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The few, the brave

A Brazilian writer’s comment finds an echo in Kashmir, a bank officer from Shopian enters Bollywood, and the need grows for reconciliation. Samar Halarnkar writes.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:42 IST
Samar Halarnkar

‘Don’t allow your wounds to transform you into something you’re not.’

When Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho ruminated thus on his Twitter feed on March 7, it found immediate resonance on the other side of the world. Coelho’s quote was noticed and retweeted by many young Kashmiris.

I have no empirical evidence, but frequent conversations with young Kashmiris since the curfewed days and nights of 2010 reveal that many want reconciliation, peace and a return to what they once were — accommodative children of a syncretic culture — Kashmir’s famed, if overhyped, Kashmiriyat. Such voices are becoming louder at a time when intolerance is growing in Kashmir, and its ancient assertion of a unique cultural identity is twisted to serve sectarian ends, both Muslim and Hindu.

The resonance that Coelho’s latest wisdom may carry with young Kashmiris can’t be overstated. It’s a feeling that must be built on by New Delhi, as its three interlocutors prepare to submit their report to home minister P Chidambaram next month (though releasing the report in Delhi instead of Srinagar makes no sense). Aggressively sweeping up stone-pelters and preparing anti-riot forces in ‘non-lethal’ control of anticipated summer unrest, as the state government is now doing, may keep some peace in Kashmir, but it will not heal deep, festering wounds.

Wearied by years of state and terrorist excesses, cowed by a street that is increasingly turning fundamentalist, on both sides, and living with humiliation, violence and death would be enough to warp any mind; yet some young Kashmiris do great credit to themselves in continuing to hope and believe in change. Reconciliation and integration must begin with these harbingers of change.

On the day that Coelho talked of wounded people becoming something they are not, I heard of a young bank officer becoming the female lead in the first television soap opera foray of big ticket Bollywood banner Yashraj Films. Khalida Khan, a young economics graduate from the south Kashmir town of Shopian, abandoned her bank career to sign on for Kismat (Fate). Khalida’s entry into Mumbai’s entertainment world is unremarkable in a cut-throat industry where her origins don’t matter at all; her striking looks and acting potential mean everything. Her first public reaction was, as it is for most first-timers, banal. “I hope this will change my kismat too,” she said.

Ambition and banality are luxuries not allowed to most young women from Shopian, a town seared into the collective memory of Kashmir. It is the apple-growing town where in 2009 two young women, the 22-year-old Neelofar Jan and the 17-year-old Asiya Jan, were found dead in a stream, triggering a wave of protest and alienation.

That alienation, for some time now, has substantially changed Kashmiriyat, from a philosophy of pluralism and accommodation to one of exclusion. In 2007, a Kashmiri Pandit, who represents the anger of Hindu exiles, called it “brokered bliss, paid for by the silence and subjugation of the minority”. As I write this, some Muslims who represent the other great anger, are calling Khalida’s big break the “destruction” of Kashmiriyat — their extreme interpretation of it. This alienation doesn’t allow the recognition of achievement, as we found last year when hardliners struggled to accept that Shah Faesal, a Kashmiri doctor (his father killed by terrorists in 2003), topped the prestigious all-India civil services exam.

Faith in the old Kashmiriyat has not been abandoned by those in the middle, the strong voices that speak up against the hate-mongers, by those who want to live the change. Last month, when two young women were found dead, allegedly shot by terrorists, these voices forced a condemnation from reluctant separatists. Yesterday, the Greater Kashmir newspaper reported how some young Hindu refugees, returning under a state rehabilitation scheme, were giving up official housing and living as paying guests with local Muslim families in Budgam.

I refer you to a blog post last month by one of these voices. Srinagar boy Junaid Azim Mattu, a political analyst, has this to say: “Our radical-by-convenience leaders tell us that an amicable, acceptable and pragmatic resolution means a ‘sell-out’. Nothing short of a plebiscite ‘come what may’ are the charming proclamations that resound from safe houses and pulpits of righteousness. They speak of morals and integrity as they unabashedly bask in an accountability-free atmosphere of sensationalism and polemics, feeling little or no need to answer questions — where are we headed and how?”

Many Kashmiris, the thousands who have lost parents, children, relatives and friends in two decades of violence, hate and intolerance, obviously have no interest in such voices; too many have transformed into something they are not. It would take an extraordinary individual to disregard state persecution and personal tragedy and see the big picture.

Yet, in great measure, this is what happened in South Africa, the best example of a wounded society offering itself a chance at restorative justice. In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered those who suffered atrocities and those who perpetrated them — no side was exempt from appearing — over a period of 34 years a chance to publicly testify, confess, seek amnesty and reconcile. The commission was not a universal success, but it played a major role in unifying South Africa’s fractured society.

At least 18 countries have used some kind of reconciliation mechanisms to heal wounds, the latest being Sri Lanka, whose partial, secretive effort is widely seen as dubious. Even if India launches a serious peace process in Kashmir, the wounds are too deep to heal without healthy doses of truth and reconciliation. Without it, more will be doomed to become what they are not.