A couple of weeks ago I stood by a bed in the ICU of a Srinagar hospital. Sixteen-year-old Zeeshan Puruzgar’s chest heaved like bellows. He had been shot through the liver the day before, at point blank range, by the Central Reserve Police Force during a demonstration. A few hours later I visited 14-year-old Waseem Ahmad Wani at another hospital. Half his face was swathed in bandages where the tear gas shell had hit him directly, smashing his mandible. “We fire warning shots and they still keep coming,” a senior police officer confessed later. “We’ve tried everything: tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, but nothing stops them."
Is the announcement of elections by the Centre a clumsy attempt to calm this rage? This was done by steam-rolling the advice of all mainstream political parties which strongly felt a hiatus was necessary for a population traumatised by the events of this summer. While no one denies the desirability of a stable, elected government, the violence witnessed in Kashmir between June and October should have made policy makers pause and reflect. If elections are the answer, why is it that after 12 years of uninterrupted ‘normalcy’ Kashmir erupted in the way that it did, and why have popular governments been unable to address Kashmiri anger and alienation?
Dodging brickbats and tear gas shells in downtown Srinagar near the Jamia Masjid, I attempted to understand what is fuelling this rage long after the Amarnath fracas was over. Sheltering from the police in the narrow lanes I discovered that each of the angry young boys, aged 11 to 17, went to school regularly, and the young men in their 20s were either undergraduates or studying for their MBAs, or shop owners. One even worked for a prestigious non-governmental organisation. This was hardly the expected profile of a stone-pelting mob. In Kashmir this represents a broader phenomenon that is yet to be understood.
According to the 2001 Census, of the Valley’s 5.4 million population, 71 per cent is under the age of 35 years; and of this 3.8 million people, 74 per cent are educated. In other words, the overwhelming majority of the population either cannot remember or has never experienced the time before war. It is the educated youth who rightly question why it is that notwithstanding prime ministerial promises of insaniyat or ‘zero tolerance towards human rights violations’, the highest authority of democratic India could not prevent the 2007 Ganderbal fake encounter, or that during the 2008 Amarnath agitation, how is it that only three people were killed in police firing in Jammu, despite rampaging mobs lynching policemen, while 57 Kashmiris were shot dead for stone-pelting during the same period?
Every Kashmiri household has a story which ranges from enforced disappearances, rape and torture to more quotidian humiliations, like security forces ransacking your home in the middle of the night, a jawan cross-examining a judge at a checkpoint, a young boy being interrogated and slapped about on mere suspicion, and another being asked to prove his identity in his own neighbourhood by a uniformed outsider. For all India’s talk of democracy, in practice the Kashmiri youth observes daily the State’s intolerance of dissent. While Yasin Malik has been jailed under the draconian Public Safety Act for a peaceful demonstration against elections, Sajjad Lone — who had defied the ISI and supported the elections in 2002 — has found his Pakistani wife and two infant children repeatedly being denied entry into India.
The response to the collective memory of injustice cannot be the simulacrum of democracy. In the 12 years since the 1996 elections, levels of violence may have reduced, but that reduction is meaningless to the young man or woman who perceives State violence as arbitrary and justice as non-existent. Successive state governments, unable to attract investment and industry, have done little but dispense patronage in the form of government jobs to a select few. Kashmiris have missed out on the great Indian middleclass dream: J&K’s GDP is half of the national average and its per capita income of Rs 19,535 (2006-07) is Rs 10,000 less than the rest of India. An estimated 400,000 youth are unemployed, half of whom are college graduates who find themselves marginalised, unable to marry and provide for their families. It is this large population — angry and isolated — that runs the risk of being drawn into a new cycle of militancy.
What is the way out? Discussions with the young stone-pelters yielded simple solutions. Each, without hesitation, said he wanted azadi, but when pressed to define it more precisely the overwhelming majority defined azadi to mean a demilitarised Kashmir. “You can’t expect a person to walk normally if his foot has a thorn lodged in it,” said the MBA student. “We want peace, but are humiliated daily by the security forces. The Centre says militancy is down, so why can’t troops go home? You people think you’ve given us Article 370 and that we should be thrilled, but we don’t need a special relationship, we want to be treated as equal citizens who can simply live and work in peace and dignity.”
Sonia Jabbar is an independent journalist