By Wajahat Habibullah
And so, we have seen the ever-confounding Valley of Kashmir pass through another bloody phase of her history, with the violent death of more than a hundred people, so many of them children, between June 2010 and the close of September. With the installation of an elected legislature in 2008 in an election in which people from every part of the Valley, particularly the young, had participated, the trauma that had wracked the State in the wake of the 2008 Amarnath Yatra had seemed a thing of the past. The pervasive political demand at the time, even among those termed “separatists”, was indeed only for self-government within the Indian Union. And yet the cry in the streets of Srinagar in September 2010 was a ringing call for “azadi”. What happened?
In April this year three young men, Muhammad Shafi Lone, Shahzad Ahmed and Riyaz Ahmed were killed in what was claimed to have been an armed encounter with terrorists in Machhil, close to the LoC in Kupwara district. Responding to complaints of a fake encounter, staged to claim the reward dispensed for killing infiltrators, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah asked the police to make an enquiry. That, in its preliminary report, identified an Indian army major as instrumental in the killing of the three who, far from being “infiltrators”, were residents of Nadihal in Rafiabad. Yet by June 3, 2010, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, speaking in Baramulla, was calling upon people to protest what he claimed was a cover-up effort. And following a stone-pelting demonstration in Srinagar on June 11, Tufail Mattoo, all of 17 and returning home from tuition, was chased by the J&K police, firing tear gas shells and obviously mistaking the child for a stone-pelter from among those with whom they had jousted all day. The boy died, triggering a state-wide agitation. In Sopore CRPF firing again took young lives. Although an enquiry was again ordered by the CM, against the objections of the CRPF high command, the uprising of the youth spread from into south Kashmir when three teenaged boys, Shujat-ul-Islam, Ishtiyaq Ahmad Khanday and Imtiyaz Ahmad Itoo were shot dead in a private compound in the SK colony area of Anantnag on June 29 by pursuing policemen. An enquiry report, called for in 24 hours, was submitted to the state assembly in October 2010, finding the firing unprovoked. But the man arrested was a constable.
The turmoil by then had spread from the cities into the countryside. The rising death toll of children brought women onto the streets for the first time since the early ’90s. And by this time the agitation that had convulsed the Valley had become a campaign for “azadi”, leading the CM to claim before his state assembly at the beginning of October, as violence subsided, that the movement was directed not against his government, but was a Quit Kashmir movement against India.
Months before the Machhil incident, the radicalisation of the young had alarmed intellectuals and political leaders with an ear to the public. I was told by a Kashmiri friend, himself a supporter of “azadi,” of this phenomenon as early as mid-2009, when instances of stone-pelting had begun to escalate. And although the CM recognised that there was a problem, he dismissed the resulting incidents of stone-pelting as the work of hooligans from congested downtown Srinagar, requiring law enforcement. The remaining elected leadership not only failed to respond, but sought to exploit it to its political advantage. But why was the youth so susceptible?
This is a generation born and brought up in an environment suffused with violence. Singularly lacking has been the building of any sense of purpose for the young. Open elections gave a glimmer of hope, but were followed by the usual one-upmanship, the bane of Kashmiri politics. Because of the drying up of government employment and the disdain of the educated for manual labour, the shortage of private investment have kept opportunities low, subject to patronage alone. A number of young people took to voluntary work through NGOs, but were actively discouraged by intelligence agencies. Omar Abdullah’s government took the initiative in passing a right to information law in 2009, around which a number of young people rallied. Yet the government dawdled in its enforcement, with volunteers actually facing victimisation. And the national media, catering to an upper-middle-class audience, showed young Kashmiris a picture, not always true, of a “shining India” with unending opportunities, of which the Kashmiri youth felt that they were no part. So, to convince these impressionable young minds that they were deliberately sidelined, despite their having abjured violence, was simple. It was projected as active discrimination because they happened to be Muslim, to which the state government, described as a “puppet” of the Centre, was party.
Stone-pelting has been a traditional form of protest in Kashmir since Sheikh Abdullah’s days of resistance to Dogra rule, leading a population without access to weaponry of any other kind. While recourse to this tradition clearly reflects acknowledgement within Kashmir of the failure of violence dependent on weaponry diligently supplied by Pakistan’s ISI, the spread of the present outbreak is a clear demonstration of the failure of political resolve from a leadership elected through a free and fair election. A senior police officer who I asked at the outbreak of the agitation as to why the police either overreacted, or simply placed the paramilitary CRPF in the forefront, bemoaned the fact that whenever firm action was taken and identified ringleaders arrested, they were promptly released under pressure from senior political leaders.
What then is “azadi”? Farooq Abdullah will tell you that no two Kashmiris will give you a definitive answer of what he or she means by the word. Does it stand for independence? That is how it has generally been construed in India. Yet, Kashmir’s aspiration for azadi is rooted in its conscious accession to India. When he discussed the choices before Kashmir with UNCIP head Joseph Korbel in September 1948, Farooq’s father Sheikh Abdullah made his preference clear. In his words: “there is a possibility of independence under the joint guarantee of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and the Soviet Union. I would be willing to meet the leader of Azad Kashmir, Ghulam Abbas, with whom I was once tied by bonds of friendship and a common struggle... But even should Kashmir’s powerful neighbors agree to give us a guarantee of independence, I doubt that it could last for long.”
So to the Kashmiri leadership accession to India represented winning true freedom. Thereafter whenever the Kashmiris have felt their freedom compromised, they have blamed it on India’s “betrayal”. Hence the call for azadi, without a thought to whether independence and freedom are compatible in a state the size of Kashmir contiguous to two rising military powers, India and China, and the latter’s ally, Pakistan.
Will simply withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and conceding the demand of the state assembly of 2002 for greater autonomy bring closure? Although it might be reasonably argued that these are components of what might be arrived at as a compromise, equally true is the fact that these issues have little to do with the present demands. Their induction into the present debate was at best a red herring. And as for the demand for autonomy, the last thing that the agitating youth have been demanding is a return of their state government to the powers enjoyed by it in 1953, the gist of the autonomy demand of the National Conference.
The task for the Kashmiri leadership is clear. Improved policing has brought down the killing. The lull — and it must be recognised as no more than that — must be used to bring the people of the state, and the Valley in particular, towards participation in governance, with the concomitant official accountability which the rest of India is guaranteed. As for the Union of India, the answer is incredibly simple — allow to the Kashmiris the same respect and dignity that is considered a right by every Indian citizen. If we can do this, this agitation will be remembered only as a rude aftershock to the tremor of the ’90s. Failure risks a relapse into the reckless violence that we had hoped forever gone.
The writer is a former Chief Information Commissioner, Government of India
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi