The tragedy of Kashmir is that it doesn’t have any leaders, only politicians
It was no surprise that 17-year-old Pervez got curious. The FORCE team inside Jamia Masjid, in Srinagar’s old city was indeed an unusual sight. In fact, just before Pervez was drawn to the cameras and the journalists, an elderly man walking by with a long, salt-and-pepper beard gestured in a manner suggesting that the woman journalist must cover her head. So when Pervez walked up, the photographer was fidgeting with his lenses and the jeans-clad journalist was struggling to keep the shawl on her head.
Playing safe, he started the conversation with the photographer in Kashmiri; but not in a hushed tone. He smiled warmly and looked at the visitors with open interest. A few minutes’ exchange with a fellow Kashmiri emboldened him to engage the visitors directly.
“You are a journalist?” he asked in friendly Urdu with a smattering of English. “From Delhi?,” he sought to reconfirm what the photographer told him.
The wonderment in his hazel eyes didn’t go even upon affirmation. “I have never met a journalist from Delhi before, though so many come to Srinagar,” he said. Beyond Kashmiri, it seemed he needed the support of two languages to express himself confidently.
Wearing tracks under an oversized pheran, Pervez was a regular teenager, curious about the world, which he hadn’t seen yet. Was he a student?
“What else?” he grinned, as if it was a funny question. “I am in class XI,” he added.
What are his subjects?
“I have science with mathematics, but I have taken an additional subject, geology, just in case,” the grin refused to leave his face.
Why science with mathematics? “I want to be an engineer. There is an engineering college close to my school. Hopefully, I will get the admission there. But you know what would be best, if I could get into an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology). There is an IIT in Delhi, you know.”
Has he been to Delhi? “No,” he shrugged self-consciously. “I have never been to India.”
India? The delicate nuance of the raised eyebrow escaped Pervez. He continued as if he was not interrupted.
“But my friend’s uncle lives in India. I think he lives in Bengaru…” he stumbled over the name, Bengaluru. Bangalore, you can call it Bangalore. It’s much simpler.
“Yeah, Bangalore,” his grin deepened. “My friend has been there many times to visit his uncle. He is also an engineer. Maybe, I will go with him next time when he goes, if my parents allow, that is.”
What is a young boy like him doing inside the mosque? It is not even prayer time.
“Oh, I and my friends like spending time in the mosque. We like listening to sermons and Islamic history. In fact, whenever we are free, we rarely go out anywhere else.”
And who gives them the sermons?
“I had a tutor, when I was in class eighth. He used to teach me mathematics. Gradually, along with mathematics, he started telling me stories from the life of the Prophet. Then he asked me to come to the mosque after school, and I started liking it. I told my friends about it and they started coming too. We meet every day for a few hours.”
Doesn’t he like going out with his friends for some fun activity?
“There are no cinema halls here. I know in India people go to malls, I have seen it on television. But there are no malls in Kashmir. And it is not a very good idea to hang around in the market places. You know how the situation is,” he shrugged. His smile has started to wear thin, but it was still there. “It is not safe. Even if you don’t do anything, the security forces just catch you because you were there. So, it is better to stay inside the mosque than get in trouble.”
What about sports? Games like cricket, football?
“Oh yes, I love playing cricket. We play on Sundays. It’s great fun.” His smile is back. “Sometimes, so many teams play at the same time in the same field that it creates massive confusion. Whose ball goes where, who take whose catch… it is madness. The way people fight…”
If you must stay inside, why don’t you read? You know what they say about literature, it’s armchair travel around the world. You will get to know so much about what is happening around the world through books.
“I am interested in news. I watch news on television. I watch Indian news channels also.”
But reading is not about news alone. Doesn’t your school have a library?
“No. But there is one I know. Okay, I will take the membership,” he smiled as if to please. “Do you read a lot? Is that how you have become a journalist?”
Yes, reading does help. Mutual smiles follow.
“Do you travel a lot too? How many places have you seen?”
The answer remained unformed. A man with a Tablighi Jamaat-type thick, unruly beard and not very pleasant looking walked in accompanied by two almost Pervez-like boys. They approached the photographer and exchanged muted words in rapid Kashmiri. Pervez looked on warily. These are the men we have come to meet at Jamia Masjid. Pervez was an insightful interruption. “Nice meeting you,” he said in English, adding just as he turned to go, “take care.”
You too, came out as a reflex. It was only after the meeting with the three gentlemen that one realised how much care Pervez and his friends needed to take.
We were at the masjid to meet some young boys accused of stone-pelting by the police and charged under serious sections of the law, including the Public Safety Act. The idea was to get a sense of rage in the current generation of the Kashmiri youth, who apparently are extremely prone to violence. A contact fixed up, what was supposed to be the meeting with angry teenagers.
Only the angriest among the three was no longer a teenager, though still a student. The pleasantness of meeting Pervez was still lingering, though one should have known better, the moment the bearded man refused to give his name. None wore the traditional Kashmiri clothes, preferring jeans and jackets to pheran.
“Where do you want to talk?” he asked.
