Patiala Peg | Economics keeps hope of peace alive in J&K

There have been demonstration of unity between the business lobbies of the Jammu and the Kashmir regions in the wake of the rape of an eight-year-old, kindling hope of peace in troubled times

Even as the anger and hatred generated by the rape and murder of an eight-year-old tribal Bakarwal child in Kathua near Jammu continues to seethe in the region and beyond, there are encouraging signs that a communal conflagration has been averted. Not just for now, but it is becoming increasingly evident that if nothing else works, compulsions of livelihood and economic necessity may just trump the religious hatemongers in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

For long, any opposition to bandhs and violence by traders and shopkeepers in Muslim dominated Kashmir was seen as diluting the ‘movement in Kashmir’ and such people were branded as traitors to the cause. Similarly, Hindu Jammu rose as one during the Amarnath agitation in 2008, triggered by the Kashmiri opposition to the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, and forced an economic blockade to bring Kashmiri business to its knees. Business has always bowed before politics and the latter has never been short of willing members to fund and support its activities despite the economic cost. During the Amarnath agitation the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) and the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) were deeply engaged in the politics of the agitation and unreservedly backed the stand of their respective regions. The economic losses suffered by both sides ran into hundreds of crores and it took the business community several years to recover. This is without accounting for the deeper loss of trust between the trading communities of both regions which are otherwise dependent on the other to flourish and grow.

Cut to April 10, the day before the infamous Jammu bandh of the Bar Association of Jammu, seeking the transfer of the rape investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Taking a stand diametrically opposite to the Bar, the JCCI not only categorically opposed the bandh calling it ‘illogical and politically motivated” but advised the Bar Association to desist. Top Jammu industrialists even insinuated that the illogical posturing by the Bar Association president, who had adopted a stridently pro-Hindu stand, was aimed at furthering his political career and would cause further damage to already strained communal relations between the two regions. The overriding sentiment behind the JCCI’s surprise stand is not that hard to see: Whenever there is violence and unrest in the state, the business community suffers collateral damage and is left to nurse its wounds by itself. This is why the willingness to support movements with potential for inflammatory consequences is waning on both sides.

Business lobbies on either sides of the Pir Panjal mountain range, which divide the Jammu and Kashmir regions, are reluctant to jump into causes which exacerbate regional and religious prejudices and help none but communal forces and politicians.

Here’s what the JCCI had to say about the rape: “The Rassana rape and murder of an eight year old child is a heinous crime and irrespective of caste, creed and religion, whosoever is found guilty should be given the highest punishment provided under the law. The fact is that the investigation by the Crime Branch was being monitored by the Honorable High Court and the charge sheet has been filed, so it is a sub judice matter. It is entirely upto the judiciary to see the authenticity of the chargesheet and decide on the same or hand over to the CBI for further investigation.”

The KCCI led by carpet exporter, Javed Ahmed Tenga was quick to welcome the stand taken by the JCCI, and businessmen in Kashmir were relieved to hear its sane voice. Tenga, in fact, confided to me a few days ago that both the Chambers have forged an alliance of sorts to ensure that an atmosphere of peace prevails in both the regions and communal forces do not disrupt trade and business activities. The seeds of this alliance were of course sown in the aftermath of the 2008 agitation, when traders and ordinary businessmen on both sides reported huge losses. Regional prejudices flared to such an extent that Jammu put an economic blockade on the Kashmir region and prevented trucks carrying apples, carpets, handicrafts and dry fruits for Jammu and elsewhere in the country from exiting Kashmir. This so incensed Kashmiris that they began a march to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to ‘sell their goods there’ and security forces had to open fire to stop them which led to the reported death of 15 civilians. Similarly, the huge trade of general items which go from Jammu region to Srinagar and other towns of Kashmir too came to a halt. Better sense has prevailed in the business communities of both regions since then.

Evidence of this collaboration, based on a mutual necessity, was also visible in October 2015 when clashes took place in Udhampur after some Kashmiri muslim truckers were attacked and killed by right-wing activists suspecting them of cow slaughter. Just as another religio-trade war was about to break out, the two chambers of commerce addressed a joint press conference in Srinagar where JCCI president Rakesh Gupta assured the Kashmiri transport industry of support and advised them not to play into the hands of communal forces.

Jammu is the lifeline for Kashmiri business, which has warehouses, trading partners and residences in the town from where it accesses markets in the rest of India and abroad. On the other hand, a host of small industries manufacturing textiles, electrical goods, rubber goods, processed food among others have sprung up in Jammu and surrounding towns. Around 90 per cent of these goods are consumed within the three regions of the state right upto Ladakh, and curfews and unrest anywhere in the state hit this segment the hardest.

It might be too optimistic to suggest that unity between the business communities of both regions could transcend political differences and religious bigotry to bring about lasting peace in the state. But a beginning is there for all to see.

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