returning to the mainstream. This is a new and welcome trend. Nobody should have an objection to this. Agar subha ka gaya sham ko ghar wapis aata hai, use avsar milna chahiye (If one is back on the right path, he should get a chance). What I said with regard to their rehabilitation was misunderstood. Anyone who expresses faith in the Constitution must get a chance. Some of the states afflicted with Left-wing extremism have a rehabilitation policy. Security forces and the army are mulling such a policy here, too.
What is your sense of the street mood in Kashmir? There is a perception that it is hostile to the Indian State.
I don’t see anything like that. I have spent three months in Kashmir. There is a good atmosphere here. People are looking forward to opportunities to progress.
How do you see the formation of the Gupkar alliance on a single-point demand for the restoration of Article 370? Do you see it as a sign of strengthening of democracy, or do you endorse the home minister’s view that this is a gang and unholy global alliance?
It is not my job to make a political comment. The home minister is also a leader of a political party. He may have said something. In the country, anyone is free to form a political alliance. Some people have made that [alliance]. The public will decide.
Is the alliance good for democracy?
Time will tell. Let’s wait.
The Kashmiri parties say the ruling BJP is trying to delegitimise their dissent and discredit them.
If the BJP is discrediting some party, where do I come in the picture? I don’t have any connection with the BJP right now. So how can I answer on behalf of the BJP or any other party?
Kashmiri parties are crying foul over the J&K administration’s decision to make public the names of those allegedly involved in the Roshni land scam and the encroachment of forest land ahead of the DDC elections. They are calling it politically motivated..
The administration has not decided anything at its own level. The Roshni Act, and how people got the government land under it, has been under the scanner for a long time. There is already a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on this. In 2018, the act was scrapped by the then governor. Some public interest litigations were filed in the high court, which last month held that all land allotments under the act were illegal. It also directed the divisional commissioners in Jammu and Srinagar to upload the names of those who were allotted government land for a song under the Roshni Act, and also encroachers of forest land. This is what the administration started doing two days ago. There is no politics in it. This is only compliance of the high court directions.
The recently notified new land ownership rules for J&K, allowing outsiders to buy land, have evoked strong reactions in both Jammu and the Valley. Kashmir parties have even alleged that J&K is now up for sale. How are you allaying their apprehensions?
The land laws of J&K were antiquated, and some of the clauses were contradictory. The new law is progressive and has adequate safeguards. About 90% of J&K land is agricultural and can be bought only by an agriculturist who will not be from Punjab or Haryana, but only J&K. So, 90% is fully secure. About 5% to 6% is government land, and gone are the days when someone could occupy that. We have opened up the land to set up industrial clusters, private educational and health institutions. J&K has lagged in that. That is all that has changed on land laws. We have identified 3,000 acres and initiated the process of acquisition. The new land law is for the betterment of the people of J&K who have been given the same safeguards as those in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
What has been the progress on vesting forest land rights to communities?
The Forest Rights Act, 2006, came into force in the entire country except J&K. That deprived rural and tribal peoples dependent on forests of their rights. But, after abrogation of Article 370, this act has been implemented here, too, since October last year. A detailed plan has been drawn up. By March 1, the district committees will complete the task of providing land rights to Paharis, Bakarwals, Gujjars, and other tribal communities.
There appears to be a deep distrust between Kashmir’s mainstream politicians and the Centre?
I meet representatives of all political parties. It is a continuing interaction and I solicit their cooperation for fast development of J&K. I have no issue with seeking their support for peace and progress.
Are you open to recommending the restoration of statehood to J&K? What is the tangible achievement that you want to see before the Centre can consider doing this?
The Prime Minister has told the nation that this is a temporary phase. The home minister said in Parliament that the statehood will be restored. So people should trust what he has said. Definitely, people will get statehood in the near future.
What is your road map for the economic revival of J&K, reeling under the double whammy of turmoil and the Covid-19 pandemic?
The economy of this place has suffered for a long time. After consultations with all stakeholders, a Rs 1,375-crore package was sanctioned for local business and industry, which have also been granted 50% concession on electricity and water charges for a year. Several administrative reforms have been implemented. A new industrial policy is expected to get the Union cabinet’s sanction anytime soon. That, I am confident, will get J&K private investments of Rs 30,000 crore in two or three years. It will boost the economic revival and create employment avenues.
How do you plan to address unemployment?
Unemployment is big problem everywhere, but it’s more acute in J&K. Apart from government jobs, there are fewer job opportunities here. The number of government employees here is the same as in Bihar though the latter’s population is 11 times more. We are working on a three-pronged approach. First, a time-bound recruitment drive for 13,000 vacant government jobs is underway, and will be completed in six months. Second, we expect a plethora of opportunities after the new industrial policy kicks in. Third, we are focusing on skilling and start-ups. By 2025, the target is to provide entrepreneurial opportunities to 80% of J&K youth. Tata group has set up a skill development centre in Baramulla, which will be inaugurated after the DDC elections. A similar facility in Jammu will come up this month. In a week or so, we will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Bombay Stock Exchange for setting up training centres in financial and insurance services. We are working on many fronts, including setting up of a state-of-the-art sports infrastructure for which the PM has sanctioned Rs 200 crore.
What is your assessment of the future of the Hurriyat specifically and separatist politics in general in Kashmir?
I feel that nationalist forces and pro-India voices should get patronage in J&K. We will carry that forward.
How have you adapted from being a long-time political activist to the hot seat of constitutional head of India’s most sensitive border territory?
I don’t see it as a hot seat. I have already toured 16 of the 20 districts and done public outreach on a large scale. I enjoy working here.
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