First Person | Young Force

Indian Army can engage with the Kashmiri youth, but only in a limited way

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

About a month and a half back Indian Army’s Srinagar-based corps organised a seminar on how the army can harness the power of the youth (read Kashmiri youth) to bring about a change in the Valley. I was invited to speak on the ways army can engage the youth. Given that, I have in the past written how Indian Army’s Operation Sadbhavna in Kashmir has been an investment of limited returns and why the army should desist from getting involved in the socio-economic affairs of the State, I thought that the subject was hugely ambitious, both in scope and aspiration.

But it is also very difficult primarily because of the limitations on both sides of the divide – the army and the Kashmiri youth. Here is what I said there: The army has three main limitations.

One, Kashmir is a political problem and not a military problem. Hence, both the management of the problem and the resolution has to come from a political process. Whether we do it within the country or engage with our neighbour — that’s a different subject. The army can only play the role of a facilitator by keeping violence down; so that there is room for the political process. The more army expands its role, more vulnerable it will render itself to allegations of having vested interests.

Two, despite army’s exemplary (non-military) contribution to the state of J&K, through its ‘Winning Hearts and Mind’ programmes and Operation Sadbhavna, the army at the end of the day remains an instrument of State’s (read Union government) policy. As a result, the animosity towards the State (remember, Kashmir is a political problem stemming from the animosity towards the state) is channelled through its more visible instrument which is the army. So, anything that the army does is always viewed with a degree of cynicism and suspicion. Additionally, as army moves into non-military areas, more it hampers the political process, because this gives fodder to the perception that India holds Kashmir through force. The army must perforce be as invisible in populated areas as possible for a resolution to come about.

GhazalaAnd three, the army primarily started the Sadbhavna programme to put into place an intelligence grid. Hence, one of the earliest relationships that it forged with the people was a transactional one. People usually do not forget these things, and in Kashmir especially, memories go very far. So whenever the army would start any process, irrespective of the nobility of its purpose, there will always be wariness, which will limit its scope and to a large extent prevent the army from reaching the people who can actually make a difference.

The Kashmiri youth also come with baggage of their own. One, they are the product of their history. A Kashmiri youth or even a person in his early 20s was either born in or after 1989. These, nobody can deny, were the darkest years in Kashmir. Even if this person has not personally suffered, he or she has grown up seeing close family members, neighbours or friends suffer. Mostly, at the hands of the Indian security forces which, in popular perception, translates into the Indian Army. Now, even if this young man or woman wants to build his or her future, the shared history of his community is the burden he/she must bear. For them, to engage with the Indian Army for their own betterment would be a betrayal of the sacrifices made by their family, friends or neighbours. After all, the sense of martyrdom is not exclusive to the uniformed forces. The innumerable martyrs’ graveyards dotting the Kashmiri landscape is a testimony to this.

Two, Kashmiris, especially the youth, suffer from a persecution complex; and with some justification. They face regional and religious profiling in other parts of the country. Not only that, even within the state, they are made acutely conscious of their inferiority simply because the opposite side holds the power. Hence, they feel psychologically compelled to acknowledge as superior even those who may be unequal to them in terms of education or social hierarchy. This puts a psychological pressure on them to huddle together among their own and view the others or the so-called superior force with fear if not loathing.

To give a recent example, the state administration belatedly realised on Thursday (November 22) afternoon that Friday was also the 8th day of Muharram. Anticipating trouble they ordered curfew to be imposed on Friday in six police station areas of Srinagar. But the schools were not informed, some of which were conducting examinations. I had an appointment across the Jhelum, where there was no curfew. As vehicles were not allowed, I took the lane behind my hotel to cross the river via the foot bridge. But J&K police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel had put up the barbed wires at the bridge to restrict movement. Standing on the right bank of Jhelum, I saw school girls and boys screaming their lungs out demanding to be allowed to cross as they had an examination. The men in uniform were screaming back, trying to frighten the school children with their lathis. I was beyond rage. Whose fault was it? If the curfew had to be imposed, why weren’t schools asked to close down? At that moment, I could completely identify with the impotent rage of the school children. How do you engage with them? A young girl at the barbed wire tried to talk with one of the CRPF personnel in fluent English. She foolishly believed that her education and knowledge of English had empowered her. But how long before she realises that education is not power in her state? A mere lathi is.

A connective factor here is that years of strife have robbed Kashmiri youth of education and other avenues of growth. So, academically and in terms of human resource development they are far behind their counterparts in the rest of the country. This is the reason that one sees the spectacle of long queues of job aspirants — some as qualified as graduates — at the army’s recruitment rallies for person below officer ranks (PBORs). The problem with this is that when you study high enough to get through the college, your own and your family’s expectations increase. You expect to get into a white collar job and not work with those who have just scraped through class 10 or 12th. You may accept the job for economic reasons, but disillusionment with the society and the education system fills you with bitterness. A bitter person is a dangerous person. He is full of angst, which can be directed towards anything or anybody. Hence, engaging with the youth is easier said than done. And here is the challenge.

