Back to Village: The grassroot outreach’s Kashmir chapter

To strike a chord with the ‘out-of-reach’ countryside, the government’s Back to Village program is currently being tried in Kashmir. But as the author argues in this piece, the socio-political instrument bears a stark resemblance with the already tested tactics and might end up as a double-edged sword.

Back to Village. ‘First of its kind’. Governance at your doorsteps. Peoples Participation is the real taste of democracy. Strengthening bonds between government and its citizens. Making participatory planning a reality.

Yes, these are all the taglines on the document of this new government policy.

Back to Village is a policy for Rural Development. It orders every gazetted officer to be allotted one Gram Panchayat to visit for two days and a night stay to interact with people and obtain information about needs of intervention in development and other sectors. The sectors included in the policy are: Drinking Water/Water Bodies, Power Supply, Health, Education, Economy, Livelihoods, Sports, Library, Entertainment, Telecom Connectivity, Banking, Housing, Sanitation, Rural development, Women and Child development, Public Transport System, Skill development, Coverage of Pension Schemes and others.

Hardly any field or sector of life has been left uncovered under what the document states. It clearly appears a brainchild of brilliant strategists and meticulous planners.

“This policy seems to be trying to bridge gaps between the rural-urban divide in terms of development. If it is implemented nicely, then it is a welcome step. Ultimately I hope it helps the farmers. One more thing is that the ruling party is trying to consolidate its powers at an all-India level through this policy,” Professor Noor Baba, who teaches Political Science, says.

The villages and Gram Panchayats, that, for decades altogether have seen negligence from the government, suddenly are surprised that officials are at their doorsteps asking them about their problems and what they need in their villages. The feedback forms are meticulous and comprehensive and diligently compiled. This indeed, without a doubt, is the government’s way to reach out to the grassroots and talk to the real votebank.

This policy and its taglines sound somewhat familiar: WHAM—winning hearts and minds.

The reasoning one tries to do is: Rural people and their villages had been neglected for decades altogether. They had lost all hope in governance and governments. But in neglected and miserable conditions of living, one still cannot totally give up hope. One definitely wants drinking water, power supply, roads and hospitals.

Every election, seasoned politicians come with the same promises. People hope against hope and do not give up on any chance for a somewhat better life. People vote and vote for these basic amenities. But New Delhi-based media confuses it with people’s mandate. No media shows the desperation of people who have been neglected forever and whose hope is being abused in every election.

Now to these same people, a policy has suddenly come to door steps, asking them: what they want and in what sector. And it’s already creating commotion.

On a local TV channel, I heard an old Kashmiri man thanking “Modi sahab”.

These government policies quickly become the PM’s policies and finally Modi policies. The name reaches every household—without fail, making it a brilliant strategy.

Then suddenly people write opinion pieces in dailies, praising how this policy, if honestly implemented, would be a breakthrough in governance and development. Rural space, they say, would be transformed in an unprecedented way.

That this policy has the potential of changing rural dynamics is evident. But is the government honest about really implementing the needed developmental changes? Pardon one’s cynicism, but questions should be asked.

And what does this policy of “the real taste of democracy by people’s direct participation” mean at a time when there is no popular government in place? In absence of democratic values and freedom of speech, how should one see this initiative?

Winning hearts and minds of people who have been neglected forever is easy and strategic, tokenistic. It is a way of diverting attention from the oppression, marginalization and repression. And a brilliant way of reaching the actual vote-bank, the rural pockets.

That’s why, many believe, that Back to Village is a masterstroke, aimed at protracting the status quo.

In a casual conversation once with a friend, I learned how RSS in its initial days, and even now, adopted similar strategies to reach out the grassroots. They engaged with those people who had been neglected forever and gave them livelihood. They then slowly started shakhas to percolate their agenda when ground was laid absolutely fertile for its acceptance.

I would joke with my friends about such tactics: “Jo tumhey livelihood aur khaana dega, tum kyunna usko vote dogay (Why wouldn’t you vote for those who provide you livelihood).”

The invasive poverty in the sub-continent only makes this a fitting social-political instrument and the possible breeding ground for percolating certain ideology. Also, Back to Village policy pays important attention on giving internet services to rural areas and thus making many speculate that it might become a breeding ground for the social media propaganda machinery.

Payment and digital schemes is yet another important emphasis factor under the policy. Digital and Cashfree India is the ‘healing touch’ on the wounds left by demonetisation.

But then, again, what do these developmental schemes mean for villages in Kashmir, when they are most effected by militarization, surveillance and control?

And now, when Amarnath Yatra is already underway, there’s a curfew for local vehicles post 6 pm on the roads. Gunfights are happening in villages, property being burned, bombed. The women of the villages fearing for their lives have restricted their mobility and access to various places and resources, so have men in different ways.

Under such fear and routine, what is this development for? Is this a State’s way of earning and building legitimacy even as the coercion continues?

Aijaz Ashraf, an expert on government policy analysis and a professor of political science in Kashmir University, says, “This policy can be an attempt at a model to be shown to people that such a kind of governance and public interaction can be possible under Governor’s rule and this can be a way of suggesting that the Governor’s rule should be extended- which it was for many years in the 90s. It is a way of direct Central control. But it can also increase the popularity of government among masses.”


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