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'Give us call centres Mr PM, not azaadi'

By Sheela Bhatt in Srinagar
November 18, 2004 00:05 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the Kashmir valley on Wednesday got a mixed response.

His day in Srinagar began on a wrong note when two suicide bombers attacked a dilapidated structure near Dal Gate area.

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The Fidayeen attack occurred dangerously close to the PM's podium. It was a major security lapse, but the situation was brought under control by aggressive damage control. The swift operation saved the day for the authorities.

Another setback for the Prime Minister was the strike in the Kashmir valley. Almost all commercial establishments, schools and banks remained closed on Wednesday. Kashmiris have always remained indoors whenever Indian dignitaries visited the valley.

But in spite of the strike and the heavy security in Srinagar, many civilian delegations came to greet the PM.

Singh came face-to-face with Kashmir's future when Kashmiri youths asked him some pointed questions at a closed-door function in Kashmir University.

The youngsters said their frustration was not over the issue of "azadi" (freedom) but lack of job opportunities.

The Prime Minister experienced first hand the fundamental changes in Kashmir when he met various community leaders and businessmen.

Manmohan Singh must have been pleasantly surprised when a delegation asked him to help put Kashmir on the information technology map of India. The delegates said that Kashmir had skilled manpower and wanted BPO sector and call centres in the Valley.

Arjun Amla, a Congressman and a businessman, voiced the collective demand of Kashmiris when he said, "Kashmiris want to move on like other parts of India. They have seen the world. They want change in their own state."

Meanwhile, Sikhs complained that they had suffered more than any other non-Muslim community in the valley because they decided to stay back in spite of attacks on them. Sikhs have been demanding reservation in the state assembly.

The prime minister's speech was made from behind bullet-proof glasses and people missed seeing the emotion behind his sincere statements. Due to this handicap, the crowds could not see the PM's face when he spoke about his humble beginnings and his childhood without his mother.

The PM's announcement of the mega-size reconstruction package will not help in influencing the perception of the common people because Kashmiris believe strongly that all the help from "India" goes into the pockets of the state's political leadership.

In his press conference, Singh fielded questions with ease. He was representing an India confident of handling the Kashmir tangle and Pakistan. It seemed from his demeanour that the worst was over and the situation could only get better.

He asserted that India would never redraw the map of Kashmir and that it would never be partitioned again on the basis of religion -- which means that his approach to Kashmir is not different from that of his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when it comes to a final solution to the vexed issue.

The prime minister's visit might not have been historic, but it was dignified and genuine, something like the man himself.

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Sheela Bhatt in Srinagar