Discrimination, disillusionment: What drives Kashmir youths to militancy?

This article is based on a school classroom interaction with scores of teenagers in late April - when Firstpost had published an earlier version.

The students made it clear that they have no time for 'leaders' of the Hurriyat - echoing what Mirwaiz Umar Farooq too had said. Particularly after 'the Arab Spring' five years ago, it is not only insufficient but counterproductive for national security establishments to make deals with political and religion-based organisations. Nor are economic packages enough at this point.

The all-party delegation that visits Kashmir on Sunday will not have much opportunity to engage with teenagers of the sort who are typically on the streets with stones and barricades.

The students in that classroom in one of the worst affected areas ranged from 12 to 18 - like those now on the streets. This is what they said in April:

The 12-year-old child looks angelic as he stands at the back of the classroom in his bright uniform. The room seems cramped, with the rows of neatly turned out students. Gradually gathering confidence, the child relates a litany of complaints. His theme is discrimination. The army kills Kashmiris, he says. Kashmiri students are beaten and badly treated in states across India while outsiders are safe in Kashmir.

Water cannons are used in other states, live bullets in Kashmir.

Representational image. Image courtesy: Reuters

Representational image. Image courtesy: Reuters

They fire shells at schools, he adds, his eyes dilating a bit. A teargas shell was apparently fired outside a nearby school during an exam a few days ago when common people gathered to protest and throw stones during an armed encounter between militants and forces. The students view it as an unjustifiable tactic; it rankles terribly. So do memories of teargas and the blast from 'sound bombs' that they have experienced.

These do not repress.

They incite.

Beef is accepted in 'our religion', says another student, but Kashmiris have been oppressed over beef. Dadri is in their minds... and Udhampur.

This room full of students ranging from 12 to 18 years of age has been summoned from the playing field by their principal to talk to me. But they are not upset at being kept away from the sport. They are eager to share their angst. Even when the school gives over, it is only when staff come to say that a particular bus is about to leave, that students who have to take that bus leave the room. The rest say their homes are at a walking distance; they want to continue this discussion. They will sit till evening if I will, even talk through the night, they say.

Their litany of complaints is one that has become common across Kashmir. It is the discourse that now undergirds the new militancy. The passion with which it is voiced is a little more intense in this school. For, this school is in a hamlet at the pulsing heart of the rebellion that has overtaken Pulwama district in the south district. The militant commander Abu Qasim, who was killed in an encounter last winter, spent three years living here. A number of militants have emerged from this northeast belt of Pulwama town.

More are ready.

Those in this classroom, including the girls sitting in the right half of the room, announce that they would all turn 'mujahid' if arms were available. That is echoed by students with whom I interact in different parts of south Kashmir during a four-day visit that takes me through Awantipora, Bijbehara, Aishmuqam, Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama.

One hears the same complaints everywhere.

Comparisons are drawn with state action against the Jat agitation in Haryana and the Patel agitation in Gujarat: Water cannons there, bullets here. Further, students complain that their 'mothers and sisters' can’t go into the fields for fear of humiliation. Among students, this discourse is new

Talk of Islamic identity, jihad, Islamic rule and discrimination against Muslims too is common. In one room full of students, the only response to 'Who is your hero?' is the Prophet. 'Who in the contemporary world?' is greeted with silence. Not (Syed Ali Shah) Geelani sahib, I ask, or the Mirwaiz (Umar Farooq)? None of them, the students respond.

Not only is there great disappointment with the PDP-BJP coalition, many young people disparage democracy as a system. The Islamic State has no organisational presence here, but minds and hearts are full of notions that would suit it. Many more students talk of Pakistan than they did five years ago when I toured the Valley’s educational institutions extensively. Islam is their connection, they say. Some also talk of Islamic rule unbounded by nation states.

There are variations in opinions, to be sure. But some of the alternative voices tend to take a little time to emerge during conversations — anti-India voices being more ready at hand, and louder. Towards the end of my discussion with the students of the Pulwama Degree College, a student spoke of corruption and doublespeak in his society. Another said, "The fault is not only with India or the army, we too are at fault.”

The organs of the state take such voices for granted. Those organs reach out to those who raise opposing voices. That not only turns a competitive marketplace of slush funds into a quagmire, incentivising antagonistic voices. Even if it buys up 'leaders', it increases the disillusionment, frustration, and anger of young people like those in that classroom – for they see what is afoot.

The flip side of the coin: some residents of Pulwama and Shopian speculate whether the high levels of anti-State sentiment in the belt – where Abu Qasim lived – could also be related to the area’s relative economic backwardness and the poor quality of the local soil. An extraordinarily high proportion of students in that school classroom said that their family earnings are from agriculture.

Five years ago, youths from such backgrounds — with family incomes less than Rs 5,000 a month — tended to prefer peace and opportunities for prosperity. They were against agitations and instability. That this has changed indicates that hope has been extinguished. Exclusivist and political ideas about religion have increased alongside.

Generally speaking, the youngest now seem to be the most radical — in religious and political terms. One of the most vocal of the teenaged students in that school classroom speaks of corruption in society, but equates corruption with participation in the establishment. He speaks of all those who work for the government as 'mukhbir' (informers).

This narrative has either been benignly ignored, if not covertly promoted, by those who make deals with 'secessionist leaders'. In so doing, they have smoothed the passing of the baton of secessionist fervour to a highly motivated generation.

Updated Date: Sep 03, 2016 15:14 PM

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