Kashmir Dialogues: Interview with Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat, Vice-Chairperson, Khadi Village Industries Board (KVIB)

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat was interviewed by Shahana Joshi, a Fellow at Usanas Foundation, on 12th December 2020. In this freewheeling interview summarized below, they touch upon a wide range of issue areas that have impacted Jammu and Kashmir in numerous ways.

Kashmir Dialogues:  Interview with Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat, Vice-Chairperson, Khadi Village Industries Board (KVIB)


By Usanas Foundation

Shahana Joshi: As India steps into another year in a matter of days, there is so much we have to look back on in terms of the strides we have made as a nation and the hopes and dreams we have for the future. And one cannot think of India without taking into account its very crown, the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, a region that has gone through unconceivable changes throughout its history and an unprecedented one in the past year. The abrogation of article 370 brought on mixed reactions, many of them fuelled by ignorance of ground realities, and in many ways, that is exactly what the valley has been to many Indians as well – an enigma, a place of immense violence and loss of life. The news coming out of Kashmir post the abrogation has been so one-sided that Indians have little or no idea of the real picture of the ongoing situation. In the light of this and so much more, we at the Usanas foundation are honoured to be joined by Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat, member of the Bhartiya Janta Party and Vice-Chairperson Khadi Village Industries Board (KVIB). She is also a dentist and a social activist. We dive straight into the areas of interest and curiosity for most of our country-men and women with regards to Kashmir and how things are shaping up. 


Shahana Joshi: The valley has been dominated by two or three families, which has been counterproductive in terms of development and the control of militancy. How do young, upcoming leaders like you hope to push a change? How do you see BJP, traditionally viewed as a Hindu nationalist party, unfolding itself in Kashmir and its reception among the masses?

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat : The change began when the BJP decided to contest elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The people of Jammu and Kashmir wanted a BJP candidate. A national party like Congress never had more than 4-5 candidates. But the BJP has 14 candidates from Srinagar alone. I was the first Muslim woman to join the BJP, and people like me are hoping for a new Kashmir. We are already starting to see a tremendous change in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Shahana Joshi: What do you think about the future of mainstream politics in Kashmir after the abrogation of article 370?

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat: It is never easy for any political party in Jammu and Kashmir, mainly because of external forces and lack of proper leadership to guide people onto the right path. The District Development Council (DDC) election turnout has tremendously increased because people realize that their voices will be heard. 

(Note: The DDC elections were announced after the abrogation of Article 370 under a new government policy of empowering local governing bodies) 

The previous political parties had a dual language i.e; they would speak what Delhi wanted to hear, benefit from the perks, come to Jammu and Kashmir and speak a very different language to people here, thereby keeping the people of Jammu and Kashmir in chaos and confusion. They (previous political parties) have only increased orphanages and graveyards and did nothing for the economy, infrastructure, or the education system. For instance, it is shocking to know that Kashmir got something as basic as its first traffic signal as late as 4-5 years ago. 

Post article 370, naysayers predicted violence and killing, but we didn't witness any casualties. This was due to the government's exemplary implementation and preparedness in terms of public administration. The Kashmiri people were not even aware of the details of article 370 before it was abrogated. 

"Now those people (politicians) say that they will bring article 370 back, bring autonomy back. Where was the peace within Article 370? Why were the killings not stopped? People were scared even to go grocery shopping. All of that has stopped now. Kashmiri people also see this change."

 Kashmiri people are getting to gradually come to know what they have been deprived of for the past 60 years. Government funds allocated to Jammu and Kashmir always found a place in the pockets (of the powerful) and not for the betterment of the Kashmiri people. This government chooses to give them peace first, and the abrogation of Article 370 was the first step in that direction

Shahana Joshi: Since the abrogation of article 370, what progress has been made in the valley? What are the fundamental priorities for the state government in Kashmir? 

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat: The biggest progress has been transparency. The government has launched a tirade against corruption. We have a direct impact on large parts of the marginalized communities. 170 central laws have been implemented. The discrimination against Gorkhas, Dalits, Valmikis, and LGBTQ communities is now illegal in Jammu and Kashmir, just as it is in other parts of India. We have increased scholarship opportunities for minority students by almost 250%. Over 20,000 refugees from Pakistan and West Pakistan have been granted domicile, citizenship, and financial assistance. There has been corruption for over 70 years, and it takes time to get over that legacy. Transparency is the first and foremost step to achieve that. The issues here are not singular in nature but are multi-faceted and interlinked in many ways. So it's important to approach these issues with a very open and holistic mindset, and the solutions to these issues cannot be found in just a few months. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the system, and in many ways, it is like starting afresh. 

"I meet 100-200 people every day, and they tell me about the backlog of their cases/issues in government departments that go back as far as 10-15 years. We have addressed and resolved many of these that were pending issues, and this responsible change is governance and administration is being noticed by the Kashmiri people as well."

Shahana Joshi: What do you see in terms of the return of Kashmiri Pandits? What do you envision in terms of upliftment of the Valmiki community in Kashmir? Will this generation ever get to see/ return to the lands that their parents and ancestors were born and raised in? 

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat: Kashmiri Pandits are an integral part of Jammu and Kashmir and will always be, without whom Kashmiri culture is incomplete. I never call them migrated, I always call them displaced. They are welcome to return to Kashmir, and a lot of steps have been taken in this direction. The Central Laws have a direct impact on Kashmir and help the Valmikis, Sardars, and Pandits. The response to these steps has been positive as people are now coming back. Yes, it is difficult after a few decades, but over time this too shall see a vast change. 

"My father was a lawyer. During Eid, I never saw Muslim friends at my home, but instead, there were always 50-60 Kashmiri Pandits at our home for Eid. I want that same atmosphere and culture to once again bloom into one Kashmir."

Shahana Joshi: In conflict zones and in areas of deep conflict, we see that one of the most vulnerable and targeted people are women and children. How has the state government and your work addressed gender issues? In your experience as a woman politician, what is an effective way to address gender security issues in Kashmir?

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat: Due to conflicts, we have tens of thousands of women who are widows, girls who have lost their brothers, and mothers who endlessly wait for their sons to get out of jail. We take gender issues in the valley rather seriously and are consistently working to address them. In this DDC election, for example, we had several women contest, either with a party or independently, which has been a refreshing change from the past. Even though families here usually invest in the education of their male child, females have been doing very well too. In fact, the literacy rate here is quite good. Once again, I reiterate that it is too early to clear the misgivings of last 60 years. It requires some time and a tremendous amount of healing.

Shahana Joshi: The youth of Kashmir have, for a long time faced numerous challenges- many have joined militancy for money, drugs, or unemployment. For valley's youth, what benefits can been seen with programmes like Prime Ministers Employment Generation Programme, for example? How would you say that it has directly impacted the youth and to what degree do you think it would steer them away from militancy?

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat: I have been a member and part of Jammu and Kashmir Khadi village and industry board. For Prime Ministers Employment Generation Program we have been nominated no.1 model agency in the whole country, and this was post abrogation. We have worked without an internet facility, lockdown, in the midst of a pandemic. PMEGP has not been given any targets. It is the only targetless programme. The Government of India is telling the youth to utilize as much as they want and can be accessed online, which means the direct utilization of government funds without any interference. 

Khadi village and industry board was introduced last November as rural employment generation program. It is similar to Prime Minister Employment Generation Program. We have started with five crores subsidy amount, which was utilized in four months, after which the Finance Ministry allocated another 25 crores, out of which 18 crores have been utilized. 

"Our aim is to work for the development of Kashmir in every way and to deter and actively discourage the youth from joining any militant movements."

Shahana Joshi: Many young women look up to woman leaders like you. How would you describe your background and your journey to being a prominent voice in the politics of one of India's most challenging regions? What would be your message to young women who would like to enter your field? 

Dr. Hina Shafi Bhat: It was 2013 when I had decided to contest for 2014 State elections. I had been in touch with the Congress and National Conference, but nothing worked out. The way the Prime Minister had been inspiring the rest of the nation, the changes he was bringing, and the impact he has had on the nation had an impact on me, following which I joined the BJP without hesitation. Many of my friends and family members told me that this might not be successful, and I probably might not win. They said if I contested with any other party or even independently, there was still a chance of victory. I told them I am not here to win but to bring change. 

In terms of my background, I was born in Kashmir, and my schooling up till 6th grade was in Srinagar and then New Delhi, followed by Pune for medical college. After my education, when I came back to Kashmir in 2007. Even while practicing medicine here, what struck me was how almost every patient was on some kind of anti-depressant or anxiety medication. This is when I decided to bring a change to the people around me. It was very difficult and a roller coaster ride for me to join the BJP. I was faced with sarcastic remarks and many detractors, but I never paid attention to any of that. Those are the people who now appreciate my work and the government's work in Kashmir.

"It will take time, but the government's work will be seen in Kashmir. Every woman has the potential to succeed- we are multitaskers, we look after children, men and the elderly. We are more than capable of looking after Kashmir. We all have that potential within ourselves. We just need to bring it out."

Disclaimer:The opinions expressed in the webinar belong to the panellists and not necessarily to the Usanas Foundation.