‘Liberty has never come from the government,’ observed Woodrow Wilson, the 29th US president, sometime before World War I. “Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.”
If you were to consider the true meaning of liberty, you cannot fault the angry young men — and now women — rampaging through the streets of Kashmir. It is a truism that this Kashmiri generation has known only conflict, and it’s quite obvious they believe freedom, azaadi, cannot be bestowed, that it must be achieved, that the time is now. And so they burn police stations, government offices and frighten security forces with a hate so deep and a fury so intense that even the separatists and India are stunned.
Not in the worst days of militancy has Srinagar seemed so distant from Delhi, now witnessing the consequences of an era of duplicity and dishonesty. When school students as young as eight, but mostly in their teens, die every day — 27 people are dead since Friday alone — it’s hard to believe the sops that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah now seeks from Delhi will do anything to calm the rage.
It wouldn’t make a whit of difference if the UPA government were to pardon young men who crossed over to Pakistan, allowed more trade and people across the Line of Control, took away the sweeping powers that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) offers the army, and discussed the autonomy resolution passed by the Jammu and Kashmir assembly in 2000.
These are yesterday’s concessions that might have had appeal when Abdullah took office nearly 19 months ago. These should have been delivered then and built upon by a government committed to the quick integration of the Kashmir street with the Indian dream. That it never happened only reinforces what Kashmiris know: Over the decades, offers of talks have been a method for stalling progress and increasing militarisation.
Conversations with Kashmiris — something most of us don’t have — reveal how the simmering resentment of the past 62 years was dramatically compounded by the deep frustration and humiliation forced on them by the daily curfews of the last month. “After 20 days indoors, even I went out and threw stones,” said one mild-mannered colleague — he moved to Delhi from Srinagar to get on with life — stuck indoors during a visit back home last month. He narrated how he and a journalist friend displayed a curfew pass when stopped by a paramilitary trooper, who simply tore it up and said: “Kahan hain pass? (Where’s the pass?)”
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi reflects a government in denial when she says in the Congress mouthpiece Sandesh that “elements with ulterior motives were instigating these attacks”. In Kashmir’s always-on-the-boil cauldron, this is partially true. Mustafa Alam, an aide of the most hardboiled separatist, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has gone underground. Like other faceless new coordinators, Alam urges young men to the streets day after day, armed with nothing more than stones and their convictions.
Like her government and India at large, Gandhi ignores the other truth: the frustration of the Kashmiri has now transcended the separatist, and for the first time a stunned India is watching women and children spontaneously pouring out of homes after every teenage death, hurling stones, brandishing sticks and screaming for azaadi.
Tragically, azaadi is an impossible dream.
It is a dream sold to Kashmir’s new generation by separatists, some of them murderers who smoothly garbed themselves as freedom fighters. In their drive for power, they spoke in varying tongues to Islamabad, Delhi and their own people, and they condoned an ethnic cleansing that drove their Hindu cousins, the Kashmiri Pandits, from their homeland.
Last month, I heard former Jammu and Kashmir Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig say this: “We have been telling our young generation that you deserve independence, that India is a Hindu country… these young children are the products of violence. Born after 1989, they have seen only violence, gore, blood and betrayal. Whether separatist or mainstream party, we don’t have the collective wisdom, the collective courage, to tell them the truth.”
The truth is Kashmir will not get azaadi — for the same reason the Muslim Kurds will not get their homeland from Turkey, itself a Muslim-majority nation; for the same reason the Chechens, or the Nagas, will not be a country.
The future is bleak for Kashmir’s GenNext because it finds no support across India, even from fellow Muslims, many of whom still struggle with acceptance. As one of my best friends put it: “As an Indian Muslim, I am still paying the wages of Partition.”
There are no easy solutions to Kashmir’s rage. In the short term, the government must urgently fix its ill-trained security forces. It is inexcusable that every dead teenager has been shot above the waist during the rioting, sparking new frenzies. It is inexcusable that some paramilitary forces, in response to teens shouting the Islamic war cry ‘Nara-e-takbeer, Allah-o-Akbar’, are responding with the Hindu war cry ‘Har, Har Mahadeo!’
For the long-term, India has to stop stalling, reveal some honesty, offer some grand gestures of reconciliation — that’s inescapable now — and get the slovenly government to work. Delhi is mistaken in thinking Abdullah’s failures alone are the reasons for Kashmir’s uprising, but he could be critical to implementing concessions, if it provides any. If change does not begin now, Kashmir’s long, bloody night will only get longer and bloodier.