We can talk here inside the mosque. It’s warm and the carpet is soft.
“We cannot talk here. This is a prayer hall. Let’s go and sit on the lawns outside.”
On this cold, cloudy afternoon?
“If you have to do something, you have to do it. You can’t think of comfort,” he said, already climbing down the cold stone steps leading to the lawn.
This admonishment should have been chastisement enough. But some people are slow learners.
How old are you?
What do you do?
“I’m a student.”
At 30? Most people tire of education in early 20s. This was said in jest. But it turned out to be a provocation.
“What else can I do? What is my future? Do you know how much I have suffered? Do you know how much Kashmiris are suffering?”
These were rhetorical questions. He neither sought answers, nor needed questions.
“They falsely accused me of indulging in anti-national activities and put me in jail for two years. What is anti-national activity in Kashmir? Isn’t it a disputed territory? If the security forces come and harass me, can’t I even throw a stone? They carry weapons, and they shoot to kill. But we can’t even throw stones in self-defence?”
But is it sensible to throw stones on troops carrying guns? After all, when they will retaliate, they will retaliate with their guns? They can hardly pick up stones and throw them back at you, though even this has happened in Kashmir.
Extreme provocation, this was.
“You are a hard-core Indian, you will not understand. And honestly, we don’t need your understanding. Look at my friends here, do they look like terrorists? One is 19 and the other is 20. They were also arrested by the police when they were in class 8. For nearly a year they were kept in different police stations and tortured. Can you even imagine what it is like?
What was their fault? Ask them? No, I’ll tell you. Their fault is that they are Kashmiris. Will they do this in Delhi? Shoot unarmed protestors? When we come out to protest against this, they shoot us again. Or arrest those who they cannot kill. All three of us have police cases against us. What is our future now? Why will these two even bother to study? What is their motivation? Who will give them a job? There are thousands of young boys in Kashmir today, with false cases against their names. What do you think these boys will do, when they grow up?”
But why should getting a job be impossible? What about the private sector?
“Frankly, the job does not concern me. I know I will manage. I won’t let these people defeat me. What concerns me is my inability to fulfil my biggest obligation as a Muslim. Do you know what it is? It is to perform Haj. But I cannot do that, because they will not give me a passport. They are not allowing me to fulfil my religious obligation. But I don’t expect you to understand this. In fact, I cannot understand why Muslims are living in India.”
By now we had entered the zone of the surreal. A 30-year-old student not worried about earning a living but about performing a pilgrimage! Perhaps, exhausted by his outburst, or realising that he was getting repetitive, the angry young man fell silent. His friends, who had remained speechless throughout the conversation, continued their silent contemplation of their toes. After the cacophony, the silence was amiable. Nobody made an effort to violate that. We kept sitting like that, oblivious to the place and the purpose.
People visit religious places for peace and equanimity, but end up following the crowd and listening to noise. Actually, they are best visited during non-prayer times, when the emptiness of cavernous halls and confabulating birds automatically transport one to a different plane.
Our conversation was over long ago. Or perhaps, it had not begun at all. The soliloquy — a vicious, vacuous series of accusations and complaints had run dry. The soliloquist was staring hard at the hamam in the centre of the tree-lined courtyard, where the faithful perform their ablutions before the namaaz. His two friends, bored of their toes, were busy separating twigs from the grass. The photographer was fiddling with his equipment and the journalists were watching the birds.
The Muezzin’s cry interrupted the long silence. Pouring from the surround sound system and echoing through every brick and wooden brackets of the Jamia Masjid, the azaan silenced the birds; the chirping of which, a while back had kept the hostility on leash. Now it was the call to the faithful, which provided the much needed excuse to end the charade of a meeting. It was an unusual quarter of an hour, made more tranquil by the abrasive speech that preceded it. It was the kind of tranquillity that unintentionally lends itself to clarity and reflection. Aspiring politicians remain students till they get a break in politics. And so it appeared to be the case with this young wannabe, passing himself off as a student; accompanied by his earliest followers, the so-called friends. In today’s Kashmir, this is the most unsavoury lot — angry, violent, selfish and presumptuous.
Gradually, we rose from the grounds, almost in slow motion, as the devout started to fill in. With barely an acknowledgement we moved in our different directions (physically and intellectually): we, towards the exit and the Kashmiris towards the hamam for their ablutions. Suddenly, the bearded student returned and spoke with the photographer, who had not taken a single shot, in Kashmiri. Then turning to the visiting journalists he said, smiling for the first time, “You may find it tempting to walk around in the old city, or cover a protest. My advice is, don’t do it. People are not always nice. Some harm may come your way if you go around like this.”
Prudence leashed the angry retort. Besides, we had only recently rediscovered the virtues of silence. Outside the masjid, the city wore a deserted look. The shops were shut in protest against the arrest of a local shop-keeper on charges of abetting stone-pelting activities in the area. Since Afzal Guru’s hanging, uneasy calm, mainly enforced through relentless curfew, has prevailed in the Valley, with sporadic incidents of protests, stone-pelting and violence, keeping the state police on tenterhooks, which for good measure has been taking preventive measures to ensure that the ‘professional stone-pelters’ are not able to collect together.
