It is a milestone nobody can celebrate. As Kashmir’s current crisis nears 50 days, I am left despondent by the scale of anger and suffering in Kashmir. As I write, close to 70 people, mostly young, have been killed, and thousands injured. Scores, if not hundreds, may not see paradise again. Not that Kashmir has been paradise for the rest of its residents. It has been anything but paradise for almost three decades. Yet, the public discourse on Kashmir is deeply troubling. With notable exceptions, much of the narrative on Kashmir is as follows: Kashmir is an integral part of India, ungrateful Kashmiris are radicalised and sympathetic to terrorists, protesters must be brought to heel and, of course, Pakistan must pay for what it is doing in Kashmir. More than anything else, this narrative keeps the rest of the country in the dark about the great human tragedy that has unfolded in Kashmir since 1989. The current conflagration is but a symptom of a deep-rooted problem that cannot be resolved unless people in India (and Pakistan), and not just the two governments, develop a deeper understanding of the most important piece of the Kashmir issue—the Kashmiris.
Some of the common themes that have emerged in the national media paint a rather harsh image of Kashmiris in general, and our youth in particular. It isn’t uncommon to hear of the “ungrateful” Kashmiri who receives financial assistance from New Delhi or lifesaving assistance during floods. Kashmiris are also described as “terrorist sympathizers”. Some luminaries point out that Kashmiri youth are “radicalized” and what we are witnessing is part of “jihadi” terrorism. The nature of violence, they argue, has changed. In essence, Islamism is driving these protests whereas earlier protests had presumably more to do with Kashmiri nationalism. This presumably delegitimizes protesters. The broad message is that Kashmiris ought to know that Kashmir is “ours” and some tough love ought to be dispensed to bring “them” to their senses. Swapan Dasgupta summed this school of thought best in his own inimitable, tone-deaf way: “…harshness is only to facilitate a process of greater love”. Social media becomes a force multiplier for this narrative. I can’t express the anguish and anger that I feel when I get gleeful messages about Kashmiris felled by bullets or pellets.
This situation is tragic, deepens the chasm between Kashmir and the rest of the country and, most importantly, dehumanizes Kashmiris. It is time the rest of the country took a little time to better understand what Kashmiris have gone through since 1989. There is very little awareness or understanding of the human dimension of Kashmir’s agony. There is also no thoughtful acknowledgement of what a bleak future lies ahead for Kashmir’s young after three decades of turmoil. It is easy to say Kashmiri youth are radicalized without acknowledging the pressure-cooker environment our children grow up in. Let us go back in time to the early 1990s. Think of what our children have witnessed as they grew up. While fortunate children elsewhere were learning about school, fun, games, and a generally carefree life, our children were being introduced to an entirely different lexicon. Their minds were roiled by encounters, killings, cordon and search operations, human rights violations, Pandit migration, disappearances, blasts, AK-47s and Kalashnikovs and SLRs, ambushes, mukhbir (informant), rape, humiliation, curfew, civil curfew, hartal and many other concepts that should have no place in the lives of children anywhere.
According to official estimates, since 1989, about 44,000 people have been killed in Kashmir. Thirty-five percent are civilians, according to these figures. Unofficial estimates of killings are much higher. For context, the death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 1987 intifada is about 10,000. Since 2001, the Afghanistan war has cost about 100,000 lives. When you take into account that Afghanistan is four times as populous as Kashmir, you begin to understand that our children have grown up in a war zone that is comparable to some of the deadliest parts of the world. Thousands more must have been injured. In only the last 50 days, about 7,000 Kashmiris were injured. Since 1989, thousands of Kashmiris have disappeared and as many unmarked graves discovered. A recent mental health survey by Medicines Sans Frontiers revealed that 40% of Kashmiri adults are living with symptoms of depression and 20% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Forgive us for not raising children who don’t match up to the standards of your own lovely kids. But, we must face up to a harsh reality. Those Kashmiri children who grew up in the Valley in the 1990s and 2000s face a very uphill battle in life. If the Kashmir issue were resolved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders today, it will still take at least a generation to unwind the losses suffered by Kashmiri society in the last thirty years. That is what our future generations face.
There are those who believe we face a governance and law-and-order problem in Kashmir; they are in denial. Internationally, misgovernance and corruption in conflict situations are the norm. Kashmir is not an exception. Is it the case then, as some suggest, that Kashmir’s protests are driven by “Islamic radicalism”? How, they ask, can a world fearful of terrorism empathize with another hotspot of “radical Islam”? Frankly, an element of religion has entered the “Azaadi” sentiment over time. But, those crying “radical Islam” are either being disingenuous or are truly ignorant. Over the years, moderates have been marginalized, dissent has been stifled, and there is no movement whatsoever towards a serious exploration of a way forward. Violent protests are an expression of deep frustration and anger with the status quo. Even so, the dominant sentiment remains Azaadi, not Pakistan.
Which brings me to the present. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally broken his silence on Kashmir. He expressed a willingness to explore a lasting solution within the constitutional framework. Many see hope in the PM’s words. While this may help resolve the current crisis, I am less hopeful for the future. Pakistan has not reciprocated the PM’s initiatives in any meaningful way. Now, with Mr. Modi invoking Balochistan during his Independence Day address, I see a further hardening of positions in both India and Pakistan. This carries huge consequences for Kashmiris. Why? That is because the Kashmir issue cannot be resolved without Pakistan being on board. Whether we like it or not, Pakistan cannot be wished away. For Kashmiri children to have a hopeful life requires genuine efforts at peace between India and Pakistan. It may take years but if we could just start a process, we can save our next generation after having lost two already. Animosity between India and Pakistan exacts a heavy toll on us Kashmiris. If Kashmiris are an integral part, if Kashmiris form a jugular vein, please help us. Please help our young people have a future they can look forward to.
(The author, formerly with the World Bank, is a National Media Panelist of the Indian National Congress. The views expressed are personal.)