We, the Kashmiri people | delhi | Hindustan Times
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We, the Kashmiri people

Why are young men dying in the Valley? What do Kashmiris really want? Samar Halarnkar asked many questions on Srinagar’s streets and received answers India may not like to hear.

delhi Updated: Sep 19, 2010 01:58 IST
Samar Halarnkar

I noticed them while the driver of my Sumo was hurtling through Srinagar’s streets at frightening speed (“Janab, this way you reduce the chances of getting hit by stones” — it worked): Groups of boys no older than seven and eight, carrying plastic assault rifles more than half their height. Only one of them had a slingshot.

We had plunged down a narrow backstreet to avoid a group of stone-throwers. It seemed calm. So, I got off and started chatting with the boys.

What were they playing?

“Azaadi,” said one cherub with pink cheeks.

Why did only one boy have a slingshot?

“He’s CRPF, he’s the traitor (gaddar).”

The context: Apart from teargas, the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) uses slingshots as a non-lethal weapon of choice on the restive streets of the Kashmir Valley. Like so many young children growing up in Kashmir, these boys reflect the violence and ideologies of their lives.

Boys and teenagers have increasingly become an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s stone-throwing mobs. Where the previous generation used guns and grenades in the 1990s, the current generation of protestors uses barrages of stones, chants its mantra, “Go India, go back,” and exhibits no fear of death.

As you read this, 100 days have passed since Kashmir exploded, after Srinagar’s 17-year-old Tufail Muttoo, on his way back from tuition, was caught in a stone-throwing mob and died after being struck by a teargas shell fired from close range. India has been staggered at the unprecedented fury of the young men who now attack police and paramilitary forces day after relentless day.

Each of the 101 people who have died since June 11 are systematically mourned, eulogised and added to a pantheon of martyrs. Kashmiri Muslim society is now more united than it ever has been in 63 years. Every day of inaction in Delhi takes India further away from the Kashmiri, hastens the retreat of the moderates and leads to more curfews, deaths and martyrs. The popular Indian view is: Ungrateful Kashmiris want to join Pakistan or create an Islamic state instead of accepting our democracy; why do we waste resources on them? Or so it seems. The popular Kashmiri view: Uncaring Indians and their brutal government; we’ve seen only death, despair and false promises in their democracy; the time has come to leave them. Or so it seems. As I find, nothing is Kashmir is what it seems.

Azaadi’s emerging narrative

Even in the ramshackle homes of stone-throwers in Srinagar’s backstreets, I receive great courtesy and hospitality. So, I am unprepared to face hostility from a non-religious, retired professor.

Bashir Ahmed Dabla, former head of the sociology department at the University of Kashmir, interrupts my introduction, glares at me and asks: “So, you have come here to teach us?” We have more fractious moments. To Dabla, I represent India. “Look professor,” I say, “If I’m upsetting you by being here, I can leave.” Frail, his hand shaking from an ailment, Dabla recovers his composure. “I am sorry,” he says. “I have become very emotional these days. When India shoots dead 79 (the toll last week) young boys, one of their brains is trampled by heartless jackboots, I cannot control myself.”

There are different strands in the azaadi narrative now being woven into the fabric of Kashmir society. At its core is this fact, stones versus guns; and these numbers, 101 dead, mostly teenagers and young men. The toll among the police and the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is zero. The security forces point to their injured, more than 1,400, and the fact that seven of these have bullet wounds. But as one CRPF officer admits, nothing matches the resonance of death. Another strong strand of the narrative is the humiliations that locals experience.

Everyone I meet in Srinagar — doctor, student, taxi driver or separatist — has at some point been pushed around, abused, slapped or beaten; those who leave the state often face unwelcome police attention or find it hard to rent houses because they are Kashmiri.

With people from all walks of life contributing new threads, a tapestry of azaadi — splashed with the new colours of victim-hood and an old desire for independence — has emerged across Kashmiri society. Singers lend voice to death, anger, curfew and suffering. Students and angry young people, locals and expat Kashmiris, spread these voices over Facebook, Twitter and other corners of the Internet. Government officials argue how a people who supposedly get lavish funding from Delhi are actually discriminated against.

There’s MC Kash, a Kashmir rapper who expresses his rage in verse: Threads of deceit ,woven around a world of plebiscite …like a casino, human life is thrown like a dice, I’ll summarise atrocities, till the resurrection of Christ.

There’s Dr Ather Wani from Mumbai, who posts web updates and opinion. A female software engineer from the US posts this: “India..Ab kitna girogey....Sharm karr..(India, how far can you fall, have shame) — Troops targeting community transformers snapping electricity to entire localities in #Kashmir.” In a state where SMS is disallowed, and newspapers don’t distribute on days of curfews, these updates are followed closely. Some are true; many are not. But it’s all taken as true. There’s State Finance Commission Member Prof Nisar Ali, who meets me in a quiet, carpeted corner of the Allama Iqbal library of the University of Kashmir, and explains how of Rs 24,000 crore given to Jammu and Kashmir in 2004, Rs 18,600 crore was spent on mainly hydel projects sponsored by Delhi. Kashmir generates electricity for north India, but it must buy back that power with scarce cash. “The rosy picture is full of thorns,” says Ali.

“Teri kali soorat, yaaak thu!”

On the streets, the stone-throwers keep coming at the security forces with a fury that tires the most hardened CRPF troopers, who say they have never faced such unrelenting violence and hostility.

“My brain is emptying out,” says Prabhakar Tripathi, a burly 40-year-old Bihari who commands the CRPF’s 118 Battalion and has been in Srinagar for five years. With a pug puppy gamboling at his feet, Tripathi admits to excesses by his men, despite recent attempts at “human rights and sensitivity training”.

At the end of the day, India’s representatives on Kashmir’s streets are overworked, under-trained 10th-class pass troopers, who find themselves in a land hostile to them and so express their own hostility at locals. Long duty hours on the street don’t help. On a good day, a CRPF trooper is in his barrack by 8 pm. When there’s curfew and violence, the day can end at 11 pm. Regardless, the day’s deployment begins before 6 am.

An officer of the local police, a Kashmiri Muslim, tells me how stone-throwers often try to goad CRPF men to violence by mocking their religion and colour. One goes, “Gai teri mata hai, hum usko khata hai (the cow’s your mother, we eat her).” Another taunt is split between two groups. One group shouts, “Teri kali soorat…” The other responds, “yak thuuuu!” (Your black face…and a collective spit).

Though most Kashmiris like to play down the issue of religion in the “them” versus “us” confrontation, there is little doubt a more radical Islam is supplanting the Valley’s tolerant Sufi tradition. When rumours of a Quran being burnt in the US (it never happened) spread across the world on September 14, the most violent reactions came from the Valley. The radicalisation troubles even the separatists, who find themselves in danger of being eclipsed. The popularity of suave moderates like Kashmir’s chief priest, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, is waning, supplanted by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the 82-year-old hardliner who since July has gained the greatest street cred for his unwavering commitment to independence or accession to Pakistan. But in the backstreets, a new breed of young radical leaders is jostling for influence, hoping that once Geelani passes — he has a pacemaker and a lone, faltering kidney — they can pursue their one-point agenda: evicting India. Or so it seems.

Many young stone-throwers on the frontlines do not appear like Islamic radicals. They dress well, like music, cellphones and girlfriends are often discussed. Do they do what they do because they believe or does, as the police often allege, money play a part?

“We earned Rs 200 to Rs 300 as daily wage labourers,” says one of a group of masked young stone throwers. “Now we get between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500.” Who pays them? “The separatists,” one offers. In a quiet, two-room home with open drains outside, 20-year-old street icon, Owais Ahmed ‘Mandela’, freely admits to receiving money. Where does it come from? He shrugs.

Old histories, lost promises

The question India asks most of Kashmiris calling for azaadi is, what do they want?

“We want what you have: democracy, the freedom to protest, and elect whom we want,” says Saqib Amin (30), a lawyer. In September 2007, after a ban that lasted more than two decades, a students’ union was allowed at the University of Kashmir. Amin was its president. Soon, as often happens in a college campus, protests started — over drinking water, bus service. But this is Kashmir. “Every protest soon turned to pro-freedom,” says Amin. “We were lathicharged, teargassed.” In less than a year, the union was banned. During the recent protests, even the hostels were emptied after nights of azaadi and pro-Pakistan slogans.

As with people possessed of a narrative, every young Kashmiri Muslim seems to know his or her history. “Tufail Matoo can’t be seen in isolation,” says Zubair Khan (30), who runs a construction business in the town of Anantnag (like other Muslims, he calls its Islamabad) and has an MBA from Bangalore’s Christ College. “Tufail’s story began in 1931. That’s when it all began, azaadi.”

In 1931, 21 Muslims died when the police of Maharaja Hari Singh fired on protestors. Then, as now when stone-throwers die, their bodies were carried in procession, the start of Muslim discontent.

Most Indians who now point to the plight of Kashmiri Pandits as a powerless minority, killed and cleansed from the Valley (more than 300 Pandits died; the Muslim dead exceed 40,000), may not recall that as the 20th century rolled in, Muslims were the oppressed. In 1925, they formed 96 per cent of the population. Nearly all were illiterate labourers and farmers beholden to Hindu feudals and were not allowed to bear arms or entry into Hari Singh’s army. This feeling of oppression has continued since Hari Singh's controversial accession to India in 1947. In the intrigue and trauma of partition, Kashmir was independent for 73 days, the first time since 1589 when its last Muslim ruler had to submit to the Mughal emperor Akbar. Before that, all Kashmiri Muslims were once Hindus.

As Home Minister P Chidambaram now notes (see interview), India has since reneged on promises and guarantees relating to Kashmir’s special status and autonomy. Though no Indian or Pakistani government can offer a referendum today, in 1953 the prime ministers of India and Pakistan discussed the naming of a plebiscite administrator. Only a disagreement over the nominee stalled talks — forever.

Since then, Kashmiris have watched a succession of rigged elections and jailed leaders. The sense of apartness and grievance stayed. The latest trigger was the economic blockade imposed on the Valley by Hindu-majority Jammu before the elections of 2008. The resentment remained, It resurfaced after the government’s clumsy handling of the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian (the CBI concluded they were drowned) in 2009; and again this summer after the army killed three porters and passed them off as militants in Machil.

Mattoo’s death restarted the cycle, but this time the narrative is stronger than ever. If Delhi demilitarises, makes its street manners humane, repeals oppressive laws, it may help moderates and mainstream parties regain some lost ground. But the desire for azaadi will not die.

Freedom from India seems an impossible dream. A part of Kashmir is in Pakistan, which has never been in favour of independence. Buddhist Ladakh and Hindu-majority Jammu have no interest in azaadi. That leaves the 6 million Muslims of the restless, restive Valley.

None of this matters to Mohamad Yasin Gani (25), a daily wager lying in a Srinagar hospital after three surgeries. His right-arm is fractured, windpipe damaged and he cannot speak. Last week, he was part of mob that set a police station afire. Something exploded, either a gas cylinder or ammunition. Will Gani go back to throwing stones when he is well? His face gaunt, his eyes blank, he nods and weakly lifts his hand. Yes, he will.

(With Peerzada Ashiq)