By Santosh Bhartiya
South Kashmir is the most talked-about region of Kashmir, because of intense militant activities and the Army operations – “Operation All-Out” – being carried out in the region. A major part of South Kashmir is considered to be the areas affected by the militancy, which gets local support. Anyone from outside thinks twice before entering into this part of Kashmir, even locals avoid coming out of their homes alone after sunset; they go out in groups of two or three. They fear that the security forces would take them for militants or sympathizers of militants and they would easily come into trouble.
Angry youth of Kashmir
I got a call from Bashir Asad from Srinagar, asking me to attend a seminar as a participant in a degree college in south Kashmir. He told me that the students of the region wanted to exchange their views with me. Could I come to Srinagar after one day? For me getting Bashir Asad’s call was a surprise but I took that as an opportunity, because when Kashmir was burning in 2016, I along with Abhay Dubey and Ashok Wankhede was the first to get there. In that trip we interacted with people from every walk of lives and tried to understand their pain and acquaint the country with that pain. Although I got many opportunities to visit Kashmir after, I never got a chance to interact students exclusively. On my previous trip, I got a chance to meet students from Kashmir University in Srinagar, but current invitation was an opportunity for me to understand the hearts and minds of Kashmiri youth. Therefore without wasting a moment, I gave my assent and soon was sitting next to the students and teachers in the seminar room of the said degree college.
Before entering into the seminar hall, the principal cautioned me: “these are students and like all students may ask question and at time may become naughty.” Indeed, I was expecting to hear some slogan shouting and some acrimonious questions. So when I was asked to speak first, I related them some of the anecdotes associated with my student days. For example, how we gave hard time to our teachers in the class. This released the tension a bit and made the room at ease. Thereafter, I related a few stories of my visit to the renowned Girl’s College of Lahore. I told them how when I stood up to address the students I was bombarded with question from girls, and how it seemed a war between India and Pakistan was raging in that hall. But when I came out of that hall I saw a few girls in a corner. They came over to me smilingly and said, “Sir, you are similar to us.” “That that was one of the best compliments I had ever received in my life,” I told the student this college of south Kashmir. The atmosphere became a little more relaxed. Enunciating my reason to come, I invited them to speak: “I have come here to know as to what is brewing in the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri youth and what exactly they want to achieve.”
The first speaker – who was probably a 19 to 20 year old young man – poured out the pain of Kashmir in a very coherent and logical manner. He told the participants that the young people here are not only emotionally charged, but also agitated at the level of ideas. A girl student sitting next to that speaker shared her views on the things that are happening in Kashmir and the problems faced by the people. Then one speaker after another they lined up to speak, in total almost eight or ten of them expressed their views. While listening to them I was making out where the Indian government was erring in its efforts. The Government of India has no plan to engage Kashmiri youth and let them express their point of views. A government which claims to represent 125 crore people is unable to explain its point of view to a few thousand young people of Kashmir. The pain and anger of Kashmiri youth gave me the impression that the Indian government is losing its opportunities on every-day basis.
Not engaging youth is a mistake
Thereafter I was taken to a higher secondary school, about 30 kilometers away from the college. The school was located in a village 6 kilometers off the main road. Here too I was welcomed by the students in a room. It soon cleared to me that the students present were the most smart and intelligent students of the school. When I was asked to speak, I requested them to speak as I wanted to listen to them. Interestingly like the degree college here to the students began speaking in English. I asked them politely: “do you speak in English at your homes?” In response, we got a small roar of laughter. I told them I would like to hear their Urdu. Then all of the five to seven students, who stand up to speak, spoke in sublime Urdu. They too express the same sentiment as to why pain of Kashmir fell on the deaf ears of the authorities? The boys and girls were relating the the happenings around them, suffering of their neighbors, their relatives, their friends. While listening to them, I was trying to make out their feeling of helplessness that conspicuous on their faces. I was also thinking as to how mistaken the Government of India was by choosing not to talk to the Kashmiri youth.
The news of my visit to the degree college reached there before me, so a few reporters of local news channels, including ETV, Zee Network and Gulistan News, were waiting for me. I told them that as a journalist I understand the difference between efforts of the government and aspiration of the young people. That’s why I would appeal to the government to start a dialogue with the youth of Kashmir. I told the reporters, that the government should form three or four groups of imminent personalities and send those groups to the universities, degree colleges and secondary schools in order to read the minds of young men and women of Kashmir. The reporter told me that people in Kashmir admire me and that my face is very familiar face in Kashmir. They told me that the coverage of Kashmir in my newspaper and my public-spirited approach vis-à-vis Kashmir on TV debate had a lot of effect here. They told me that I must go to Tral. I kept asking them as to why I should go to Tral, but they did not respond.
From Higher Secondary School, I came out thinking that these 16 to 18 years old boys and girls are reaching at what point of despair! At both the places I concluded in my mind that these young people have forgotten the difference between life and death; they are not afraid at all of death. They think that death is better option than whatever they are seeing happening around them. If the feeling that death is better than life gain currency among youth, then that is a matter of shame for those who are in power because people choose and assign them the responsibility of solving their problems.
I return to Srinagar having a desire to visit South Kashmir again. On the way we saw Army personnel. After almost every ten minutes, a group of army personnel was stopping vehicles and allowing people to go ahead only after checking them. But it was amazing that in South Kashmir, where ordinary people fear to tread or do not saunter around, there was only one class of people who had hardly any fear, and they were tourists. Tourists had the freedom to go the places of their liking. Perhaps the army personnel also recognize them, and probably the militants too let them move around. A few weeks ago, a tourist was trapped in a stone pelting and was killed. Everyone had expressed his heartfelt condolences on his death. On the return journey to Srinagar from the Degree College and Higher Secondary School I was wondering how intelligent the boys and girls studying in these institutions are! They are well acquainted with the happenings across the world. They have burning desire to become something: some want to become engineers, some doctors, and some other IPS officers. But, they are angry with the system and furious with the government which runs the system. Why the government fails to understand this anger and why it is not doing enough to ameliorate that anger? I could not find the answer even after think a lot as to what can be the logic or strategy behind that snub?
Potential to become International flashpoint
The next morning, I met Professor Abdul Ghani Butt, a senior Hurriyat leader, who had talked at length about Kashmir for one and a half hours. Professor Butt is very clear in his thought and candid in his enunciation. He not only understands the pain Kashmir, but also understands the international situation vis-à-vis Kashmir. He in a very unambiguous term told me that India, Pakistan and the people here are unable to understand many realities associated with the region. One of the realities is that China has entered into Pakistan and has a big-time investment there. America has investment in both Pakistan and India.
Russia keeps an eye on the situation bearing in mind the pain and anger of its defeat in Afghanistan; it will not let America win in the region. In that case, the war between the two countries cannot be an option, only the dialogue is the way out. Whether it starts today or a year later but the dialogue will be between India and Pakistan. According to him now America, China and Russia will also push hard to become part of that, because Kashmir has become the most important and alluring region for international forces. Professor Butt told me that people forty years ago had transferred their pain and anger to their next generation. Today, that pain and anger has successfully been transferred to the upcoming generation. He said that by delaying dialogue the government is doing wrong. There was complete truth in Professor Butt’s utterances. All the people I met in Kashmir were in favour of having meaningful dialogue.
What made Kashmiris fearless?
After meeting Professor Abdul Ghani Butt, I interacted with seven traders from Srinagar. They related a shocking story to me. Their leader told me that three days ago they were on a business tour to Shopian. Shopian is the center of the most troubled areas of Kashmir, where a hartal was still being observed. They went there to have a meeting with traders. But, some young people came to participate in the meeting and among the crowd there were some militants as well. The traders put forth their views and said that the trade in Kashmir has almost finished, and traders are facing various kinds of problems. Schools are not running properly and students are unable to read. On this, the people from the crowd stand up and said that “if business get ruined, let it be. Allah has created us, if He wants to see us alive, He will also arrange food for us.” But the next thing that these traders told me has not yet come out in public domain. The militants present there publicly said that “our fight for freedom has reached to the point where we need a young man from every household” and the people present in the crowd said that they will give a young man from every house.
In south Kashmir Militants are respected, because they are considered as great warriors, fighting for freedom. The family from where a young man takes arms and goes to the forests or mountains is highly regarded. That is why a militant killed is termed as “shaheed” and 20 to 40 thousand people attend his last rites. These traders told me that the people plainly told them that they are unconcerned about anything. Sacrificing their lives is a matter of great pride for them. People present in that meeting told that they want to put their children on the path of Allah. That is, parents have no fear of the possible death of their children. They said that the government should stop the pretension and talk directly to the Hurriyat. They said that when the current interlocutor was appointed he was given warm welcome, but now people do not take him seriously.
Doval doctrine didn’t work
After interacting with traders, I went to meet members of civil society, comprising writers, professors, and retired civil servants. They all were in favour of initiating dialogue: “Only when the dialogue starts will we be able to know whether or not the the government, after so many years, has sensed the hardship and pain we are going through.” They had bitter memories of the Manmohan Singh government, which had sent a team of interlocutors in the valley and sat on their report. As far as Modi government is concerned it has not shown even a half-hearted intent towards resolving the problem during the last four years of its rule. The members of civil society told me that Hurriyat leaders still command respect of people and most people in Kashmir believe in them. Initiating dialogue with the Hurriyat will ease the tensions in the state and the people of Kashmir will feel that the government has taken a step forward, even if the talk fails to go anywhere. One of the concerns of the civil society was the government’s effort to tarnish the image of the Hurriyat. They asked “when the time to dialogue will come, with whom will the government hold the talk?”
Moreover, the members of civil society said that Doval doctrine has proved to be useless in Kashmir. They told me that Doval Saheb’s counter-insurgency strategy in Kashmir was meant to crush people and to suppress them and then militancy would be finished. But in last four years more new entrants have joined the ranks and files of militants than the militants killed during this period. The death of Burhan Wani’s worked as a catalyst for rise in anti-government sentiments. Now Doval Saheb’s strategy has failed and even security forces concede the fact that local youths are joining militancy in Kashmir, though most of them do not survive more than six months or a year; they invariably get killed in encounters with security froces. If despite this fact 18-22 year old young men are joining or supporting militancy, then there is some basic flaw in government’s handling of the situation. The members of civil society told me a very interesting fact. They said that earlier only people of Jammu clamour for bifurcation of the state of Jammu-Kashmir, but now this demand is started emanating from the people of Kashmir valley.
Misinformation propagated by news channels
A renowned professor expressed her dejection over “the poisonous disinformation propagated against Kashmiris across India by news channels”. She said that she was watching a news channel the other day. A woman, taking exception to the use of pallet guns on demonstrators in Tamil Nadu, said on TV that “Tamil Nadu is not Kashmir, where you can use pallet gun on people!” However, she corrected herself immediately, saying pallet guns should not be used in Kashmir as well. The professor said that news channels have spread more poison on Kashmir; civil society too appear to miffed with news channels and so were the students who believe that news channels and their anchors in Delhi are contributing heavily in aggravating the problems in Kashmir. Presentation of Kashmir on TV Channels is disconcerting and emotionally disquieting for the people of Kashmir – especially the way news channels take up the issue and the way their anchors raise the subject and pass on comments. This also compels the people of Kashmir to think: “Is it the proof of Kashmir being an integral part of India?” They said that “if we have to go through daily humiliations, we are called militants and Pakistan supporters, then why should we stay with you? And then those who are seeking Azadi are right.” Except for NDTV they blamed all the news channels to be part of it; but when NDTV too criticized the Kashmir youth, nothing remains to be seen.
When I visited Burhan’s house
In the degree college the TV Journalists had proposed me to go to Tral. After Shopian, Tral is the most famous name of South Kashmir. The place is also known as the home of Burhan Wani, whose funeral procession was attended by more than 5 lakh people in 2016. He was very popular in this area, considered locally as a soldier who was fighting against their miseries. On the way to the Tral, I saw the bunkers and the Army Jawans. I saw people roaming around fearlessly. Although I was told in Srinagar that I should be careful while going to Tral and should return by 5 pm, the name of Burhan Wani and all the ominous warnings had made me fearless. I decided that I would go to Burhan Wani’s place first. His house is located at the beginning of the town. Upon reaching his house I found his father sitting alone in the lawn. After the formal introduction, I slowly drew him into conversations. A moment later he was speaking and I was listening absolutely engrossed; I was listening to a man whose two sons were killed. He told me how the militancy allures young people. They find the answer to what they see and found around them in militancy and take arms and and embrace death. I noticed that men and women of the village were coming to fetch water from Burhan’s house. I asked if there was no water in the village. Burhan’s father told me that “there is a spring in this house, which has been flowing consistently perhaps from thousands of years. The water flowing from this spring is calcium rich. So people from the area fetch water from here.” I saw a Sikh men and women taking water from there. They live in Tral and have merged with the local population. The local people, especially the Sikhs, had some good word for Burhan’s mannerism. Then it occurred to me that it must be Burhan Wani’s behavior, his demeanour that attracted more than 5 lakh people at his funeral. Burhan’s brother Khalid was also killed in an encounter. When his father about those two encounters, he did not say anything and remain silent.
Then I talked to the people of Tral who told me that Burhan Wani had joined militancy in 2010. His brother Khalid went to the mountains to meet him once, on his return he was apprehended by the security personnel. When they found that Khalid is Burhan’s brother, they beat him and asked him to take them to place where he met Burhan. Khalid took the security personnel to the place, but by then Burhan Wani had left that place. According to the locals, the lower back part of Khalid’s head was hit by a rifle butt. When Khalid took his hand backward, he was pushed on the ground and all his teeth were broken. People told me that his face was bandaged with only the nose visible, because all his teeth were probably broken from the kick of the boot or butt of a rifle. People present there said that according to their information no encounter had happen between the police and Burhan Wani.
The locals related an interesting story about Burhan Wani’s encounter. They said that when Burhan Wani came to know that security personnel were planning an attack Amarnath pilgrims, he got disturbed. He asked his two contacts in Tral to arrange a phone call with the local MLA. They went to the MLA and facilitated talk with him. Burhan Wani told the MLA that he will never attack on Amarnath pilgrims, but some people wanted to carry out the purported attack “in our name.” The MLA immediately called Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and asked her permission to meet her. Mehbooba Mufti called them immediately. The MLA arrived within half an hour and related everything to Mehbooba Mufti. Mehbooba Mufti called the DGP and passed all the information she had received from the MLA. The DGP, immediately after coming out of Chief Minister’s office, put the MLA’s number on surveillance, and it became known the identity of the two boys who facilitated talk between the MLA and Burhan Wani. They got apprehended and given a third degree. They were asked to take the police where Burhan could be found. Without the knowledge of the local police, a Special Task Force raided the hideout of Burhan Wani and killed him in that encounter. I do not know how true these stories are, but these stories are on everyone’s lips in Tral. It should be evident that Tral and Shopian are the two big centers of militant activities and intense Army movement.
Undeterred by army, bullet and death
According to the locals the army personnel often barged into their homes at night and after throwing the male members out, ask women to cook for them, and then spend night there. I cannot ascertain the veracity of such stories, but such stories are scattered all over the South Kashmir, which points to the fact that the army is not on good terms with the local people. My trip to Tral also made it clear to me that as long as militants enjoy the local support, end of militancy is not possible, at least not with bullet. Everyone knows how many young men (most of them aged between 20 and 25 years) have joined militancy. As of now, there is no report of girls being involved in militancy, but from the attitudes of young women, it seems that very soon we would get to know that girls too have joined the ranks of militants.
The government claims that NIA’s operation against Hurriyat leaders in Srinagar has abated stone pelting, but the people in Kashmir told me an altogether different story. They said that stone pelting has not only become even more intense, but also taken a different turn. Earlier only the police or CRPF jawans were targets, now the sites of encounter between militant and the Army also witness incidents of stone pelting. They said that on such sites five hundred to thousand people come out and throw stones at the army personnel. In some cases army has to stop its operation because of stone pelting. The stone-pelters have no fear of the army, bullet, or death; their support to militant is direct. Army Chief General Rawat’s warning that those who throw stone at the time Army operation will be treated as militant has failed to yield desired result.
While returning from Trail was going through a sense of alarm that the history of Vietnam might not get repeated here in Kashmir, especially in South Kashmir. On many occasions young people invoked Vietnam War, saying America lost in Vietnam because the locals were against them. At some places people also minded that the USSR disintegrated because it lost its war in Afghanistan. These things forced me to write that the government should review its Kashmir policy and work out a plan according the prime minister’s statement that the “issue will not be resolved through bullet but through talks”.
Kashmir BJP leaders also favor talks
After my visit to South Kashmir, I felt that I should meet those leaders of the BJP who played an important role in establishing the party in Srinagar or in Kashmir. Darkshan Andrabi is one of those leaders. I called upon her and had a long conversation. She believes that the youth are being misled and misdirected. She asked: “what kind of freedom we seek and what do we do of freedom? Nobody is clear about the concept of freedom.” She became silent on to the point as to why the BJP government does not hold talk with the people of Kashmir. After a pause she replied that she is in the party, and she always requested the government to have a dialogue with the people of Kashmir and should address their doubts.
The next day I met another BJP leader Hina Butt. She is a medical practitioner. Her father was a Member of Parliament and a Member of Legislative Assembly. She contested Assembly elections, but lost. She is understood to be close to the Prime Minister and meet him almost after every two months. I had a long meeting with her as well. Initially, her attitude was hard and she kept on putting the blame of the problem beset Kashmir on the illusions and doubts “being spread successfully”. But my question as to why the disillusionment of Kashmiri youth is so much that death becomes an easier option for him left a shed of anxiety on her face. She conceded that “yes, we are faltering in our efforts of having talks or we have been unable put in the efforts to explain our point to the people. She made clear that she herself request the Prime Minister to initiate a serious and meaningful dialogue.
Corruption on rise in Kashmir
While returning to Srinagar, I stopped over to meet an RTI activist. There were seven to eight people sitting at his place. During our interaction I came to know as to what kind of corruption prevalent in Srinagar. These people were experts in their respective fields, but they do not have opportunities because of corruption. For example, the tender of supplying materials in government hospitals are given to mechanics instead of qualified people. These young men belongs to different trades told me as to how those who are working with MES are cheated, how money plays a role in the supply of medicine, how education department is infested with corruption, and how corruption rules promotion in the co-operative department? They all had so much to say that each of them need three thousand words to tell their individual stories. People of Jammu-Kashmir also aware of the power of RTI and they use it to fight for their causes. But the irony is that people in Srinagar are enchanted so much by politics that corruption flourishes under the guise of politics. Hina Butt also was of the opinion that compare to other states, Jammu-Kashmir gets more money, but earlier the money was not utilized and returned to the centre. Even today the development projects are not run as efficiently as they should be.
Why police picket in front of schools?
Now the question once again is related to the government. Does the government oblivious of happenings around it? I believe that the government knows everything, but the agencies working for the government make such a strategy that lands the government in trouble. For example, what is the need to keep a police pickets in front of schools? When the government knows that people get agitated by the presence of police, then keeping police picket at school gates is only inviting trouble and tension. On Friday, Mirwaiz Moulvi Omar Farooq went to lead Friday prayers in the Jamia Masjid. People coming out of mosque after saying their pray got agitated at the site of police, they shouted slogans and threw stoned at them. In response the police resorted to firing pellet guns, in which a dozen of protesters got their eyes injured. As soon as I came to know about this incident, I called a few people I knew. One of them related me an incident of the same Friday when he was passing by a school. The school was over for the day. Four children came out of school. They saw a few CRPF jawans sitting near a house in a corner. They started pelting the soldiers with stones and then fled from the scene. If the government removes such pickets from near the schools and mosques then such incidents will not occur. But the local officer deliberately deploys security forces near schools and mosques, where there is least chance of any kind of violence. Here too the civil society people raised an important question. They said suppose some militants are hiding in a house, when a five hundred strong force could not kill them, or even if when they killed them, they blow the house, believing some militants may still be there. That house does not belong to militants but a helpless ordinary man.
Things need to be done by the Central Government?
I feel that the Government of India needs to re-calibrate its Kashmir policy. If one thinks that killing one million people will bring peace, then it is nothing but a daydream. The only solution to the problem is that the prime minister should appoint a sensible person from his cabinet to interact with Kashmiri people, including the Hurriyat and students. What difference will it make if the students will shout slogan against India and for Pakistan? It will only calm down their outburst. At one time, in order to tease Indian government, Pakistani flags were put on every house in Kashmir. When the government did not take note of that then Chinese flags began to replace Pakistani ones. When Chinese flags did not work, stone-pelting become norms. The stone pelting is not confined to Kashmir only; it is also thriving in other part of the country, where people vent their ire resorting to it. The recent example is from Mughal Sarai, where train was halted for six hours, making the passengers angry. When Rajdhani Express passed through the station, the angry passengers shower the train with stones, breaking few of its windows. Why the train was delayed for six hours, nobody had answer, but when people hurled stones at Rajdhani Express, that became news. As for the news channels, before saying anything about Kashmir they should keep their citizen duty in mind. The people who get offended by their language, by their demeanor and by their presentation are people of their own country.
My visit to South Kashmir and my interactions with the students have made me a little scared. Nonetheless, Kashmiri people want people from North India to visit Kashmir and take a firsthand account of what is happening there, and whether what are being depicted on television channels do really exist. There is a Krishna Dhaba in Srinagar, which is a vegetarian dhaba. The tourist as well the locals, both Hindus and Muslims, come here and relish vegetarian food. I too went to have something at that dhaba. I came across some local people who told me that “we all live here in complete harmony and love, which Delhi’s television channels dislike. They keep leveling false accusations against us. Nobody fights with anyone here. All live together in love and harmony.” My visit to Kashmir has made it clear that the government should open its eyes vis-à-vis Kashmir as soon as possible and should open channels of dialogue with the people of Kashmir in humane way.