Address the rage and frustration of the youth and everything else will follow
What do Kashmiris really want? Not just the protestors on the streets and their leaders in the backrooms, but everyone; the young students preparing for competitive examinations, the traders, the artisans, the houseboats and hotel owners, the professionals and so on? What do they really want? Azadi, as the protestors scream on the streets, or something else? While nobody outside Kashmir seems to know, it appears that many Kashmiris also do not know or understand completely as to what they want. Azadi seems to have become a clarion call to collect people on the streets, to inspire them to defy authority, to pick up stones, to dare humble those who appear to wield power. Much as the Muezzin’s call, which brings the faithful to the mosque, the cry of azadi seems to be calling the protestors out of their homes.
Two years ago, when the Valley was in convulsions over the transfer of some land to the Amarnath Yatra trust, FORCE had spent several days in Srinagar meeting all sorts of people: protestors during Mirwaiz’s Idgah rally, family-members of killed mujahids, some Kashmiri Pundits, small-time Muslim businessmen, mainstream political party leaders (including the present chief minister), Hurriyat Conference leaders, Separatists outside the Hurriyat, bureaucrats, police, CRPF and the Indian Army. The idea was to define azadi in tangible terms.
It was a very difficult proposition because it meant different things to different people. While the older brother of a slained Hizbul Mujahideen militant insisted that azadi meant merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, one protestor on the street said it means that the Indian Army should go back, but there was no clarity about where is should go, out of the state or to the LC. People like Yasin Malik insisted on complete independence from India and Pakistan, with the merger of Kashmir and POK, while one of his compatriots brought the Northern Areas as well in the discussion. Some other Hurriyat leaders, including the Mirwaiz listed steps toward normalcy which included revocation of AFSPA, withdrawal of the army from civilian areas, release of political prisoners, resumption of dialogue with Pakistan and enhancing its scope to include them in it. However, a large number of ordinary citizens only spoke of excesses by the security forces, irrespective of uniform. For them, azadi implied an end to all that.
Learning from these divergent views, FORCE attempted to define azadi, which essentially was outpour of collective rage. While Pakistan’s shadow looms large and will have to be factored in for a resolution, there were several steps that could have been taken then, as well as now to assuage the blinding anger on the streets. Stone-pelting or destroying government property in rage is neither new to Kashmir nor India. Protestors across the country frequently burn buses and chase the lathi-wielding policemen off. Yet, in Kashmir the disproportionate response of the administration ensures that the cycle of excesses, protest and excesses continue, and gradually acquire a momentum and viciousness of its own, because of unresolved political issues.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah has repeatedly said (before he assumed the chair and subsequently as well), that with or without elections, Kashmir needs a political resolution, that it is neither a law and order problem nor an administrative issue.
Unfortunately, through acts of omission, the central government has progressively helped discredit the best bet it had in the state. No one doubts the chief minister’s incorruptibility, sincerity and intelligence, yet the Union government has ensured that these very strengths become his weaknesses by reducing him to a mere emissary of the Centre in Kashmir; instead of representing Kashmiri cause, he is perceived as being the purveyor of New Delhi’s interests in the state. What could be worse than that? Once you start pillorying a person then everything is fair game, including his personal life.
Today, an average person in Kashmir feels that a colonel of the Indian Army (under AFSPA) has more powers than their chief minister who needs to consult New Delhi for the smallest decisions, while people in the rest of the country believe that Kashmiris have been pampered silly, that they enjoy greater rights and privileges than others and yet complain out of sheer ingratitude. This chasm between the two perceptions will only increase if the central government continues to procrastinate and further erodes the authority of the office of the chief minister. The truth is no chief minister is India is as powerless as the J&K one.
Omar Abdullah is not the only J&K politician to suffer this ignominy. The central government has repeatedly discredited the J&K chief ministers and has always burnt its fingers doing so. Yet, some lessons it refuses to learn. Today, after 10 years, it is once again putting autonomy on the table after having chucked it out of the window despite J&K Assembly unanimously passing the autonomy resolution. Today, it is trying to put the clock back by a decade, when so much innocent blood has been flushed down the Jhelum and bitterness has replaced optimism of the last few years. Clearly, much more will need to be put on the table if the government wants to sincerely address the anger and aspirations of the people. Restoring dignity and authority to the chief minister’s office could be the first step.