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India launches outreach program in Kashmir Valley

SRINAGAR, Jammu, and Kashmir

The Indian government on Tuesday launched its outreach program in the Kashmir Valley.

Addressing a small gathering of Kashmiris, India’s Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the scrapping the region of its autonomous status would eventually lead to positive changes.

“You are aware of the change that happened here. This change will ultimately result in happiness and prosperity,” said Naqvi.

As many as 36 ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi are currently holding public meetings in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu regions of former Jammu and Kashmir state, which was stripped of its special status and divided into the federally ruled Union Territory on Aug. 5 last year.

The Indian government had detained several former chief ministers, nearly all pro-freedom leaders and activists in the run-up to the Aug. 5 decision. Not even opposition lawmakers have been allowed to visit Kashmir. Therefore, this outreach program is being seen as the first major step of the government to reach out to the Kashmiris.

However, the thin attendance at Tuesday’s program in the courtyard of a government office on the outskirts of the capital Srinagar was reflective of the hurt Kashmiri sentiments.

Not more than 400 people came to listen to the minister, and nearly all of them belonged to Gujjar and Bakerwal communities, one of the politically marginalized communities in the region.

Naqvi told the gathering that the program, where he laid the foundation for a school and inaugurated an office for a forest protection force, was only a beginning.

He quoted an Urdu couplet that roughly translates “there are universes beyond the visible stars. Love will have to undergo rigors of more tests.”

He promised scholarships to all Kashmiri students and said more Kashmiris would be allowed to travel for the Hajj, or annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city for Muslims.

Addressing reporters later, Naqvi accused former rulers of corruption that had hollowed out Kashmir. He said his government would again restore Kashmir as a “heaven on earth.”

Choudhary Altaf, a leader of the Gujjar and Bakerwal Youth Delegation, said he came from Tral area, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the venue.

“I brought many people from all over the valley. We have great hopes for this visit. We have made it clear that there should be no threat to our land and jobs. They will have to face protests if outsiders take our jobs and land,” Altaf told.

Raj Mohammad, head of nearby Faqir Gujri village, said though he was affiliated with the National Conference, which has ruled Kashmir for most of the past eight decades, the changed circumstances left him with no option but to engage with whoever comes to meet the community.

“Let us see what they have to offer. We have listened to a lot of people in the past,” he said.

Naqvi’s other colleagues are currently informing public meetings and people’s delegations about the Indian government’s development schemes.

The outreach program in the all-Muslim Kashmir Valley is curtailed compared to the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

Out of the 36 ministers, only five will be visiting Kashmir. Only eight of the 59 programs the ministers are scheduled to attend have been organized in Kashmir. While five ministers will be visiting only three of 10 districts in the Kashmir Valley, the rest of their colleagues will be covering nine of 10 districts in the Jammu region.

The BJP won 25 of the 37 local assembly seats in Jammu in 2014 elections, mostly in areas with a Hindu majority. The abrogation of the special laws has also not gone well with this core electoral constituency. People in Jammu have also been demanding protection of their land and jobs.

India and Pakistan both hold Kashmir in part and claim the Himalayan region in full. China also controls part of the contested region, but it is India and Pakistan that have fought two wars over the territory.

China has long voiced concern over the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir, and said it supports Pakistan in the issue.

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