As New Delhi prepares to announce what could be its biggest package of concessions on Kashmir, the sullenness of a disturbed but handsome young teenager nursing two bullet wounds on a Srinagar backstreet indicates why it will fail.
“We do not care about any announcement,” said Owais Ahmed “Mandela” (20), sitting his family’s ramshackle two-room home in the downtown warren of Maisuma. He grimaces with pain from the still-raw stiches of a bullet wound in his shoulder.
A fifth-class pass whose favourite subject was English, “Mandela” — so named by friends because he was born the year Nelson Mandela was freed — is a legend on the street, feared by the police and idolised by stone-throwers double his age.
With startling speed, a generation of unknown, hardline leaders has quietly taken over the Kashmiri street and mind from the old batch of increasingly ignored separatists, rendering Delhi’s forthcoming announcement almost irrelevant before it is announced, probably on Eid, which is on Saturday.
Those who man the frontlines, like “Mandela”, are semi-educated, but others emerging from different strata of Kashmiri society are articulate professionals, feeding off an unprecedented coming together of class and mass in India’s only Muslim-majority state.
The fast-spiralling passions are evident on Twitter and Facebook. The latest is a Youtube video showing young men paraded naked, purportedly by security forces. It went viral so fast on Wednesday that Home Minister P. Chidambaram on Thursday reacted, saying its authenticity was being investigated.
The unrelenting protests have now been on for 90 days, and 68 people, mostly young men and boys, have died in a cycle of stone-pelting and police firing.
As HT interviewed this new batch of leaders, their followers, civil society and the local administration, it seemed clear that Delhi’s concessions have already been regarded as “less than adequate in this atmosphere”, as one police officer put it.
The protests are likely to become more virulent after the present lull for Eid, and even Syed Ali Shah Geelani (82), considered a hardliner until as late as end July — when he had quiet discussions with track II interlocuters — is on the verge of being eclipsed.
“We have not given Geelani and Mirwaiz (Omar Farooq) a mandate to engage in dialogue,” said Syed Babar Jan Qadri (30), a suave lawyer who criticizes Geelani, is very active on social-networking sites and speaks publicly on “the end of the occupation”. The separatists, said Qadri, “will be lynched if they negotiate”.
Qadri, who calls himself a fan of pre-independence revolutionary Bhagat Singh, said he would not reveal his strategy. “This is war and we cannot make this public,” he said.
Another new emerging “leader” is Masarat Alam (39), a bearded, convent-educated aide of Geelani. He releases the so-called “protest calendar”, which now serves as a widely observed guide to shutdowns.
On the run from the police, Alam could not be contacted, but he released this statement on the eve of Id: “Whenever you feel anyone of us is betraying or diluting your cause for freedom do not waste time in throwing us out of your lives – your struggle – your future.”
“What we could not do in the last three years, stone pelters have done for Kashmir; New Delhi is listening,” the Mirwaiz told the Hindustan Times .
His rephrased moderate language indicates how quickly the public mood has changed. “The talks have to be outside the constitution of India and Pakistan,” said the Mirwaiz, Kashmir’s head priest and chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference.
He said Geelani's five-point proposal — dismissed outright by the new guard — is no solution, but a starting point.
“If measures are taken on the ground, we will still be able to convince people on the streets that dialogue is not outside the ambit of the freedom struggle,” said the Mirwaiz. “We cannot completely sideline the institution of engagement, but this time New Delhi must take measures on the ground. Till that time there will be no engagement.”
Back in Maisuma, “Mandela”, who says he watched his friend die in police firing in July, watches stone-faced as his father, Mohammad Bashir (41), an unemployed fitter, explained how he kept his family going on loans.
“My son has done all this for the qaum (nation) but nothing for the house,” said his disapproving mother, who’s had to sell her jewellery.
Eid is around the corner, but the family has no money to buy anything. Tell “Mandela” that azaadi (freedom) is unlikely to be around the corner, and he nods: “The struggle will go on, and on, an on.”