Enraged Kashmiri Youth Will Not Be Brought Around Easily

I have just been to Srinagar with a disparate group of interested individuals put together by an NGO called LEHAR, attempting to familiarize Indian opinion with what is going on in Kashmir.

The first thing that struck one in all the conversations we had was the consensus in Kashmir on the Valley's three principal objects of fury: Narendra Modi, an anchor on a TV channel whose identity you can easily guess, and, coming a distant third, the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval. Chief Minister Mehbooba is generally dismissed as irrelevant, the focus of anger being on the BJP government at the centre and the BJP as the dominant and dominating element in the state government. Not that the Congress or the National Conference are not excoriated. They are, and held responsible for much of what has gone wrong these last seven decades. But the current BJP dispensation is regarded as the last straw, with no residual trust or hope vested in it.

Our visit happened to fall in the immediate aftermath of the Prime Minister's Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The Kashmiris we met said they were glued to their TV and radio sets expecting to hear something of their plight. They felt deeply let down, slighted at the Prime Minister's callous indifference to their condition. What, they demanded to know, has Balochistan to do with their fate in Kashmir? Why this diversion of attention to Pakistan when the core of the problem lay in Kashmir and not outside? Why was there no reference at all in his long address to the suffering of Kashmir and the Kashmiris? Why could he not have spared a word of sympathy for the children lying blinded and amputated in the hospitals? Why not the least show of regret, the least apology for the mistakes made? It was a cry of both pain and anguish.
 

In PM Modi's Independence Day speech, he gave aggressive message to Pak.

Pressed to explain what could be done to ameliorate the situation, the initial reaction was anger at the question, despair, and a complete absence of hope that there could be any way out. The question, they said, had been put to them times out of number, but nothing ever came out of all-party delegations, round-table conferences, interlocutors' reports. They firmly believed India was out to keep their land and not conciliate their people. There was no sincerity, they thought, in the pretense of a search for a political situation; indeed, New Delhi did not even consider the problem to be political, they viewed it as a matter of law and order to be ruthlessly crushed by brutal police action and, where that failed, by the armed forces enjoying the impunity of AFSPA.

One particularly intelligent, well-informed and articulate intellectual said it was quite wrong to say there was no dialogue going on between Delhi and the Valley. There was a dialogue - between stones and pellets. That was the only language conceived by the central government. New Delhi, he said, understood "peace and tranquility" to mean wearing out the agitators to exhaustion so that the central government could claim the restoration of "normalcy". Normalcy, he stressed, was not peace; the anger continued simmering between bouts of acute tension. So, the agitation must be seen as continuous, not sporadic, irrespective of whether, from time to time, street demonstrations ebbed or surged.

Many also said that the time for "dialogue" had passed. Street protests had passed out of the control of the elders and become the spontaneous expression of anger and resentment by a generation born and brought up through the violence and oppression of the 90s and the first decade and a half of this century. One university teacher illustrated this by saying his little daughter in LKG was asking what is meant by "stone pelting" and "pellet guns". We saw on the curfewed streets one seven-year old taking her younger brother's arm to help him leap over concertina barbed wires as they negotiated their way home past the sullen security forces. It seemed to symbolize the era.

It had to be further understood, said those we spoke to, that while the agitations of 2008 and 2010 could be traced to specific grievances, the agitation of 2016 was not caused by a single incident like the killing of Burhan Wani, but by the explosion of an anger that had been building up over the entire lifetime of the kids on the street. Even AFSPA was no longer the critical issue. It was generalized resentment that was finding expression in what these children, who had seen nothing but violence through all their young years, were up to. Neither Pakistan nor the mosques were stoking the sacrifices; it was a genuine young people's movement directed only by an inner fire and not directions from anyone, indigenous or external.  
 

Hizbul terrorist Burhan Wani was killed by the security forces on July 8.

Yet, once they had got their swelling resentment off their chests, our interlocutors were willing to talk further. No one that we met even mentioned Pakistan. "Aazadi", yes - that was the leitmotif, but "Pakistan" as the preferred option, no. The catch came when we asked whether "aazadi" meant sovereign independence or genuine autonomy. The furious young men who blocked our way at the hospital had no doubt that "aazadi" meant, "Go, India". But others who had thought through this question put it another way: "What alternative is there to aazadi if not autonomy?"

When I pointed out that a former Congress Home Minister had suggested that we begin with 1947, when the state's accession was accepted with only three subjects allotted to the centre, and then work our way over the next seven decades to determine what Indian legislation they wanted withdrawn and what left operational, there was skepticism, saying Chidambaram was saying this only because he no longer held office. On its being pointed out that it had been revealed that this suggestion had in fact been taken by the minister, when he was minister, all the way to the cabinet committee concerned and was, therefore, not a sudden afterthought, there was pause for reflection, especially when it was followed up by the query as to whether they did not indeed wish to benefit from legislation and programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Education Act, the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Health Mission.

There was then a grudging acknowledgement of the possibility of such an approach. But we were asked not to make the mistake the BJP was making in trying to portray the Kashmir problem as an economic problem, a problem to be papered over by pledges of "development". It had to be understood that the problem was quintessentially political, not even a matter of ensuring that the democratic and human rights of the Kashmiris were assured, but of doing so on the basis of "self-determination". It also needed to be recognized by Delhi that when even Syed Gillani confessed to not being able to rein in the kids, and the Hurriyat had thrown up its hands because the youth were so adamant about sacrificing their all till their goal was attained, what could any voice of moderation do to defuse the anger and frustration? Gen Next had taken over. They mocked the older generation over their falling prey to false Indian promises - a case in point being that after PV Narasimha Rao's promise of "the sky as the limit" for autonomy, neither the Vajpayee government, for all its poetry about "jamhooriyat, insaniyat and Kashmiriyat," nor successive later governments, had accepted a word of the unanimous J&K assembly resolution on state autonomy. How to impart any faith in the youth, the 16-20 year olds who were throwing themselves into life-threatening agitations, that anything meaningful would come out of talking to those who would not keep their word?

The only possibility of persuading the youngsters to come around, we were told, might be through the masjid and mohalla committees that were looking after the youth as they took to the streets. But first these committees and the elders in the community had to be approached and their cooperation obtained - a monumental task in present circumstances.
 

Protestors holding placards against civilian killings in ongoing violence, during a curfew in Srinagar.

Yet, there is no alternative to undertaking this gargantuan task if an entire generation of Kashmiris is to be retained for India. Those we talked to insisted that as of now, there was no communal colour to the agitation, no Hindu-Muslim issue involved, but if Hindutva slogans reverberated within and outside the state (Jammu included), there was the danger that religion might get dragged into the cause by ideological mischief-makers.

None of this will come as news to those who are for the moment running this country and the state. The absence of any outreach from them to the people of Jammu & Kashmir, the paralysis in governance evidenced by empty hotels, stranded houseboats and forlorn shikaras bobbing on the waters of the Dal Lake, the ominous silence on the streets enforced by 40 days and more of uninterrupted curfew, and the atmosphere of fear and distrust are reflective of the atmosphere being vitiated by the playing out of the Hindutva agenda. This is not the way to keep the country together.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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