Seventeen year old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, a class XII student, was preparing for the medical entrance exam. On 11 June, while coming home from his tuition class, he was caught in a street fight between a stone-pelting crowd and the police in Srinagar’s Rajouri Kadal area. Tufail took shelter in the Gani Memorial Stadium but a tear-gas shell fired by the police from close range landed on his head. He died on spot. The administration first tried to pass the blame on the protesters claiming that the boy was killed “to keep the pot boiling’’ but later retreated when eyewitness evidence and the autopsy report confirmed that the murder was caused by police firing. Since then, large-scale street violence has erupted across the Kashmir valley. The police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were seen engaged in frequent clashes with incendiary crowds armed with nothing but stones and chunks of rocks. Reacting to the young stone-pelters, the security men, apparently ignorant about non-lethal ways of crowd control greeted the youngsters by firing bullets straight at them. The indiscriminate firing caused several civilians to die on the streets. Most of the casualties, shockingly, are teenagers and school going children, aged between nine and nineteen. Normal life is suspended in the Valley for months by strict and indefinite curfews imposed almost every day.
Participation of youngsters in street demonstration and protests are nothing new in the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir which has a two-decade-long history of Pakistan backed insurgency. Even during the turbulent days of 1989 from when the separatist movement began, thousands of embittered youths recruited by the JKLF came out on streets to protest. But this time the protests are different in nature. The significant presence of women and children among the protesters who have spontaneously descended on the streets defying curfew orders and braving police bullets has provided a unique characteristic to the protests. It seems that bullets do not scare the common Kashmiris any more. This popular mood explains why it is difficult to dub the present turmoil just as a Pakistan-backed activity contrived by anti-India forces. The anger is clearly directed against the brutal repression by the Indian security forces which has caused needless deaths of innocent teenagers and injured several hundreds. An unnerved Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had to call in the Army – for the first time since 1989.
Should we view the recent protests with sympathy or apathy? In the public domain there is an intense debate on this question. On one side, there are “nationalist” observers and critics who believe that the incidents are definitely linked with a “nefarious design” orchestrated by Pakistan backed “anti-national elements”. Those elements, we were told, are “pushing children and teenagers to the forefront to fight their messy fight against India”. What will the poor police and security men do when the mischievous protesters are provoking them to fire? “If one person is killed in police firing, the valley erupts as if on cue,” explains the Hindu nationalist RSS mouthpiece Organiser in its July 11 editorial. “But when the security forces are maimed or killed in dozens by the terrorist attacks, the government and the society do not even murmer,” the editorial dejectedly observed. Pointing their finger towards the “fishy” timing, the watchful nationalists have noted that these protests are in fact an orchestrated effort intended to create a tense situation to disrupt the annual Amarnath Yatra which began in the month of June. The timing also makes sense because the summer holiday season has just ended and Kashmiri tourism industry has earned its keep for the year. Thus it became relatively easy for Islamist hardliner and pro-Pakistan leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the moderate separatists among the Hurriyat Conference to incite the people with anti-India sentiments. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which usually views every grievance of the Kashmiri people through the anti-national lens is spearheading this viewpoint and asking the media not to give credence to “lies and malicious propaganda” unleashed against the country and its security forces. It is not easy for our nationalists to hide their ugly anti-Muslim chauvinism that keeps peeping out from their sacks.
Severely criticizing the UPA government at the Center as “totally clueless and spineless,” maverick BJP leader L K Advani has thundered, “Instead of giving a fitting reply to the secessionists, the government has been demonising the security forces.” He has also brought out a tattered yet dear issue – abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Article 370 ensures a special status and internal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir and limits Indian jurisdiction in the state to the three areas: communications, defense and foreign affairs. Invariably, some of them have also raised the issue of the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley but not before carefully concealing the infamous role of Jagmohan – a bureaucrat specially appointed as the governor in the state by successive Congress governments in the 1984-1989 and again in 1990. “Jagmohan did more than anyone else to provoke insurgency in the state” writes Pankaj Mishra in his article Death in Kashmir. By the time he was replaced, “the entire Muslim population of the valley had revolted against Indian rule.” Jagmohan, a pro-Hindu fanatic who later found his real abode and joined the BJP, had ruled the state with ruthless aggressiveness. It was his hardhearted methods that communalized the majority Muslims to support Islamist fundamentalist parties and militant outfits. Inter-community relations were shattered. The Islamists brutally targeted minority Hindus; a massive psychological fear developed among the community that eventually forced them to leave their homeland en masse. The wealthy and elite among the displaced got settled in big cities all around India, many took refuge in the United Kingdom and America. The ordinary and poor ones crammed in pitiable refugee camps of Delhi, Jammu and Udhampur. Even after two decades have passed, many of them are still living in camps, struggling as refugees in their own country.
From the other side, the protests are viewed not as a terrorist oriented movement but a popular upsurge, a result of deep alienation, disillusionment and dissatisfaction among the general Kashmiris, the younger generation in particular, due to the “wrong policies being pursued by the governments at Delhi and Srinagar” and “the environment of hopelessness created by the false promises and non-responsive administration both at the state and the centre”. (Source) The left-liberal and democratic minded observers has urged for an immediate end to the brutal and inhuman police firings, to release all the detained juvenile protesters from state prisons and withdraw all cases of stone-pelting registered against them. Keeping in mind that there could be certain elements across the border that may like such a situation to develop in the Valley, the observers have nevertheless insisted on repealing the Disturbed Areas Act from Srinagar and other civilian areas where there is a significant decrease in militant activities. They have further argued that the Kashmir crisis is not just a law and order problem which can be resolved through administrative measures and stressed that the crisis can only be resolved politically. According to them, the first step to tackle the crisis is to create a right atmosphere for dialogue. Holding talks with the people of Kashmir must be initiated without precondition because one does not put conditions “when you talk to your people.” It is also important to involve the Hurriyat conglomerate in the talks in the process of finding out a long-term solution.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat has met the Prime Minister to apprise him on the volatile situation after he visited Kashmir in August and held discussions with a wide section of the people in Srinagar. He argued that there has to be a distinction between dealing with stone pelting youth and tackling militants resorting to terrorist violence. The CPI(M) has further asked the government to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) by removing certain draconian provisions. The law, which was imposed in the area since July 1990, allows the Armed Forces to constantly scrutinize, arrest, and shoot people with impunity, without any fear of a court trial.
We have heard the views of the Right and Left. What are the views of the centrist Congress party? Keeping its tradition of doing absolutely nothing when expected to do the most, the party has resorted to do what it historically does the best – delivering empty talks without taking any specific stand, spinning a few lies and patiently wait till the public mood dissipates naturally. The Prime Minister has gently floated a statement that the Centre is ready to “consider” the demand for autonomy in the state “if political parties were unanimous on the issue” knowing fully well that nothing is going to happen since the main opposition party BJP is totally against it. After toying with the idea of announcing an Eid peace package on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, the party core committee has conveniently decided to shelve the idea for the time being considering it too hazardous to implement. The peace package was expected to repeal the AFSPA in certain areas of the state, offer special compensation for the families of the civilians killed in firing by security forces, ensure rehabilitation for surrendered militants and announce an employment package for the educated unemployed of the Valley. The Eid peace package has simply turned into a joke.
In the September 11 all party meeting, Sonia Gandhi has expressed her “serious concern” about the crisis and urged that, “we must ask ourselves why is there so much anger. Why is there so much pain, in particular amongst the youth?” Who are the “we”? If she means the Congress Party then it is a wrong question put to the wrong people that can never find the right answers. If she and her party is really so concerned about Kashmir, why nothing was done to address the issue and consolidate the positive gains achieved during the recent years when the situation was apparently turning normal? Why are the people of Kashmir showing obvious signs of their lost faith in the democratic process when just one and half years ago they have turned up in large numbers to cast their ballots defying calls of poll boycott from the separatists? If the “we” means the other political parties present at the meeting, then can we softly ask who gave her the right to deliver such sermons? It is now clear to the entire country that the Congress President and her grand old party have adapted a programmed habit to take refuge behind the curtains of moral wisdom in extremely grim situations, as now. The people have become habituated with this sneaky exercise of solipsism and listening to the big words that quickly evaporates into thin air. Needless to say, the Kashmiris are also quite familiar about this adulterated morality. It is a truism that leaders of the Congress party have the least idea from where and how to begin the process of finding out a solution.
The worsening state of affairs in Kashmir or the numerous deaths of innocent youngsters have no unique value that can annoy the Congress President or her know-it-all son Rahul – the projected Prime Minister of India. The mother and son duo have neither condemned the brutal atrocity of the security forces and its guilty officers for killing and torturing common citizens at random. Nor have they emitted a single word of criticism against the beleaguered chief minister Omar Abdullah who has earned a universal wrath for terribly mishandling the situation and proving to be extremely novice to run a sensitive state like Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, Rahul Gandhi has publicly rallied behind the “youngster” chief minister and solicited that Omar should be given more time and support! Does the AICC general secretary thinks that Omar Abdullah is running a local youth club? Does he mean that the Kashmiri people have to wait tolerantly till the youthful Omar, absolutely unaware of the ground reality, gets mature enough to deliver? How can he talk so casually about a tragic situation where in the last three months more than hundred civilians have lost their lives?
Omar Abdullah has also responded in a reciprocal way. Instead of listening to the voices from within the Valley with a willing ear, instead of reaching out to the anguished people with a humane and sensitive approach, the chief minister has found it more crucial to praise New Delhi and Rahul Gandhi for their firm support to him and his government. For now, the powerless Omar Abdullah is nothing but a suitable pawn for the Congress led UPA. Whether the pawn understands the crisis of Kashmir and the genuine grievances of the people is therefore an irrelevant matter. And after all, isn’t he a dear friend of the crown prince!
One of the main complains repeatedly expressed by the people of the Valley is that the Center has almost ritualized the practice of planting puppet chief ministers as a supple instrument to rule the state by proxy. This is why a popular upsurge against a snooty and unconcerned chief minister and his dull, corrupt and callous administration has tragically turned into an anti-India upsurge. The stone-pelting protesters on the streets are fuming against the current regime of Omar Abdullah who prefers to spend more time with his New Delhi circles. Very little has been delivered by him after making tall promises in the election meetings. His regime has badly failed to address economic backwardness or initiate any serious efforts to create jobs for the vast majority of the educated youths. Jammu & Kashmir is ranked the second-most corrupt state in India which receives more money than most other states. But little reaches the ultimate user.
For a very long time, the security forces are the only face of democratic India in the Valley. The Kashmiri youth who are born and brought up under the shadow of futile militancy and coercive counter-insurgency in this conflict zone has only seen the repulsive face of Indian democracy through their daily experiences of nocturnal knock on the doors, ransacked homes, random arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, killings by direct or fake encounters, routine humiliation and abuses carried out by the security forces since 1989 in the pretext of maintaining law and order. Unlawful killing of relatives have become an essential part of their lives. The daily dose of lethal violence does not shock them any more. Living under constant fear, suspicion and alienation has permanently etched a deep psychological impact in their minds. And when this simmering situation explodes into a desperate cry for “Azadi” (freedom) and crops up in anti-India graffiti, we blame the “evil forces of Kashmir” right away for inciting anti-India sentiments. How can we expect any positive feeling for the Indian State from them? It is an absurd expectation.
Yet, on the eve of the all party delegation that is scheduled to visit the Valley tomorrow, we want to remain hopeful. We want to believe that the initiative will help to open an almost closed door and generate an atmosphere for sustained political dialogue with all sections in the state, From the deep of our hearts we want to express our sympathy for the families who has lost their near and dear ones in the recent turmoil and extend solidarity to our Kashmiri brothers and sisters. We appeal to them for pursuing their protests peacefully. We also want to tell them that there are a great number of people in this country who does not believe that all expressions of their anguish and grievances are necessarily anti-national. We want to tell you that we really care. We also want to make a heartiest appeal to the political class of India to look into all the wrongs committed in the past and make corrections. For the sake of the country, leave aside all your political scheming and posturing and handle the issue prudently with a great deal of sensitivity.
Images used in the title collage have been taken from the following web sources: