| Manmohan Singh at the Srinagar rally on Wednesday. (AFP)
Srinagar, Nov. 17: As the first batch of Indian Army soldiers pulled out of Anantnag, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered the people of this benighted state 'a new Kashmir' that would be secure, peaceful and prosperous.
To make that dream a reality, he offered a further pullout of troops if the situation improved, unconditional talks with anyone who abjured violence and a four-year development and reconstruction plan worth Rs 24,000 crore.
Peace was on the Prime Minister's lips but violence made its presence felt as he landed in Srinagar. Singh's touchdown coincided with a gunbattle between two militants and security forces 300 metres from the venue of his public meeting. The militants were killed and the meeting went ahead after some delay.
If 19 months ago his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee had pulled a rabbit out of the hat in Srinagar by extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan, Singh's promise was not as dramatic a gesture. But the lack of drama did not mean an absence of vision.
While Vajpayee had talked to Pakistan, Singh started a dialogue with the Kashmiris themselves. He offered them a vision of prosperity if peace prevailed. He told them that he had come to learn what agitated their hearts and minds and what their needs and wishes were.
However, the crowd response did not match Singh's sentiments. It showed little emotion ' perhaps inured by many such promises from Delhi.
Singh's message was essentially four-fold: that his government was sincere about talking unconditionally to anyone and everyone who shunned violence; that those who opposed peace were not the true friends of the Kashmiri people; that peace without dignity was meaningless; and that 'peace building' could begin even before the successful conclusion of a dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue.
'I come with no pre-conditions, if your heart is clear, your intentions honest and your desire genuine. I have no pre-conditions except that you come in peace so that we can give peace a chance,' Singh declared in Urdu at the Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium at Sonawar to a bussed-in crowd of Congress and People's Democratic Party supporters.
'Our doors are open for everyone,' he declared.
A dominant theme of Singh's public address was that 'peace without dignity is meaningless'. By 'dignity', Singh said, he meant 'respect for all those fundamental rights and freedoms that the citizens of this country enjoy'. He argued that the honour and dignity of the Indian armed forces enjoined them to respect human rights.
He stressed this repeatedly and referred to the sufferings of the Kashmiri people both in his public meeting and at the convocation of the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences.
Recalling the 'traumatic experience' of the Kashmiris, Singh said: 'Nearly every family has witnessed a tragedy, hundreds have been killed or injured and thousands have been displaced. Women and children have been the worst sufferers. My heart goes out to those innocent mothers and sisters, sons and daughters. I share your grief and understand how difficult it often can be to believe that a better future lies ahead.'
Because the people of J&K had suffered and continued to be scarred by violence, the Prime Minister said: 'We are working on our neighbour (Pakistan) to put a permanent end to this meaningless violence. If the violence ends, the security presence will be unnecessary.'
The troops could then be reduced further, Singh said.
While Singh said that a purposeful dialogue for peace would continue, he also argued: 'Kashmir cannot wait until these dialogues arrive at a satisfactory solution. The challenge to peace building in Kashmir is now. I want the journey of development to begin here and now.'