In a week of tragedy, four reasons that give me hope in Kashmir | Barkha Dutt column
It is an odd moment to talk about hope and reconciliation in the Kashmir Valley in a month when a shameful terror attack on the Amarnath Yatra tailed another moment of horror a few weeks earlier — the lynching of policeman Ayub Pandith outside Srinagar’s Jama Masjid mosque by a mob shouting slogans in favour of Jihadist terrorist Zakir Musa.
Yet, despite my initial sense of utter hopelessness when the news of the terror strike came in, watching how the week has unfolded, for the first time in a year, four things give me some hope.
Mehbooba Mufti: There were glimmers of the old Mehbooba (she had retreated into a shell of silence all these months) who lost no time in hot-footing it to the hospital in Anantnag late at night where the injured pilgrims were being treated. She offered compassion, made no political statements and was unequivocal in her words. “The head of every Kashmiri hangs in shame,” she said, in an approach that was both firm and empathetic. This was the hands-on Mehbooba of the past, much more a feisty grassroots worker than an ivory-tower administrator, who had single-handedly built the party her father launched. Though I have gone from being an early supporter of the BJP-PDP alliance (I believed soft separatism and hyper-nationalism would moderate each other) to a critic of its ideological dissonance, Mufti redeemed a lot of her reputation with her clear-headed and deep-hearted response to the terror strike. Over the last few months it seemed as if governor’s rule was inevitable and an imperative. Now Mehbooba Mufti has bought her government breathing time. What she does in this time will be critical.
Rajnath Singh: The home minister is the other leader who rose well above the inchoate noise and toxic finger-pointing that followed the Amarnath Yatra attacks. He was mocked and viciously trolled — by his own party base — on social media for invoking ‘Kashmiriyat’ and the syncretic history of the state. All because he made the point that the spontaneous, across-the-board condemnation in the Valley proved that Kashmiriyat was alive and well. Not just did he hold his own; it was left to him to say what should never have needed to be said: “All Kashmiris are not terrorists.” Of course It can be argued that politicians reference ‘Kashmiriyat’ only during crises. And one must not look away from a creeping radicalisation in Kashmir and the romanticisation of caliphate-supporting militants like Burhan Wani. But as one of the senior-most ministers in the government whose job was to de-escalate tensions and make sure there was no further fallout on the street, in Jammu or elsewhere, it was incumbent on Singh to use his office to provide a measured and mature response. That he did so in the face of venomous backlash is even more laudable.
Salim Sheikh: The heroic bus driver from Gujarat who drove 50 ‘Yatris’ to safety through a blizzard of gunfire has already won hearts. His quiet courage and modesty was perhaps the most affirmative story to emerge from an otherwise bleak week. But in an age of strident beef politics, depressing headlines about the lynching of mostly-Muslim cattle traders and a social media discourse that often descends into blatant communalism, Sheikh was a reminder, that when people are left to themselves, basic humanity supersedes any religious divide.
And finally, the hope of renewal came from the people of Jammu and Kashmir. In the last year I’ve been alarmed at the massive turnout for the funerals of slain terrorists, the targeting of Kashmiri policemen and the disruption of encounters between security forces and terrorists by street agitators who throw stones, and sometimes attempt to snatch weapons. I’ve argued with Kashmiri friends that extremists and Pakistan-backed Islamists have delegitimised even genuine political grievances. I have been saddened by how grief has become a contested narrative, with even the loss of innocent lives debated on the basis of ideological affiliations, instead of elemental sadness. So, it has been uplifting to see the unambiguous condemnation of the attack on the Amarnath Yatra (and before that the lynching of Ayub Pandith) across the spectrum — mainstream political parties, separatists and of course civil society. Every Kashmiri I know is repulsed by what happened and perhaps this could be the small beginnings of a pushback against militancy. That the people of Jammu did their bit to hold the peace also merits appreciation.
In a week of tragedy, these glimmers of hope offer an opportunity. Let Delhi not waste this chance. It may not come again.
Barkha Dutt is an awardwinning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal