They were so young, so pretty, so innocent, so well-spoken, so intelligent. They were nothing like the images repellent words like terrorists/separatists/extremists/militants – used interchangeably these days – concoct, especially in connection with Kashmir. These two girls were from Kashmir and had come all the way to Kolkata for a book-related event late last month. This was their first foray outside the Valley.
It’s better if they remain anonymous. My faith in our system may not be as abysmal as theirs but it’s still not strong enough for me to put them in harm’s way.
With the valley on the boil, there was no avoiding the Kashmir topic, even though they had come for something quite unrelated. They did not mince words when they said, “we want freedom.” Bluntly declaring their wish on the public forum, they said, “We want freedom from India. We may even go with Pakistan." The whole room was struck dumb.
"But why Pakistan? How will that be any better? As feminists, don’t you think their record on gender issues is much worse than ours?" the room asked. The duo simply shrugged. They said they would do anything to get out of India’s clutches, go to any port in a storm, enemy’s enemy, etc. They added, “They (Pakistan) have always supported us.”
A girl from Manipur tried to bring up Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) but they dismissed her. "It’s gone well beyond a human rights issue for them. That’s too sectional,” they said forbiddingly. “What does it matter when we don’t want to be part of India at all?” they asked.
Aren’t they worried making such statements so openly in 'mainland India'? They shrugged again.
Of course Burhan, only Burhan, never Burhan Wani, who was “our age” (though they didn’t actually know him), looms very large in their minds but they were also very clear that they, their friends and others like them took to the streets not just to protest Burhan’s killing but, more importantly, to make his and their dream of Azadi come true.
That morning, they were most likely there, in one of the many pockets of 'India-Occupied-Kashmir' where Pakistan’s flag was hoisted, next to huge posters of Burhan Wani, and Pakistan’s Independence Day was celebrated – so deep is their psychological divide with the country of their birth.
From all accounts, these girls were just two of the many young men and women, though it’s mostly men out on the streets, who have once again taken a stand against the might of the Indian army, ready to face bullets, pellets and worse. This is the fourth generation of Kashmir’s youth who have taken on the all-powerful Indian state, knowing well the price that they would have to pay.
This time round they are mostly locals, not imports from Pakistan, smart, educated, tech-savvy, and even more disillusioned with the Indian state and its political class. They have also the collective memory of past failures to learn from. From state politicians to the Centre to the omnipresent military, everyone has been taken unawares by the fury and intensity of these youthful protestors and the spontaneity of their outburst. There is no clear leader, no manifesto, just one heartfelt slogan: Azaadi.
Obviously something has gone seriously wrong but, sadly, no one wants to learn what. Some state politicians across party lines have tried to express their anguish but they have long lost their moral authority over their own people. On the other hand New Delhi has always believed that managing the conflict, maintaining status quo and delaying resolution will ultimately sap the movement of all energy and solve this political issue.
Nothing has changed. The All-Party meet in Delhi just two days ago achieved what it could have expected to achieve: nothing. While the opposition talked about removing AFSPA and stopping the pellet gun, sounding well-meaning but clueless, the prime minister made it very clear that no major concessions would be made for the protestors. Instead he upped the ante against Pakistan, making it all out to be their handiwork, thereby ruling out any possibility of giving the protestors a hearing.
But then, the BJP never had much patience with Kashmiri angst while its leaders have almost a pathological fear of being seen as soft. No surprises therefore that the state unit of the party has asked its government to deal with “the challenge posed by separatists and terrorists supported by Pakistan decisively and with an iron hand" which the prime minister and his men and women are faithfully following.
The prime minister has also thrown in his one-size-fits-all solution: development. “It is sad that boys who should be holding laptops, cricket balls have been handed stones in their hands,” he said, forgetting that Burhan Wani and his friends wielded the laptop more than anything else. The prime minister has also held out the promise of “the same bright future for every youth in Kashmir” that is there for every Indian. God help them if their definition of "the same bright future" does not tally with his.
Anyway, to really understand the all-consuming ‘hate India’ sentiment of today's Kashmiri youth is not an easy task. It is much simpler to point fingers at others and take the hard line. Actually, the Indian state knows no better. It’s only answer, whenever faced with youthful revolts like Naxalites or Khalistanis, has been to exercise brute force coupled with some monetary largesse.
In 1967, an American writer, Thomas Merton, published an essay on “War and the Crisis of Language”. His central thesis was, that the habits of mind that make war inevitable are habits of bad language – they grow from uncritical attitudes to power. An outspoken critic of the Vietnam war, Merton relished the comment of an American commander in Vietnam, “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it,” and memorably summed up the philosophy of many supporters of the Vietnam intervention:
“The Asian whose future we are about to decide is either a bad guy or a good guy. If he is a bad guy, he obviously has to be killed. If he is a good guy, he is on our side and he ought to be ready to die for freedom. We will provide an opportunity for him to do so: we will kill him to prevent him falling under the tyranny of a demonic enemy.”
Is this us? Talking about today's Kashmiri youth? Such “double-talk, tautology, ambiguous cliche, self-righteous and doctrinaire pomposity and pseudoscientific jargon,” says Merton, is not just an aesthetic problem. It renders dialogue impossible, and rendering dialogue impossible is the desired goal for those who want to exercise absolute power.
Narendra Modi could have done it, gone the extra mile to woo the youth of Kashmir, no one would have accused him of being a softie, but evidently he doesn't care. This generation, these bright young things brimming with the zest for life, will also be snuffed out, it'll bring 'peace' to the Valley again, only till the next revolt.