On April 9 when the nation began debating Major Leetul Gogoi’s wisdom in tying a civilian onto his jeep to evade attacks from stone pelters in Kashmir, another story that should’ve caught everyone’s imagination was rather lost in the din. In Noorbagh in downtown Srinagar, a boy who is yet to celebrate his tenth birthday was arrested for allegedly pelting stones at security forces and made to spend a cold night in a police lockup. While taking him to a juvenile home the next day where he spent five days, the child was handcuffed and pushed to the ground by a cop who hit him with the butt of his rifle in his left leg before dragging him into a police vehicle. He has been charged with rioting, assaulting and obstructing government officials and endangering their lives, and being armed with a deadly weapon.
As evidence, the police showed his family a picture of him standing barehanded in the street where violence had taken place. The terrified boy told The Indian Express that he didn’t pelt any stones but was “only watching the tamasha”. He also said that the policemen laughed at him as they made fun of his frail physique, calling him a mongoose. While he is out on bail, the case against him is pending in court. The child has stopped smiling or going out of his house to play since the incident. He fears that the police will take him back.
When I try and imagine the future of this little boy, I dread what I see. This child has been scarred irreversibly for life and the ongoing court case against him will only make things worse. Given the situation in Kashmir, he is likely to observe similar injustices meted out to many other minors and adults that would affect them during their lifetimes. Just a few years down the line he will possibly turn into another disgruntled youth who will either fearlessly throw rocks at security forces, chanting slogans calling for azaadi, or will show up with a gun in a social media post declaring himself to be a militant. This is how a vicious cycle has for years been feeding the conflict in Kashmir.
The situation in the Kashmir Valley today is the worst ever, worse than the 1990s when militancy was at its peak. The atmospherics today are very different from two decades ago when most militants infiltrated from Pakistan that provided training and funds for violence in the Valley. A few hundred resentful youths from the Indian side crossed over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to return after training and were affiliated to one militant outfit or another.
At present while the level of armed militancy has dropped, there is a parallel movement being carried out by boys-next-door who have no formal military training or sufficient finances but are unafraid to give up their lives for autonomy of their motherland.
These young boys, who can often be seen in media pictures aiming rocks at security personnel, are a product of the circumstances they were born into and have lived through. They grew up internalising the conflict — assimilating the violence and aggression, angered at being coerced into obedience, seeking revenge for the injustices and indignities meted out to their parents, brothers and sisters in the name of security. They have grown up seeing that massive human rights’ violations under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA are the least cause of concern in New Delhi that recently followed the strategy of blinding young rebellious Kashmiris with pellet guns to scare them into submission.
The scope of the Kashmiri youth’s frustrations was evident the day teenage school girls wearing the traditional hijab were out vandalising the streets. These young men and women are unafraid to be hurt, maimed or even die during violent confrontations with the police and paramilitary forces. They collectively defy their parents who warn them against taking up violence, fearing they might lose their children the way hundreds of Kashmiri sons and daughters were lost over the years. Interestingly, these youths also seek education and careers, aspiring to become doctors, engineers, teachers, even IAS officers. Thousands of them appeared for the board exams this year despite tremendous unrest. However, they are desperate to change the status quo in the Valley that no one has ever made an effort to change.
Successive governments in New Delhi have underestimated the significance of engaging the average Kashmiri to resolve the conflict. There has never been any effort to recognise or resolve the root problem. Every action has been aimed at controlling the sporadically violent situations and ensuring that New Delhi has an upper hand. Kashmiris have been arm twisted into compliance and Kashmir has been continually used as a battleground for a clash of the Indian and Pakistani egos. New Delhi has never attempted to make Kashmiris believe that the idea of India is much better than the idea of autonomy.
Had there been initiation of a phased withdrawal of AFSPA a few years ago when the situation was stable, the pro-India sentiment would have multiplied. On the contrary, India has made a mockery of democracy by defending the police, paramilitary and army personnel who have indulged in violations of people’s rights in the Valley in the name of public safety. This has largely alienated the Kashmiris, especially the youth who have never seen better times.
The rest of India has had a chauvinist and hyper-nationalist approach towards Kashmir. A large number of people in the country have visceral hatred of Kashmiris, which perhaps emanates from the fact that they are Muslim (except the indigenous Kashmiri Pandit population that was forced to flee the Valley in the 1990s). This hatred from the rest of India clubbed with constant indignities has helped spread radical Islam as well as a pro-Pakistan sentiment among the youths in Kashmir though the Valley has traditionally been following the forbearing Sufi Islam.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, he had an edge to steer the narrative on Kashmir in a different direction. Kashmiris have had hopes from the BJP since its former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had in 2003 made them feel for the first time that New Delhi did indeed care about the people of the Valley and not just the land. However, Modi has been reluctant to engage the people and has strengthened the Army’s despotism in the Valley that has resulted in more hopelessness than ever. The Centre’s refusal to talk to separatists and different factions of the Hurriyat have brought them all together against New Delhi.
New Delhi must pay heed to alternative discourses not just from Kashmiris but from those Army personnel, intelligence officers and scholars who have spent decades understanding the conflict and have been warning against the policy of oppression that has been followed till now. No military solution can contain the Kashmir conflict as it hasn’t been able to work till now. Kashmir is certainly a political issue, but it’s also an emotive issue and people’s emotions right now are out of control.