Beyond the stone-pelters, a new voice is trying to make itself heard in Kashmir. A new century has brought a new generation, a generation marked not by ideology but, like young people all over India, marked by ambition and self assertion. Unless Indian policymakers junk their Islamophobic security-centred attitude towards Kashmir, we will fail to hear this new voice. The Kashmiri 'intifada' this time seems not to be totally centred on azadi. While azadi may be voiced as a generalised sentiment or as a political lever by the usual political players in the Hurriyat, much of the impetus behind the current youthful rage seems to be not to break away from India, but paradoxically, the urge to belong to India; the urge to be accepted as children of India's economic success — not as orphans to be held at gun-point behind the barbed wires of mental suspicion.
The teenagers pelting stones at the police are not just the children of two decades of Kashmir violence. They are also children of a globalising attractive India with its democratic process, its well-advertised progress and its exploding media. They are teenagers active on social networking sites and anxious to be heard in the mainstream media. Observers point to the degree of approval that some Kashmiris have for Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the elections of 2002, J.M. Lyngdoh who is perceived to have delivered a fair vote and even for Morarjee Desai for the elections of 1977.
There are new role models too. Among today's young Kashmiris, there is 21-year-old Pervez Rasool, the Kashmiri cricketer who, in spite of being wrongfully detained by the police during a cricket tournament in Bangaluru, went on to score 50 runs in 47 balls, smiling broadly raised his bat and said, "I am a cricketer, not a terrorist." There is 27-year-old Shah Faisal who topped the civil services examination 2009 and has already chosen to become an IAS officer. There is 33-year-old novelist Basharat Peer, whose book Curfewed Night is a bestseller at home and abroad. A small flickering flame of young Kashmir's integration with India has already been lit.
So what then must be the building blocks of a 'new' mindset towards Kashmir? The most important building block is to allow Kashmir to have its regional chieftain and allow the state its regional pride. Today, chief ministers across India evoke regional pride and regional nationalism. Nitish Kumar is the champion of Bihari pride, Narendra Modi stands for Gujarati asmita,
M. Karunanidhi is the leader of Dravida sub-nationalism and Naveen Patnaik symbolises an anti-Delhi, pro-Oriya cause. Across India, chief ministers are embodying their regions' culture and renaming their capital cities. Indeed, chief ministers increasingly stand forth as the champions of region.
So if we can have 'Gujarati Pride' and 'Oriya Pride' and 'Tamil Pride' and 'Bihari Pride', why can we not have 'Kashmiri Pride'? Why should any championing of Kashmiri regionalism immediately be seen as a threat to India and an invitation to Pakistan? Should azadi, even loosely defined, necessarily strike fear in the heart of South Block? Why should Omar Abdullah not be allowed to function as a 'Kashmiri' chief minister and why should the Centre demand that he remain an agent of New Delhi? Kashmir has a right to its regional aspirations, it has a right to its pride and it has a right to demand that it gets a chief minister who stands up for the interests of Kashmiris vis-a-vis New Delhi. Kashmir needs its Nitish Kumar.
Yet in times of galloping regional sentiment across India, where regional parties are the norm, Kashmir is perhaps India's only state where a single family has sought to monopolise the political space. However committed the Abdullahs may be to their home state, the Kashmiri democratic space has to be widened and other players must be allowed to openly compete for political constituencies. The rise of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the successful government that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was able to deliver during 2002-05 shows what a difference a local chieftain as chief minister can make.
Accusations of the PDP's flirtation with separatist elements may be true, but the slow process of drawing in all sections of Kashmiris into democratic politics is certain to be painful and grimy. Creating Kashmiri pride and a Kashmiri local leader won't be a process that will get approval from safari suit-clad babus accustomed to textbook solutions. No doubt, recognising Kashmiri pride could provide a breeding ground for separatist sentiments. But this is where the political leadership, both at the Centre and in Srinagar, will have to make a leap of faith.
What will this entail? The leap of faith entails first, using words like 'separatist' and 'secessionist' only when there is good reason to do so. The leap of faith entails recognising that Kashmiris — like Indians across the country — have the democratic right to protest. If the BJP can have a Bharat bandh, if the Left can hold mass rallies, Kashmiris have every right to take to the streets, raise slogans, stage dharnas, carry out marches — in short, do what MLAs across India do. Democracy's central mantra is 'shout, don't shoot' and the Centre has to recognise that every Kashmiri who shouts is no longer getting ready to shoot.
The leap of faith in Kashmir also means that a chief minister must offer to resign or make amends if he finds he is not popular, as a mark of respect for the people. The leap of faith in Kashmir means not branding every teenage stone-pelter or as a Lashkar operative and confronting him with overwhelming force. Kashmir is crying not for azadi from India but azadi from the old Indian mindset. Manmohan Singh once liberalised our economy. Now he must liberalise our attitudes towards Kashmir.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.