The deployment of the Indian Army on the streets of Srinagar to enforce a curfew is a grim reminder that the state has descended into a deep crisis once again. Unlike in the past, the writ of the state is not being challenged primarily by a popular insurgency or by militant organisations or even by a separatist cartel. Instead, it’s the anger of a new generation of young men and women who have grown up in these two decades of conflict, which is translating into resilient protests in many parts of the Kashmir valley. And tragically, most of those killed over the last weeks have been young people, often in the prime of their life. The irony is that at a time when Pakistan is in internal turmoil, and its leadership is still reluctant to talk meaningfully on Kashmir, our own follies have, once again, derailed Jammu and Kashmir’s journey back to stability. In any case, what is immediately required is for New Delhi and Srinagar to fully understand the anatomy of the uprising and then craft policies that can quell this rage.
Four important features of the protests need to be highlighted. First, while this rebellious urge may have been sparked off by specific incidents of violence and killings, it’s a larger expression of anger, disillusionment and frustration. While it’s tempting to reduce the protests to indoctrination by extremist Islamic groups, Pakistan’s machinations or the influence of other vested interests, the reality is that this radicalisation has been caused by multiple factors, but above all by a sense of hopelessness. This is a generation that has seen suffering, killings, political uncertainty, and has had to remain sequestered in their homes for great lengths of time. A generation that has witnessed often a daily tragedy, seen no light at the end of tunnel, often endured harassment, and which has been distrusted by sections of the Indian establishment, is consequently simmering with deep discontent and angst. And yet is not at an age where it can introspect and take a long-term view of matters.
Second, this is also a generation, somewhat paradoxically, that’s been empowered by technology. The internet, as we know, is a powerful instrument of social communication. But it’s an equally powerful instrument of radicalisation and political mobilisation. One has to conduct only a sample survey of the Kashmiri lists on, say, Facebook to witness the anger, the appeal of the ‘stone pelters’ as well as the collective expression of rebellion.
Third, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a leader, or leaders, who is either inspiring these protests or directing them. There may be those who are ideologically or logistically guiding these protests. But there’s no mainstream or separatist leader who can legitimately be blamed (or claim credit) for the street protests. Finally, this rage of the young is built on the larger and longer sense of Kashmiri victimhood, injustice and insecurity about their identity. Therefore, in addition to long-term political prescriptions, three immediate initiatives need to be taken.
One, it is vital to end this cycle of protest-violence-protest. Surely, in the 21st century it should be possible to control protesters, armed only with stones, without having to kill young men and women. It’s not surprising that the average Kashmiri finds it disturbing that while Kashmiri protests lead to deaths, protests during the Bharat bandh, for instance, lead to no such violence. Zero-tolerance of human rights abuse can’t remain a slogan; it must be translated into reality with immediate effect.
Two, it is vital to engage these young men and women or at least sections of them. This has to be done not just by the government alone, but in partnership with civil society. The state government must also bring all the stakeholders together, including parties in opposition. In addition, there are men and women of unimpeachable integrity who can be called upon to form a Council of Elders who can work with Mohalla and Village elders and the imams of local masjids to restore peace. G.Q. Allaqaband, Nighat Shafi, Girija Dhar and Agha Ashraf Ali are some of the eminent individuals who immediately come to mind.
Three, Kashmir has, of course, been flooded by schemes and packages, but this is the time and place for one more scheme. The prime minster must announce a new Youth Empowerment Scheme (YES) for Jammu and Kashmir, which would, in partnership and consultation with the state government, seek to ensure that every Kashmiri young man and woman will be provided the opportunities that ensure that s/he becomes an empowered stakeholder in the future of the state. YES should make interventions wherever needed to provide access to the best quality of training, coaching, counselling and guidance available in the country. And YES should do everything necessary to ensure that every Kashmiri young person can be secure of his/her future.
Let us also realise that the understanding of Kashmir, despite all these years of problems, remains shallow in the corridors of power. When Kashmiris, who took to the streets in a similar uprising in 2008 over the Amarnath land controversy, turned out in even larger numbers to vote in the state elections last year, this was mistakenly seen as evidence of Kashmiri fickleness. It was a mistake to view the elections as signaling a return to ‘business as usual’ in the politics of the state and as obviating the need for a special and more imaginative approach. The triumph of democracy shouldn’t have been a moment of triumphalism.
In fact, by acting in a statesmanlike fashion on a variety of issues, New Delhi would have demonstrated a willingness to reward participation in the democratic process and not be seen as capitulating to extra-constitutional pressure. This unique opportunity was missed. But all is still not lost. Much, as has been indicated, can be done unilaterally and immediately to respond to the deep yearning of the young people of the state for security in all its dimensions: that is freedom from fear in the physical, political, economic and cultural spheres.
(Amitabh Mattoo is Professor of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi The views expressed by the author are personal)