Four years ago, during a visit to Srinagar, I noticed a poignant graffiti on a wall near the Dal Lake: Darro nahi, yahan bhi insaan rehte hain (Don't be afraid, humans live here!)
Srinagar's Boulevard, the long, winding road that runs parallel to the Dal Lake and the mesmerising Zabarvan hills, is the favourite haunt of tourists visiting the state's summer capital. Lined up on its left are shikaras and boats with the promise of a memorable ride through the Dal right up to the Chaar Chinari island. On the right are hotels and restaurants offering rooms with a spectacular view of the lake and the snow-kissed hills and scrumptious food. Kashmiri restaurateurs love to serve in portions so huge that ordinary visitors find it impossible to finish. Those who are unable to finish their meals are then playfully ragged with the line that a Kashmiri would not only have wolfed it down but asked for Wazwan (a multi-course Kashmiri meal) as the main course!
In this haven for travellers, why should there be graffiti exhorting people to not be afraid, reminding them that they are in the middle of fellow humans? The answer is simple: For many Indians, the 'othering' of Kashmiris is a deep-rooted psychological phenomenon. For many, unfortunately, a Kashmiri is not a fellow Indian but someone who either needs to be feared for his separatists zeal or tamed into submission.
I narrate this backstory in the context of Home Minister Rajnath Singh's latest directive to state governments. "I appeal to everyone to consider the Kashmiri youths as their own brethren and treat them well," he said in New Delhi on Friday. He also directed state governments to ensure Kashmiri students in different parts of the country are not harmed and anyone guilty of harassing them is punished.
Prima-facie, it is a poignant pointer to the unfortunate turn of events in Kashmir. That the home minister has been forced to seek safety and security of Kashmiris in their own country and appeal to people to treat them as fellow humans is a reminder about how things are spiralling out of control and fault lines on Kashmir are widening.
During the past week, Kashmiri students have been taunted as ''stone pelters" in Rajasthan and asked to leave Uttar Pradesh in hoardings put up in Meerut. Across social media, there has been a constant campaign for retributive action against Kashmiris, its ugliest example being cricketer Gautam Gambhir's recent tweet where he said, "For every slap on my army's Jawan lay down at least a 100 jihadi lives. Whoever wants Azadi LEAVE NOW! Kashmir is ours."
For every slap on my army's Jawan lay down at least a 100 jihadi lives. Whoever wants Azadi LEAVE NOW! Kashmir is ours. #kashmirbelongs2us
— Gautam Gambhir (@GautamGambhir) April 13, 2017
Kashmir is a complex socio-political problem. Its genesis lies in the intricacies of Partition and the wars India and Pakistan have fought over the Valley since 1948. Since the problem has persisted for decades and, because of the complexities involved, may continue to remain a flashpoint for several more years.
But, insulting, humiliating and victimising Kashmiris is a sure-shot formula for adding more fuel to the Kashmir fire. Their 'othering'—treating them as outsiders occupying Indian land — could lead to disastrous consequences that would be almost impossible to control in a situation that already seems worsening every day.
Every event since the encounter killing of Hizbul Mujahiddin terrorist Burhan Wani suggests increasing anger among Kashmiri youth. Unlike in the past when opposition to Indian presence came mainly from armed terrorists, the resistance has now passed into the hands of students and youth. Incidence of youth taking on security forces to help militants escape search and cordon operations have become routine. South Kashmir and Srinagar have virtually become bastions of agitated youth who now control the narrative and defy the Indian state at will. Earlier last week, in spite of serious efforts by the state and the Election Commission, voters boycotted the by-polls for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, leading to just a seven per cent turnout. In addition, elections for the Anantnag parliamentary constituency had to be postponed because of fear of unrest and an even lower turnout.
Speak to any observer on the ground in Kashmir and the general consensus is that the Kashmiri youth today doesn't fear taking on the state and security forces. People will tell you that this generation was brought up in the shadow of guns and is thus not scared to face them. They are ready to battle with whatever is at their disposal, including stones and propaganda videos on social media.
It is now clear that the strategy of using force to repress the youth is not working. Every crackdown by security forces leads to a fresh cycle of revenge and counter attack. Dozens of youth have left the mainstream and joined terror outfits since Wani's death.
How does it then help the Indian cause if more Kashmiri youth are humiliated, attacked or made to feel like aliens in their own country? In the end, every act of atrocity would only increase the number of people willing to enlist for the separatist cause. It will only reinforce the belief that India is not their land and, like the Jews, they need to carve out their own Israel.
Also, there could be serious consequences of the attacks on Kashmiris in other parts of India. So far, Kashmiris have been gracious hosts to people visiting the Valley. Unlike the 90s when tourists would be targetted in the Valley, visitors are not only welcomed but also accorded the famed Kashmiri mehmannawazi. All this could change because some hotheads believe Kashmir can be retained by attacking unarmed youth studying in other parts of India.
The home minister is right in asking states to take tough action against those who attack, threaten or harass Kashmiris. Let politicians and security forces deal with the various complexities of Kashmir on the ground. Other players, especially pseudo-nationalists with zero understanding of the problem, should be strictly kept away from meddling in the already troubled waters of Jhelum.
One egregious act of stupidity can destroy the calm that prevails on the Srinagar Boulevard and erase the writing on the wall: Don't be afraid.
Updated Date: Apr 22, 2017 09:35 AM