Dawn had broken over Srinagar’s eerie, empty streets. My faulty strolley rattling along, I was trying to walk to a tourist centre, where I was told I might find a government bus bound for the airport. My confident cab driver — who claimed, the previous day, that he had seen much worse — glumly told me he couldn’t make it out of his front door. At 1 am, I heard this announcement: “Please do not move out of your houses at night. You may be shot.”
So, at 5.45 am, I stopped and watched a six-man patrol of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force approach me. Armed with Insas automatic rifles (cocked, I noticed), heavy anti-riot padding and helmets with grills, they looked menacing. I pride myself on not scaring easily, but I tensed just a bit.
“Where’s Rajbagh?” one asked. The patrol was lost. I wasn’t going to be detained or thrashed for violating curfew.
After bus journeys through barrages of stones, I managed to make it to the last flight out of Srinagar and reach Delhi by 6 pm that day, before all commercial operations were suspended for the first time in 11 years.
I was very lucky. The curfew hasn’t been lifted since I left on Monday, and I did not endure any of the random humiliation, slaps or beatings that most Kashmiris experience at some time. A friend’s husband, the chief of bureau of a national television channel, was recently made to get out of his car and sweep the streets — this on a day there was no curfew. Even ambulance drivers ferrying the wounded aren’t spared.
“Collective punishment” is a buzzword that every Kashmiri now uses, a strong, ever-present alienating factor, largely unrecognised in Delhi.
Wherever I went, whomever I met, I found present humiliations and past wrongs combined seamlessly to create a surge of anger more pronounced than ever before. Stone-throwers, government officials and professors; the classes and the masses, in varying degrees, are now beginning to speak the same language.
Each new death, every humiliation on the streets, each day of curfew draws in more people — and entraps the Indian government in a vicious cycle of narrowing options, making the job easier for a bunch of new radicals. Add the trumping of Kashmir’s traditional and tolerant Sufi faith by a darker, more intolerant Islam — helped in some measure by Delhi’s choking of democratic values and institutions — and it is not hard to see why the separatists India knows so well, like Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, are in danger of being eclipsed.
It promises to get worse. As I write this, the all-party meeting in Delhi has utterly failed to address the Valley’s realities. Yesterday’s separatist will now be a moderate, even as the day before’s hero is today’s villain.
I bring to your attention a statement that, at first glance, fits easily into the current stream of anti-India pronouncements: “It is a small matter what happens to me. But it is no small matter that the people of Jammu and Kashmir suffer poverty, humiliation and degradation… my voice may be stifled behind the prison walls, but it will continue to echo and ring for all times to come.”
Familiar? Yes, but this was a 1961 pronouncement by Sheikh Abdullah, the ‘Lion of Kashmir’. Despite being Jawaharlal Nehru’s friend, his sentiments were then regarded so extreme that he spent more than 20 years in jail. Once eulogised, Abdullah (his son is Farooq, grandson Omar) is today reviled on the street as the man who sold out to India.
So, at every opportunity, they attack his mausoleum alongside the Dal lake. “If we do not protect it round the clock,” a senior police officer observed wryly, “the Sheikh would have been dug out of his grave by now.”
Home Minister P. Chidambaram — not particularly liked by his colleagues but perhaps the only minister who recognises how quickly Kashmir is slipping away — has, in Cabinet meetings, stressed India’s history of broken promises in Kashmir. That is a rare, welcome recognition of reality, but he has little support.
It is also important to recognise that Omar Abdullah, heralded as India’s new hope for Jammu and Kashmir when he was elected the chief minister in 2008, could never connect with his people or his colleagues, and showed no indication he cared about Kashmir’s long-festering wounds.
But, in the middle of this crises, it is churlish to lay all the blame at his door. On Kashmir’s streets, Omar is not the issue. Nor is his pet theme, the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It doesn’t affect the current generation because the army isn’t deployed in civilian areas, as it was during the militancy of the 1990s.
Yes, demilitarisation is a very important symbolic gesture, but the underlying grouse of the Kashmiri is with unaddressed aspirations, of promises broken over 63 years, of the daily humiliations, all of which are blamed directly on Delhi.
Disaffection is now so deep and wide that whatever the Cabinet announces can only be a starting point. Resolution and reconciliation cannot come from a meeting. It must be a process, which is already faltering.
Every delay drags India towards a precipice. If we fall over the edge, expect the current unarmed unrest to turn into an armed insurgency. If that happens, a bloody suppression will follow.
Kashmir, and India, will then be doomed to a future worse than the present — and the past.