Sense of despair and disaffection is high in Kashmir

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Former BBC journalist Andrew Whitehead

Young Kashmiris have largely lost confidence not only in the mainstream political parties but also the various separatist groups and their leaders, former BBC journalist Andrew Whitehead and the author of the book A Mission in Kashmir tells Riyaz Wani

Edited Excerpts from an interview •

How different is Kashmir of 2017 from the one in the nineties that you extensively covered?

Well, the Indian security presence in 1993 – when I first came to Srinagar – was overwhelming, and much more pervasive than today. There was just one hotel for visiting correspondents to stay at, Ahdoo’s … there was an informal curfew every evening … there was a really oppressive feel to the place. That has changed, and for the better. But the anger that Kashmiris felt then is, if anything, more deeply felt today.

What do you make of the Hurriyat’s response to the evolving Kashmir situation? Of late, they are facing some public flak about their strategy.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on this.

Growing trend of protests near encounter sites and the massive participation in militant funerals are the disturbing two new features of the Kashmir situation. They reflect a degree of fearlessness among the youth about the consequences. Many fear if nothing is done to address the rage, the situation can go out of hand and may take an even more ominous form.

One elderly Kashmiri woman I met in Srinagar recently said to me that in the nineties, young Kashmiris were angry and scared, and now they are angry and fearless. I think there’s some truth in that. The sense of despair and disaffection is high – and young Kashmiris, as far as I can see, have largely lost confidence not only in the mainstream political parties but also the various separatist groups and their leaders. This makes the situation particularly volatile and unsettled. It also emphasises the urgency for political steps towards a settlement, without which the security situation could once again deteriorate sharply.

Many are looking at CPEC as a geo-political game-changer which in the long term could influence the situation in Kashmir. There is also some hope that it could actually encourage the resolution of the lingering issue.

CPEC is undoubtedly important but while the line of control remains more or less hermetically sealed, I think the impact on the Kashmir Valley will remain very limited. It is a tantalising reminder of how central Kashmir once was in trade to China and Central Asia as well as to the south, but I don’t see an early prospect of that role resuming.

Your book Mission in Kashmir is largely about the events of 1947 that gave birth to Kashmir problem and one of the world’s most abiding geo-political rivalries. How difficult was it to separate the events from the politics surrounding them

My book was based in large part on oral history and personal testimony and it was sometimes difficult to unravel memories shared in public with current political loyalties, Having said that, when people recount events in which they were directly involved – when they are telling you what happened to them rather than reciting a broader narrative – they strive hard to tell you things as they were. And that sharing of personal memory is the key to a more complex and nuanced account of how the Kashmir crisis erupted in 1947. It challenges the established nationalist narratives – Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri.

A landslide win in Uttar Pradesh has further strengthened an absolute majority BJP government at the Centre. The party also shares power in J&K. Considering that the party believes in the state’s complete integration into India, do you think the party might take now some decisive steps in this direction?

I understand the apprehension, but I doubt that this government will seek complete integration. The costs for them outweigh the benefits. Article 370 is more of totemic than real significance, but I think it’s unlikely that it will be diminished further, above all because the response in the Kashmir Valley would be so overwhelmingly hostile.

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