Last year, as I visited Kashmir with my family, every few feet we came upon army officers and their bunkers. That did not jar us as much as their signs though.
“Proud to be Indian”
Really, all the Indian Army needed to drive its proverbial stake in the land any further was a map including Kashmir in our borders, drawn bold and thick. (Of course, they save that job for illustrators of school textbooks.)
“Do you think the army needs an advertising firm to help soften these messages up a bit?” I asked my brother on that holiday. “Because, somehow, I don’t think these slogans are winning anyone over.”
Fast forward 14 months to last week when the Union government despatched its brand ambassador du jour to resolve the conflict. Secular mediator or politically savvy negotiator? Neither, they sent...Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
As in the man behind the Art of Living Foundation, which admittedly does some good social work and has taught a lot of chief executives the art of the chill. But hardly a secular figure. In fact, a 2003 article in The Economist detailed the blurry lines between the teachings and reality among Hinduism’s so-called godmen, saying it was very difficult to separate Hindutva ideas from Hindu sages, the spiritual from the religious.
“On the issue of Ayodhya, for example, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar might be expected to urge compromise on his Hindu disciples. He has a huge following, a message of universal human values and access to, as he sees it, ‘desperate and helpless’ politicians who ask him for a blessing and spiritual support,” The Economist wrote. “Art of Living, moreover, is open to people of all faiths. But, in fact, discussing the Ram temple, its guru starts to sound less like a spiritual leader and more like a politician, talking of the long history of ‘appeasement of the minority community’, and of the unfairness of a system that subsidises Muslims to go on the haj to Mecca, while making Hindus pay a fee to take a dip at the Kumbh Mela.”
Shankar used similar logic last week, finding himself in a Muslim-majority region and imploring the state government to provide basic facilities to Hindu pilgrims visiting the Amarnath shrine. In letters he wrote, as reported by The Hindu newspaper last week, Shankar also made the controversial suggestion that if Kashmir remains in favour of autonomy, Jammu and Kashmir should be made into separate states, echoing long-standing demands of the Hindu religious right.
But, of course, Shankar himself insisted, along with the government ironically supporting him, he was there on a mission of peace.
For a moment, let’s put politics and religion aside — impossible as that may be in Kashmir. Judged on solely dispassionate grounds, say in the sphere of a business (the government) trying to gain a consumer (Kashmir), it becomes clear India has failed on many levels — the greatest failure of all its inability to win over the Kashmiri people. It’s not for lack of trying, from crores of rupees poured into the region and goodwill missions that fly Kashmiri children around the country to see what they are missing. There have been countless peace summits and much humanitarian aid, especially during the 2005 earthquake.
Yet, as a marketing campaign, India’s strategy in Kashmir needs some work.
Since I’m no marketing expert, I called the best one I know. He’s in Mumbai but his communications office caught one word of my question (the K-word) and said he couldn’t be consulted. Thankfully, he agreed to talk on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t think the government has done even a reasonably good job in the way of communication here,” he said. Over the last few weeks, it’s gotten worse, he noted, citing surveys showing that even the rest of India is sick of the issue, even ready to give up the region.
I am not taking a stand one way or the other on Kashmir’s fate — let them stay, let them go — but if the government has decided it values the valley, then at least make an attempt to get the messaging right. Slogans amounting to “we own you” are counter-intuitive. How about something to the tune of, “We’re on your side, too.” Or, “Come join our team. We’re winning right now.” How about a brand ambassador who doesn’t plan a rath yatra next month on behalf of mostly Hindu causes?
The more we try to shove India down the throats of Kashmiris in the valley, the more they are going to head over the hills in the other direction — to Pakistan. Already, this week, the green flags begun waving.
If it’s still serious about preserving borders, the Union government needs to dim its patriotic pitch and replace the spiritual sadhu with a good marketing guru instead.
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