In a nondescript, overcrowded hospital ward in Srinagar a child flinches in pain as doctors examine his bullet-ridden leg and a distraught mother cradles his head in her arms and wordlessly feeds him fruit pulp with a spoon, her stoic eyes chillingly expressionless. Amir Ashraf is 15 and he is not a stone-pelter. Nor has he ever taken part in a street protest. He merely happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time — returning home from the village madrassa in Bandipore, after reading the Quran, when he was suddenly caught in clashes between protesters and security forces. In fact, the first civilian death that triggered this period of strife began with the death of a teenager Tufail Mattoo who was walking back from a tuition class when a tear gas shell, apparently directed at a protesting mob, claimed his life instead.
Of course, as the stark images of raw, defiant rage on the streets of Srinagar show, children are not always out there by accident. Notwithstanding appeals from the government, it's not just women — but very often — little boys too, some of them not even 10 years old, who mingle with protesters, raise their fists in precocious anger and speak a language of accelerated adulthood. You can certainly argue about the ethics and wisdom of exposing children to possible death and you can question why the only separatist leader of significance to make an appeal for non-violent protests is the man considered to be the most hawkish of all — Syed Ali Shah Geelani. But, the fact is, that no matter what your ideological position is on the Kashmir crisis — when teenagers and children become the face of the conflagration, politics is morally obliged to reinvent its approach.
And that is the one thing — imaginative and robust politics — that we have seen abysmally little of in the last two months. Some tentative beginnings are being made at last. The chief minister finally made an attempt to reach out to the injured civilians this week amid questions of why it took 45 deaths for him to do what should have been any leader's first instinct. The home minister had an intelligent, nuanced response in Parliament — careful not to demoralise the security forces, but conceding the need to deliver on failed promises and expressing personal regret for the loss of lives. But with no real consensus within the government or indeed the national political establishment on how Kashmir should be handled, will New Delhi make the fatal mistake of believing that it should simply brazen this out?
A fortnight ago, when the Army was requisitioned by Omar Abdullah's government — for the first time in Srinagar in 15 years — some of us implored the Centre to not confuse quiet on the streets of Srinagar for calm. Stillness, we argued, was often the sound of stasis and implosion. We hoped that the prime minister would intervene himself, perhaps, even go on television to talk directly to the people in the state. I heard the home minister telling Parliament that these “were our own people". It was important to stress that it wasn't just the land, but also the people who were integral to us as a nation.
So didn't our own people merit a more direct political engagement or at the very least a more visible expression of empathy? Yes, there can be no justification for violent protests or setting police stations, railways tracks and other public property ablaze. But when Naxal violence can be officially handled by what the government likes to call a “two-pronged approach," couldn't violence in Kashmir have been tackled in a similar way? In the seeming lull that these ten days provided, where was the other prong?
There is a false debate being constructed by some ideologues that to push for a political intervention in Kashmir is to undermine the suffering of soldiers on the ground. This sort of clap-trap comes from those who don't really care about the lives of our security forces. We would do well to remember that it was the Army chief who spoke of the failure to build politically on security gains in the valley. Do we really think our paramilitary forces want to be locked into a hostile loop of never-ending confrontation? Do we have any idea how difficult it is for a local Kashmiri Muslim to be a police officer in the present environment of hate and resentment? For an intelligent understanding of the soldier's perspective, speak to former Border Security Force chief E. Rammohan- who ironically also investigated what went wrong in the Dantewada massacre — and listen what he has to say on how our soldiers need better training in non-lethal weapons and crowd control.
The truth is that this is not 1990 or 2000. In 2010, Kashmir has thrown up an entire generation of young men who have been brutalised, hardened and often, radicalised by perennial conflict and the changing nature of the separatist campaign. On television, the other night, I decided to censor out the politicians and hear directly from two articulate young Kashmiris: Junaid Mattoo and Faizan Ali. To listen to them, was to understand the extent of their generation's disengagement. The discourse within the valley may not always be rational; some of it is indeed intolerant and frighteningly aggressive at times. But it is the duty of a smart politician to find a language that speaks to those who don't want to listen.
When young parliamentarians made a direct attempt at communication with the boys of the valley, I was heartened. I thought of Rahul Gandhi's stopovers at Dalit homes in the heartland. We need something similar in Kashmir — a politician who is willing to look public anger in the eye and make a human connection. To look away this time, would be to miss the fork in the road. And, if we do that, there will be no turning back.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal.