In Kashmir, Rahul Gandhi Talks Business, But Disappoints Students
By BETWA SHARMA
Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister of Indian Kashmir, Rahul Gandhi, Congress General Secretary and Union minister for New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah pose for a photograph after laying the foundation stone for a tunnel connecting Ladkh with Kashmir.Farooq Khan/European Pressphoto AgencyOmar Abdullah, Chief Minister of Indian Kashmir, Rahul Gandhi, Congress General Secretary and Union minister for New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah pose for a photograph after laying the foundation stone for a tunnel connecting Ladkh with Kashmir.
Rifat Mohidin, a journalism student, was disappointed after her first interaction with Rahul Gandhi, Congress Party’s general secretary, at Kashmir University on Friday. Ms. Mohidin, 19, wanted to ask Mr. Gandhi about providing security to Kashmiris when they traveled to other parts of India.
“But I was not allowed to ask any of my questions,” she said. “I went there with a lot of hope, but my hopes were shattered.” (Read Ms. Mohidin’s full opinion of the discussion here.)
Mr. Gandhi’s two-day visit to Kashmir this week reiterated his message made during a visit in September 2011: he said he wanted to understand the pain of violence-stricken Kashmiris, as well as connect the Kashmiri youth with economic opportunities.
Shreen Hamdani, a 21-year-old journalism student, said that the interaction was only an hour long because it started late, and teachers stopped students from asking any political questions.
“When people came out, they said it was a waste of time,” she said. “But once Rahul himself said instability was the cause of lack of investment here — I wish they had allowed the interaction to be more natural like that.” (Read Ms. Hamdani’s full opinion here.)
Much of Mr. Gandhi’s rhetoric these past two days has emotional underpinnings. On Thursday, the 42-year-old politician, accompanied by Omar Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, laid the foundation of the Z-Morh Bridge between Kashmir and Ladakh. In his address to Kashmiris, the heir apparent of the Congress Party reminded them that his family also hailed from the valley.
Observers said he struck a shrewd chord by presenting himself as youth leader instead of a politician. Many people in Kashmir blame the Congress Party for denying the region autonomy after India’s independence, when Mr. Gandhi’s grandfather, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was leading the country.
“There has been too much political manipulation over the years by Congress,” said Gul Mohammed Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University. “It would be good if Rahul said that ‘our record in the past has not been good but I’m here for the youth and to listen to their concerns.’ ”
For Friday’s session with students, Mr. Gandhi invited Ratan Tata, Tata Group’s chairman; Kumar Mangalam Birla, Aditya Birla Group’s chairman; Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto, and Deepak Parekh, HDFC chairman.
Students said these industrialists talked about offering internships in their companies as well as training programs on the college campus, but they did not mention any concrete plans to invest in the valley.
Some local business experts, however, said they thought the session was a futile exercise.
Nisar Ali, a prominent economist and director of J&K Bank, said that such promises had been made before but not fulfilled. Mr. Ali explained that big improvements would come not by recruiting a handful of Kashmiri youths in other states but through investing in Kashmir, especially in the manufacturing of consumer goods.
“The youths don’t have to be motivated. They are already so eager to take up any opportunity because there is so little here,” he said. “But investment will not happen unless the government can solve the huge power crisis we have here.”
While appealing for peace during violent protests in 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised that his government would help Kashmiri youths find jobs in both the public and private sector. In March of this year, P. Chidambaram, then the home minister, created Udaan, a Web site that aims to connect Kashmir’s unemployed youth with corporations.
Currently, the number of unemployed youth in Jammu and Kashmir state is estimated to be 700,000, with 370,000 in the valley alone, which has a population of 7.2 million.
Kashmir students on Friday seemed divided between those who were willing to give Mr. Gandhi a chance, like Ms. Hamdani and Ms. Mohidin, and those who opposed his presence on campus.
In the morning, about 100 students held a small protest near the campus library, at a distance from the convention center. “Rahul, go back!” the crowd shouted. The protesters said that the presence of heavy security prevented any larger demonstrations.
But near 12:30 pm, the students moved closer the convention center where the session was being held. A college student, who said he did not want to be identified to avoid any attention from the government, said the group was shouting slogans praising Osama bin Laden and the Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar.
“By the time they reached the convocation hall, Rahul had left from the back,” the student said. “But I think Rahul may have heard the slogans because it was very loud.” The protestors also booed their classmates who attended the discussion.
Protesting students said they thought Mr. Gandhi’s visit was a sham because the university authorities handpicked the student audience, after carrying out background checks on their political leanings. “They doctored the questions, they coached students, they did not allow students with beards to go in, they controlled everything,” said Ahmed, a student protester who requested that his full name not be used to avoid being identified by government authorities.
Ahmed said he and other protesters were concerned that India’s central government was furthering its agenda of Kashmir’s integration under the guise of economic opportunities. “We are not against Ratan Tata, Aditya Birla or anyone so the university can invite them,” he said. “We are not antidevelopment, but why is the university bringing in Indian politicians again and again?”
Students said they were also angry that Kashmir’s University Students Union, or K.U.S.U., was banned from campus by university authorities, but political party-backed student groups, including the Congress Party’s National Students Union of India, or N.S.U.I., were allowed to operate.
“Allowing Rahul Gandhi and N.S.U.I. in the campus while the ban of K.U.S.U. continues is absolutely pathetic and smacks of obnoxious prejudice,” read a press release issued by Kashmir union.
[New York Times]