Your open letter to Kashmiri youth - we exchanged only a few brief notes on Twitter - encourages me to write one back to you.
Let's first list the stuff we broadly agree on. You're absolutely right that the army has a massively difficult and thankless job fighting a battle not of its choosing or making, especially when any solution must be political and not militaristic. I have no disagreement with your argument that Pakistan is hardly the ideal alternative as an imagined homeland, especially given its rising extremism and the sheer fragility of its democratic process. And there can be no two views on the return of Kashmiri Pandits to a land from which they were forced into exodus.
My disagreement begins with the context in which you frame your advice to them. "Something terrible is happening in the Kashmir valley," you write, "the recent events at NIT Srinagar only brought the situation to national attention." With respect, Chetan, after 25 years of conflict and violence, it isn't the sun-dappled Dal, the touristy shikaras or the ski slopes of Gulmarg, but coffins, funerals and broken hearts - on all sides of the trenches - that have been the defining picture postcards from the state. That a fight inside a student campus over who cheered for India and who didn't after a cricket match - and the subsequent police overreach, wrong as it was - should be what it takes to get the country's mind space is part of the reason that Kashmir is in this mess.
I wonder why graver threats and deeper tragedies over the years did not get the "national attention" that the strife inside NIT did. Could it have something to do with the fact that never before has the debate over what constitutes patriotism been as politicized as it is today? Does it not worry you that ever since the NIT controversy erupted, competitive politics and rabble-rousers have sought to raise the pitch - and widen the divide - instead of looking for ways of reconciliation?
While we are on the subject of cricket - since that's the battlefield on which NIT students clashed - I have to wonder why your letter to Kashmir's Gen Next could not even acknowledge the existence of a 19-year-old boy named Nayeem Bhat who was the opener for his local town team, the Handwara Star Eleven, and whose bedroom walls were draped with posters of Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Akram, Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara and, of course, home-grown Parvez Rasool. Your letter asks Kashmir's future generations to realize that a state fully integrated with India is where their best interests lie. Fair enough. But consider the life of this young man. Nayeem would travel a distance of 30 kilometres three times a week so that he could play as a top order batsman for a local cricket club, the Kashmir Gymkhana. Three years ago he attended a national Under-19 Cricket Camp and dreamt of making it into the big league just like his idol, Parvez Rasool. Chetan - these dreams are the ones your letter would prescribe for the young men and women of the Kashmir valley, aren't they? Yet, you are entirely silent on what happened to him.
Nayeem had stepped out to the local bazaar to hand over a camera to his brother, a journalist, who wanted to film the ongoing street clashes between protesters and security forces. On the way back, he stopped to take a photograph on his cell phone when a bullet ripped through his abdomen. He was carried to a nearby hospital on a horse cart, bleeding profusely; he died before he could make it to Srinagar for proper medical treatment. Nayeem's distraught mother could only plead, "Bring my Gavaskar back home". As ironies go, it is in the cricket factories of South Kashmir that hundreds of thousands of cricket bats are fashioned from willow and poplar and sent out to the national and international markets. But instead of cementing relationships, as it could both at the micro-level between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiris at NIT, or at a macro level between the Valley and the rest of India, (even) cricket has become a descriptor of conflict and dispute in Kashmir.
Nayeem's death is what your letter sweepingly calls "collateral damage", but in using that phrase, do you not dehumanize him and the other civilians killed in this past week's clashes? Does your silence not in effect render them invisible and pretend they don't even exist? When I quizzed you on this, you tweeted me back, gracious and open-minded in tone, saying your focus was on the "broad issue." But isn't rule of law, empathy, humanity, justice for all stakeholders key to any solution moving forward? Of course there is no discounting the cross-border patronage of terror groups and the worrying radicalism among a newer generation of Kashmiris. But to be in denial about the genuine emotional alienation among large sections of people doesn't help; you can't repair something if you don't first acknowledge it's broken.
After my online debate with you, an admirer of your column sent me this tweet: "@bdutt why are you so sympathetic towards the Kashmiris? Is there any special motive?" This to me encapsulates the breakdown between the Valley and the rest of India. When we assert - as we must - that Kashmir is an integral part of India, do we mean only the land and not its people? What else can possibly explain the complete lack of interest in and empathy for the death of five people in Handwara, most of them incidentally in the same age group your letter targets? It's a good thing that so many rallied around in support of the non-Kashmiri students at NIT and protested at how unfairly they were treated; they even inspired you to write a letter. But were Nayeem Bhat and others like him not worthy of even your comment, leave alone your compassion?
Quite frankly, in the aftermath of the Handwara clashes, compared to Twitter troopers, the army has shown so much more maturity and softness in its response, calling the loss of lives "highly regrettable." Let's quit the fake binaries then; there is no contradiction between big respect for the military and the unequivocal condemnation of civilian deaths. Yes, the young teenage girl at the heart of the Handwara storm has now told a magistrate that no soldier molested her - the original allegation that spawned the protests. But as rumours and facts blur in a charged, volatile environment, it is incumbent upon all of us to be more sensitive - not less.
Don't get me wrong. There is tragedy, violence and, above all, injustice on all sides of the Kashmir debate. As a reporter whose first beat (and first love) was Jammu and Kashmir, I have spent more than 20 years fiercely arguing against the politicization and polarization of grief in the Valley. When I met Indu, the wife of Major Mukund Varadarajan, shortly after he was killed taking out three terrorists in an encounter in South Kashmir, I was overwhelmed by the stoicism and dignity of her courage. Similarly, when I met Mohammad Ashraf, the father of Tufail Mattoo (a 17-year-old boy killed when a tear gas shell hit him as he walked home from tuition classes), I could feel the depth of his despair and anguish. I have been called a jingoist and agent of the State when I have highlighted the sacrifices of our soldiers and the devastating loss their young families are left to grapple with when the body bags come home. I have been called a traitor and "anti-national" when I have focused on the violation of human rights or historical mistakes India has made in Kashmir. Actually, I draw some satisfaction that these contradictory labels have been used for me because it makes me think I am partially capturing the many shades of truth that define the state's complex reality. It is precisely this complexity that I believe was missing in your open letter.
Slogans are small and irrelevant battles to fight over in a state where multiple ingredients have created a lethal mix - a neighbor intent on starting fires and fuelling them, the challenge of terrorism, the threats of militants, the perils of what was once a mostly political separatist movement getting more and more Islamized, popular anger and alienation, sins of omission and commission by different governments in New Delhi, and an accumulated and unresolved stockpile of injustices on all sides.
The complexity calls out for truth and reconciliation, not for shrill bombast by prime-time anchors who are modern-day hash tag warriors. Ask the men who really have to go to battle and they might tell you that if you genuinely care about the well-being of our soldiers, if you want to stop this senseless cycle of violence, you need a sustainable peace process in the Valley. And what you need above all is the imagination and gentleness of an Atal Behari Vajpayee who famously offered the Kashmiri people whatever was possible within the bounds of "Insaniyat".
It is this humanism, Chetan, that I had hoped your letter would have reflected - and didn't. Because without it, we are in danger of pushing a state already on the edge right over the precipice. And because when you play with fire, you sometimes end up burning down the whole house.
I hope I may have changed your mind just a little bit. I will wait for your second letter to the Kashmiri people with interest.
(Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and Consulting Editor with NDTV.)
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