Investment will not bring peace to Kashmir

Investment will not bring peace to Kashmir

India's parliament has rubber-stamped the government's decision to end Kashmir's 70 years of autonomy and turn it into a "union territory" closely supervised by New Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, is more than anyone else seen as the motive force behind this change, one that pushes forward the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's agenda of a Hindu nationalist renaissance in India.

But, speaking in parliament's Upper House about the legal changes, Mr Shah framed the issue instead as one of "development". Because of autonomy, Mr Shah argued, "corruption increased in the state, no development could take place. ... Where are the hospitals? Where are the doctors and nurses? ... Which famous doctor would go and live there and practise? He can't own land or a house nor can his children vote."

There's a lot worth unpacking in Mr Shah's argument. And we should take it seriously, even though it is a tragically familiar one, used by both the naive and the cynical about conflict zones across the world. Jared Kushner's US$50-billion plan to remake the Middle East probably falls into the "naive" category; Beijing's arguments justifying its tyranny in Tibet and Xinjiang, into "cynical".

Does anyone really think that a development plan for Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon will lead to a peace settlement? Can anyone stop laughing when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claims the West Bank and Gaza are soon "going to be like a hot IPO?" Equally, does anyone believe that the brutal repression and "re-education camps" that the Chinese government has imposed on Xinjiang are truly meant to benefit the province's indigenous population? Pushing doctors and factory owners to move to Xinjiang means that those ethnically Han migrants now dominate the local economy, not the Muslim Uighurs native to the region.

The Indian government under Mr Modi and Mr Shah falls somewhere in between these two. Leaders are tragically naive about how the private sector works, and terribly cynical about the rhetoric they use to further their illiberal politics. Leaks from New Delhi suggest a Kashmir "investor summit" is planned in the next few months, a bizarre echo of Mr Kushner's Palestine-focused investment summit in July, to which exactly zero Palestinians showed up.

India is facing an investment crisis: Private investment has collapsed, hitting a 14-year low at the beginning of 2019. If the government can't get the private sector to invest in peaceful, relatively developed parts of India, what makes officials think businesses will rush to invest in one of the most militarised and troubled parts of the world? A single highway leads from Kashmir's capital through the mountains to the rest of India and, following a terror attack at the beginning of the year, that road is now monopolised by the military. I sincerely doubt that this is the kind of global connectivity investors are looking for.

Yes, the fact that all Indians can now buy real estate in the beautiful Kashmir Valley means some of us might be tempted to splash out on a cottage overlooking Dal Lake. It is possible, however, that once Kashmiris get over their shock and rise in fury, the resale value of those cottages might suffer a tiny bit. And those who believe Mr Shah when he argues that autonomy and popular democracy led to corruption in Kashmir might pause to consider what state-directed investment in a conflict zone will do for corruption. That is an open invitation to cronyism.

And what's the best-case scenario? Leave aside the fact that billions pledged at high-profile "investment summits" rarely materialise. Even if the government forces through more investment than Kashmir has seen in past decades, will that ease tensions there?

Consider, for a moment, Hong Kong. Is that city short of investable funds? Yes, many young people in the hyper-expensive city are angry about a real estate market that closes them out, about being left behind amid growing inequality. But when Beijing's spokespersons talk of opportunities and social mobility as a solution to the Hong Kong protests, they're missing the point: What brings people out on the streets is fear of losing their identity and their autonomy. Hong Kong is not China, they say, and they mean it.

Kashmiris are capable of organising their own development. The state is well above the average for India in terms of human development indicators: It ranks higher than Mr Modi's native Gujarat. If it is not doing as well as it should be, that's because it is little more than a large military encampment.

End autonomy, direct settlers from the rest of India, and it will feel more like an occupied territory, not less. "Give us five years, we will make Jammu and Kashmir the most developed state in India," Mr Shah told parliament. Kashmiris can be forgiven for doubting his assurances. ©2019 BLOOMBERG OPINION

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

Mihir Sharma

Opinion Editor for Business Standard

Mihir Swarup Sharma is the Opinion Editor for Business Standard.


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