Like most of South Asia, Kashmir is also facing a youth bulge. Almost 60 per cent of the state’s population is under-30. If you further dissect this age bracket, then the proportions of early and mid-teens are much larger. This, all social scientists accept, is a dangerous age to be. The children, especially the boys have to deal with all sorts of adolescent issues, whether they are physical, emotional or psychological. They are impatient, short-tempered and easily persuaded. This is the age group which is most susceptible to exploitation because the hormones are raging and they need an adrenaline rush all the time.

Sensible adults try and direct the hyper energies of their children into productive areas, be it sports, hobby clubs, video games and even evening play in the neighbourhood park. Unfortunately, in Kashmir, a lot of parents may not be sensitive to this because of their own personal, political as well as economic traumas. This is compounded by the conditions of the last two decades, which have not only reduced, if not completely wiped out, avenues of entertainment, but have also induced a sense of insecurity among the people.

Driving around the old parts of Srinagar, I have myself seen young boys idling along the road sides. They have nowhere to go. Their homes have just enough space for them to sleep quietly in one corner at night. In the day time they simply cannot stay at home because the space is required to perform several household functions. To my mind, this is the most volatile and vulnerable group. If engaged correctly, it can be a great force multiplier. If engaged in a cavalier manner, it can turn against you. And if ignored completely, it can become a tool in somebody else’s hands. With these inherent limitations, what can the Indian Army do?

The first question that comes to mind is why does the army want to engage with the Kashmiri youth when it is not its job? I would think that there could be two reasons to do this. One, to improve army’s image among the youth; and two, to fulfil what could be called the army’s social responsibility, something akin to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

If this is correct then the way forward comprises two roads: the easy and the well-trodden, on the one hand; and the unpaved track which may or may not yield success, on the other.

The easy and the well-trodden road is what the army has been doing so far: Running youth empowerment centres, computer classes, coaching classes for higher education, vocational training centres, sporting events etc in its areas of comfort. All these are hit and run programmes with no follow-up. Perhaps, no one even keeps a track of what happens to the students who participate in these centres or programmes. Sure, you cannot do this because you don’t have the manpower. In that case outsource these, or enter into some kinds of MoUs with local universities or respectable NGOs. The unpaved track would be to engage with the urban youth, because these can be the potential opinion-changers. This may even lead to questioning of the so-called ‘sentiment’ in the Valley. And the army does not have to show its overt presence to do any of this. Here is my wish list:

Kashmiri students during an army organised seminar

1. The army, through various organisational headquarters, can institute a number of scholarships in urban schools, colleges and Universities. While some of these can be named after local Kashmiri heroes, some can be named after even military heroes. These scholarships should enable the students to study in some of the better institutions in the rest of India. In fact, the students ought to be given the option of even opting for a military institution if they so desire. This way, they will be able to see the other side of the uniform.

2. The army frequently takes group of students from smaller Kashmiri towns or villages on a ‘Bharat Darshan’ or sight-seeing tour. Similar tours could be conducted, again in urban areas, but this time not to see Taj Mahal and Rashtrapati Bhawan, but to military institutions like the National Defence Academy (NDA), Indian Military Academy (IMA), Indian Naval Academy (INA) or the Air Force Academy (AFA). The student profile should be from mid- to late-teens so that such visits have an inspirational and aspirational value. In fact, instead of touch and go, a system could be instituted whereby the students spend a few days at these academies, maybe during a break or something when accommodation arrangements could be made. Or sponsor a group of youngsters during Passing Out Parades at different academies.

3. Motivate, sponsor or build yourself SSB training or coaching centres. 10 Kashmiri PBORs will not have the impact that one officer can have. Mentor and nurture the officer cadre drawn from Kashmir.

4. Institute in collaboration with private players sporting academies or clubs. Everyone talks of Kashmiri’s passion for cricket. How come no Kashmiri finds himself in the national team? Especially today, when there is a test team, a one-day team, a T-20 team and several others. I could be wrong, but I haven’t heard of a Kashmiri player even in the Indian Premier League. Last year, the army organised a Kashmir Premier League tournament. When so much money was spent on that, why couldn’t you get senior cricketing heroes or officials from mainland India who could adjudge the best players and offer them scholarships to learn cricket from the best coaches in Delhi or Mumbai. Ditto for football. In fact, engage with the Argentinean footballer’s Academy in Srinagar. Maybe sponsor some of his programmes.

These are random thoughts. The main question that remains, however, is that, is this really the army’s job? I’d say no. It is the state government’s job, followed by the Union government. But because the people of the state have suffered so much in the last two decades, maybe they can use as much help in rebuilding their broken lives as they can get. After all, they cannot remain slaves of history forever.

But because of the inherent limitations of the army, I feel the best bet for the army would be to work as much through the private sector as possible. You can generate ideas and offer security. Let the private players be the executors of those ideas. This way you can probably reach out to a much larger section, than you would be able to if you were to do this on your own. Sure, credit would be hard to come by; but if it is change that you are looking for, that would be the price for it.


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