In the hours after a suicide bomber killed 42 men of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) returning to duty in South Kashmir's Pulwama district, a palpable fear of misplaced retaliation on ordinary citizens instantly gripped the Valley. At Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar, shopkeepers downed their shutters much earlier than usual; traffic from the streets also disappeared before sundown; a sense of uneasiness prevailed through the night.
The fear of a backlash was real, given how Kashmiris become soft targets after every such incident, rather than the real issue being tackled. But this time, the intensity of the frenzy whipped up at TV studios has been unprecedented in the real world. Newspapers have been full of reports of angry crowds high on the emotions of "revenge" venting it all out on Kashmiris in other parts of the country. In Jammu, the state's winter capital, mobs set ablaze dozens of vehicles belonging to Kashmiri drivers ferrying tourists and local residents across the Pir Panjal. The violence forced authorities to impose a curfew and increase police patrol around areas inhabited by Kashmiri Muslims. In other places, landlords threatened Kashmiris tenants, who are mostly students, with expulsion.
All of this can be dismissed as an emotional outburst in reaction to a major tragedy. But if you ask Kashmiris, who have spent a considerable time living outside the Valley, the current phase of hostility towards them is a manifestation of the unbridled misinformation campaign on Kashmir among the masses, as well as dismissal of all opinions contrarian to the centers hardline approach.
As the hostilities towards Kashmiris, not necessarily in physical form, has not stemmed, worried parents and family members in Kashmir have resorted to the usual drill — make frantic phone calls to students, traders and professionals living outside and urge them to return home, at least till the tempers have calmed down.
Zameer Ahmed Bhat, a 35-year-old PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, has spent more than 10 years in the city. He received a number of phone calls from his friends and family member in Kashmir asking him to stay safe after the news of the attacks emerged.
Bhat said that even though there are no open threats yet, there is still fear.
"With the way things have been unfolding, we can't even debate on issues anymore," he added.
Bhat, who spent most of his adult life in Srinagar, believes that the Pulwama episode proved to be a catalyst for the larger hate campaign that was already on. "I had a friend here who I treated like a brother. And he did the same. We did everything together for 10 years. I attended his marriage and his first child's godh bahrai ceremony. But the moment I expressed my political point of view on Kashmir, which did not match his, he called me a terrorist. Now we don't talk to each other at all," he recalled.
Along with a few other Kashmiri scholars, Bhat had planned to organise a Women's Day programme on 23 February on the campus. But they have called off the event for now to avoid any backlash.
For Abdul Hafeez, a second year BTech student at a private university in Udaipur, the hatred on TV channels and social media turned into reality with a knock on his door. On 15 February, a day after the suicide attack in Pulwama, a large crowd entered Hafeez's hostel looking for Kashmiri boys. Although there was no confrontation, it was enough to scare Hafeez and other Kashmiri students to leave the campus.
"After the incident, the university staff asked us whether we wanted to leave till the situation cooled down. Eight of us are currently on our way to Delhi. We don't have any arrangements for stay in Delhi, but it's much safer for now," said Hafeez a resident of the frontier district of Pulwama.
Saima (name changed), a student at a private college in Dehradun, experienced a similar ordeal. On the evening of the terror attack, she heard slogans being shouted against Kashmiris in the vicinity of her college. She panicked and locked her self in her room, frantically calling home for help.
"I got very scared. I never faced something like this in my time studying here. Everyone I knew had suddenly become indifferent, and at that moment, when I heard the slogans, it just added to my anxiety," she said.
No harm came to her as the Uttrakhand Police quickly swung into action to provide complete support to Kashmiri students in the state. But Saima decided to return to Kashmir for a few days, underlining the trauma the rest of the Kashmiri Muslim community is going through at the moment.
The display of hostility against Kashmiri Muslims has been so brazen this time around that political rivals and former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir — Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah — came together to issue a joint appeal to the Centre to ensure the "safety and security of Kashmiris everywhere". Even the CRPF, which faced the brunt of Thursday's massacre, tweeted out a helpline number to assist Kashmiris in distress.
Furthermore, while the CRPF has displayed a strength character even at a time of personal tragedy, a certain section of social media, which has been unable or unwilling to understand the Kashmir conundrum, further escalated matters by calling for a boycott of Kashmiris and their business. Vengeful trolls were already out for their heads, but even more worryingly, people holding constitutional positions openly endorsed such calls.
Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy tweeted, "An appeal from a retired colonel of the Indian Army: Don't visit Kashmir, don't go to Amarnath for the next two years. Don't buy articles from Kashmir emporia or Kashmiri tradesman who come every winter. Boycott everything Kashmiri. I am inclined to agree."
A 22-year-old law student at the University of Delhi, Misbah Reshi, agrees with Bhat. Although born and brought up in Delhi, she says she finds it really hard to freely talk about Kashmir.
"When we were in school, we didn't have political opinions. But as we grew up, I realised that until I was in agreement with my friend's political opinion, I was accepted. The moment I had a different opinion to offer, it would change."
In the days following the Pulwama killings, she has felt an escalation in the hostility from every side. "Earlier, we used to hear of instances where a landlord would not lease out his properties to Kashmiri students. Now my own friend doesn't want to be seen with me," says Misbah, who lives with her parents in the National Capital.
While Misbah hasn't had to face any real physical danger in Delhi, her brother, who is studies at the University in Katra in Jammu, had to leave his hostel after a large group of people entered the premises and began to shout slogans.
Even relations built over decades have taken a hit in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack.
Shamim Ahmad had represented the Karnataka Cricket Team at various youth tournaments before setting up a business in Bengaluru. His father had moved to the city from Srinagar with his family in 1965. The 34-year-old speaks fluent Kanada. Recently, he had to reach out to his school friends on WhatsApp and ask them why their relationship had ended over different political or religious views.
He said while Kashmir is his "janambomi", Bengaluru is his "karambhoomi". "I always strove to bring these two close since they are both close to my heart," he said, adding that over the years, he has found it increasingly difficult to express himself even with friends, and he partly blames the media for it.
"The death of the CRPF personnel is extremely tragic, but rather than acting responsibly, the media starts to stoke passion, which leaves no room for dialogue. People who don't understand the Kashmir issue are coming up with 'solutions', which is the also a problem," he said.
The alienation of the youth in Kashmir has been well documented in recent years. The government has not only failed to engage with the youth but also has little connection with them in the Valley.
Even the silent exchange of thoughts, ideas and culture between Kashmiris and the rest of India, a result of thousands of Kashmiris moving to other states for education and jobs, is now threatened by the mob mentality that the masses have acquired over recent years, further reducing any chances of bringing about lasting peace in Kashmir.
Updated Date: Feb 20, 2019 14:19:26 IST