Talking to Srinagar is way more important than talking to Islamabad

  • Barkha Dutt
  • Updated: Jul 30, 2016 12:49 IST
An X-ray sheet shows pellet injuries on a 14-year-old at a hospital in Srinagar. (AP Photo)

“Terrorist sympathiser” — that was Twitter’s abuse of choice for me this past week. Why? Because I stated — entirely matter of factly — that Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen militant whose killing has pushed the Kashmir Valley to a precipice of uncertainty, was the son of a school headmaster. In what now seems to be a doomsday prophecy, just a few weeks ago I was deep in the interiors of South Kashmir, the epicentre of the insurgency, reporting on the dangerous new trend that Delhi was ignoring-school toppers, from economically well-to-do households embracing the gun. Our reports had warned that if denialism continued to be the defining response to this new challenge, India would soon be staring down an abyss in Kashmir. We did not know these words would be proven true so soon.

I return from Srinagar a second time with an even greater sense of foreboding. The fortnight of violent unrest in the Valley after the elimination of Wani is finally under some sort of control. But it’s more like a lid slapped tight on a pressure cooker still simmering with smoke and fire. In a wounded Valley, it is the hospitals that wear the scars of the grievous injury to the body politic.

Strapped to one bed was a 14 year old. Insha Manzoor’s face was pock-marked by pellets, little black dots perforated her face where the iron balls of a single cartridge hit; her head was wrapped in swathes of white — the pellet gun had caused a critical brain injury; she lost vision in one eye and the chances of recovery in the other one are extremely slim. On the Internet there is a gory, much-too-close picture of her blood-torn eyes, shared and re-shared, now a lightning rod for rage. Insha was not at a protest march for Wani; she was inside her house apparently looking down at the unrest outside when the pellet smashed through her head.

Read | Pellet gun victims as young as four

On bed after bed, in ward after ward I met young men and women — often no older than 18 — who may never be able to see again. The so-called non-lethal pellet gun has had lethal consequences, blinding scores of young Kashmiris partially or permanently. At last count the number of eye surgeries performed for pellet injuries were close to 100. It is the nature of the gun itself — and the distance from which it is fired that is the problem. A pump action gun, it splatters hundreds of metal bits into the air all at once, like the full-throated gush of a fountain — enabling a single shot to cause multiple injuries.

Read | Despite Rajnath’s plea, pellet firing continues in J-K

That the home minister has finally set up a panel to review the use of these guns is welcome. The truth is — no matter how aggressive, violent or radicalised the crowds of protesters may have been — this cannot work as our security protocol. The large scale blinding of young Kashmiris has eaten into the authority of the State.

On the other side of the trenches, at the city’s Army Hospital, I met wounded policemen and paramilitary soldiers who spoke of often being outflanked by protesting crowds, sometimes in the hundreds that rampaged their posts and camps. They spoke of stations and courthouses that were set on fire, as even women lined up to snatch away weapons. I met Nisar Ahmed Bhat, Kashmiri himself, whose broken, fractured face was framed by a long bandage — he’d been hit by stones and was unable to even speak. Another CRPF officer B Shivaiya spoke haltingly of their limited options in taking on the rage of the street and then said — with more wisdom that any Twitter ‘patriot’ possesses — “How can we how shoot at them; they are our own people.”

Read | It’s yesterday again: Kashmir’s old wounds need political healing

A fake binary has been created by a section of the media that to explore the fault-lines of Kashmir is to be “anti-national” or opposed to the military. I would argue that if Indians really care about our men in uniform, we should be pushing even harder for a dialogue process instead of sending more young boys to stand in the line of fire because of the failure of politics. Why should the police, CRPF and Army pay the price for the absence of political engagement?

Especially when every Kashmiri can contrast it with how the government responded to the quota agitation by Jats in Haryana, where railway tracks were uprooted, milk plants and shops set ablaze and policemen pelted with stones. Not just that; it’s now confirmed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court that women were dragged out of their cars, taken to the fields off the highway and gang-raped. Yet these men were not sprayed with pellet guns that blinded; they were not labelled seditious or anti-national, they were not even crushed with the full force of law. Instead, police officers acquired ‘gulails’ or slingshots to counter the stones being hurled at them to put on a more ‘people-friendly’ image. And because of cynical electoral caste calculations, a relatively prosperous community with a questionable right over the benefits of reservation was rewarded for its anarchy. So what are we telling the people of the Valley — that the law applies differently to them and differently to the people from Haryana? Or is that the price they must pay for being the much vaunted ‘atoot ang’ — of ‘Bharat Mata’, except that the State is playing real estate agent, instead of compassionate parent — focused on the land, not its people?

Read | Kashmir unrest: More autonomy for states is the only answer

Yes, Haryana does not have a secessionist dimension; it does not have terrorists like Hafiz Saeed stoking the fire. But what about Nagaland? Prime Minister Modi stood shoulder to shoulder with NSCN (IM)’s T Muivah to underscore his own investment in finding a political solution to the insurgency. Why has no one used this paradigm for Kashmir? Why is it nationalist to push a political dialogue in Nagaland — but treacherous to ask for the same in the Valley?

The last few weeks have made it evident that instead of investing political capital in Pakistan — as Narendra Modi has done — he could have directed some of that energy toward our own people. Talking to Srinagar is way more important than talking with Islamabad.

Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal.

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