Seema Mustafa,August 8, 2011
Kashmir is still aching, with no reprieve in the tears and the tensions. The death of the young man in custody in Sopore has sparked off a wave of protests, which do not make the headlines in Delhi but are definitely a sign of the trauma that has overtaken the Valley. And this is certainly not alleviated by tweets from the tweeting chief minister Omar Abdullah who seems to have disappeared into cyber space and is rarely seen by the people of the state.
Tourism might be making the news in the national capital, and it is true that the flights landing in Srinagar are packed. But along with this supposed boom and sign of normalcy is the story that seems to be more grounded in reality than the statistics of trade and ‘good governance’ being churned out by the Jammu and Kashmir government on an almost daily basis. And the story is that the trading community went to Hurriyat leader Ali Shah Geelani who has emerged from last year’s violence as the ‘symbol’ of ‘resistance’, to ask him not to announce a calendar of protests this summer, and allow the local people to earn some money through business. The deadline agreed to, the story goes, will be expiring after Eid in September and the government will be on silent notice to ensure peace prevails in the state. This is a story repeated to this columnist by any number of persons to point out that the anger is still burning, that the Omar Abdullah government has done nothing of consequence to still tempers and hearts and that the Opposition led by the PDP has been unable to reclaim the political space. The custodial death in Sopore following the rape of the young woman has strained the deadline with protests breaking out even during the month of fasting. PDP leaders were stoned and prevented from entering Sopore by the angry crowds demanding action and justice, both ‘impossibles’ in Kashmir.
The only plus in a bleak horizon were the panchayat elections that are acknowledged to be free and fair. But while all camps are insisting on victory, it is still far from clear which party gained the majority of seats, and how the individuals who fought and won are going to function in the areas from now on. It is also clear though that the panchayats are being empowered by the Kashmiris for some level of governance at the ground level, and most of those who got through are also those who have been working with the people at different levels. There are a lot of claims by the mainstream parties, but still to be substantiated by the panchayat representatives.
Despite this, democracy continues to be stifled in the Valley where the young people have no outlet for their growing cynicism and suspicion. The trust deficit is palpable, as no one knows who is working with which “agency” as the intelligence networks of both Islamabad and New Delhi are recognised to have extensive reach in Kashmir. This is a huge problem as it takes away space from genuine concerns, and arms the wrong people with the power to misuse it. The inaction and apathy of the state government adds to the cynicism as the people of Kashmir live without the freedoms speech, expression, movement and even thought.
Take the life of an average young man. By the way the rate of literacy is very high; most of the Kashmiri youth are enrolled in colleges and ensure that they are well educated despite the trauma of continuous conflict. The frustration of unemployment is acute, added to by the fact that there is no life even in Srinagar which shuts down by 6 pm on a normal day. There are no movie halls, no café’s, simply because the administration has not given them the freedom to sit around, talk and laugh like young people do the world over. The seriousness is unbroken, and any attempt at levity is frowned upon as life has assumed a tense dimension that engulfs their very being. Most find an outlet on Facebook and Twitter, but that too is more to pour out their alienation and unhappiness. A young Kashmiri journalist went back to the Valley after working for several years in New Delhi. Fond of partying and fun, he admits that life for him has changed in a matter of months, and he will fight to the finish for his people’s ‘azadi’. He is not alone, the slogan has a potency quite its own, as it reflects alienation with India, anger with the local government, desperation and unhappiness with a life that keeps the youth fearful of being locked in jail under the Public Safety Act, of being picked up from their homes and killed in custody by the security forces, of a life that they feel can be snuffed out any second. As it has been for their relatives and friends. There is not a single young home in Kashmir unconnected with deep tragedy.
The absence of a strong Opposition or for that matter liberal stream has allowed the conservatives a head-start in turning this alienation into Islamisation. The slogans are taking on increasingly religious overtones as against the usual slogans for Freedom and Go Back India Go which are moderate in comparison. This is a beginning but given the virtual marginalisation of the moderate Kashmiri leaders by both the people and the state, it has all the potential of acquiring rapid ascendancy. Political slogans are being replaced gradually by Islamic slogans, just as Kashmiri is being replaced slowly by Urdu, and Kashmiriyat by fundamentalism in developments that are a major cause of concern to Kashmiris themselves. The state is sitting and watching from a distance, with its inaction and authoritarian mindset contributing largely to this process.
The young people of Kashmir are not just intelligent, but well informed and highly articulate. They watch the developments in other parts of the world closely and have a very clear idea of what is going on within Kashmir, with independent assessments of not just the mainstream politicians but also the other Kashmiri leaders. The desperation of a life in conflict is tempered by hope and optimism of youth and as they all say, they don’t want to die, they want to live, as a free people with respect and dignity and peace. They do not want to close doors but the custodial deaths, the rapes, the molestation, PSA, torture, harassment, humiliation is making them not only shut the doors of negotiation but padlock these for perceived security and safety. What is worse is that the Chief Minister knows this, the Opposition knows this, the Home Minister knows this but instead of unlocking the doors with a gentle hand and the promise of dialogue and negotiation, they are encouraging the young people to throw away the keys.