For this reason, several people were rounded-up, mobile short message services were suspended, local cable news channels were shut and distribution of newspapers was stopped. Even rumours could not travel, forget about news. As a result, the news of a couple of people dying in preventive firing by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) just a day after Afzal Guru’s hanging on February 9 didn’t spread widely to mobilise people in protest. Similarly, the fall-out of the death of a youth in Baramullah in army firing was contained, partly because the news didn’t spread fast and partly because the state administration responded almost immediately to assuage the sentiments of the people.
Talking to FORCE a week later, divisional commissioner of Kashmir, Asghar Samoon said, “Mistakes happen. The important thing is that we should accept them and make amends. The moment you go in a denial mode, you worsen the situation.”
Controlling the situation required drastic curbs on basic human rights. While they limited the bloodshed, they did nothing to prevent the seething rage which seems to have engulfed a large number of unemployed or in the words of Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah, ‘unemployable youth’; people with degree but no education or employable skills.
Since 2008, when Kashmiri youth discovered the power of stones, pelting of these pieces of rocks has become a new source of terror, which has not only disarmed (quite literally) the state administration and the police alike, but has also started a spiral of low-grade violence, which feeds on retaliatory action by the state police and the CRPF, which inadvertently led to civilian casualties. The worse of this was seen in 2010, when the youth poured out on the streets to protest a fake killing of a boy. Unprepared to deal with mobs throwing stones on the police and CRPF, the forces opened fire, killing more people. Thereafter, a cycle of protest and killing began, with intermittent curfews and strikes. By the end of the summer, over 100 young boys had died in police/CRPF firing. The rage had been stoked; and it was not about to be doused.
To avoid a repetition of that nightmare, even as security forces, including the army, tried to keep the young busy in sponsored sporting activities through the summer of 2011, the police took potential trouble-makers in preventive custody. The same routine was repeated in 2012, and has been resumed in 2013. This has reached such ridiculous proportions that boys, as young as eight-year-old, have been arrested on charges of stone-pelting. Last year, a young boy, not yet a teenager was arrested and booked under the Public Safety Act. Several other charges like anti-national activities etc were slapped on him. Fortunately, for the boy, his case was taken up by J&K legislator Bhim Singh of the Panthers Party, who filed a petition on his behalf. Last month, the Supreme Court heard the petition and asked the police to quash the charges against him.
Around the same time, chief minister Omar Abdullah announced in the state assembly that 1,811 people involved in 230 cases of stone pelting incidents in 2010 and 2011 have been granted amnesty. These were essentially the first-time offenders and were not involved in incidents of arson. However, despite this, a large number of youth continue to be in detention, fuelling further rage and rumours. The angry man FORCE met had alleged that thousands of boys have been arrested by the police and are being brutally tortured. “Would it be a surprise if these boys pick up the gun?” he had warned, gesturing towards his two young followers.
“Our biggest worry should not be terrorism or even the resolution of the Kashmir issue,” said a retired Kashmiri bureaucrat. “We have gone much beyond that stage now. The resolution can happen, whenever it has to happen. Today, our first worry should be the Kashmiri youth, which has not seen peace. The only way of life they know is violence. Their human values, faith and balance have been eroded.”
When values erode, and the sense of history is altered, a vacuum takes its place. The easiest idea to fill that vacuum is the religious idea, because they are the simplest, formulated for the lowest common denominator. Moreover, in the anarchic conditions of Kashmir, the discipline and the regimentation of religion gives a sense of normalcy and direction.
The Sufi Islam of Kashmir is way too individualistic. It cannot mobilise people, because it treats faith as a personal covenant between the God and the faithful. Though several sects of conservative Islam, including the Deobandi sects, have always existed in Kashmir, they started flourishing in the decades of strife, when beleaguered people could barely get enough comfort. An increasing number of Kashmiris are filling the ranks of these regimented groups learning virtues of intolerance and complete submission to the diktats of the leader who commands them. These young people, who no longer think for themselves, form the mass that can be mobilised by the opportunist leaders whenever they want, for whatever they want.
“Religious radicalisation is a concern,” said Samoon. “The government is conscious about it and we are making efforts to engage with the parents, so that as a community we help these young people return to the mainstream.” Having admitted this, Samoon downplayed the seriousness of the situation by adding that, “The radicalised people are a minority. The majority of Kashmiris are still secular.”
Perhaps, but for how long? The tragedy of Kashmir today is that it has no leaders with a vision. It has plenty of politicians on either side of the nationalistic divide, but none who command universal respect or admiration. Since everyone is fair game for criticism and ridicule, no body inspires or motivates the youth, who have little choice but to gravitate towards the person spouting the staunchest form of religion, probably out of respect for his beard. That is another matter of concern. “They don’t respect anybody any longer,” said an elderly politician of the Separatist hue.
FORCE met a lot of senior officers from different security forces operating in the state. Each patted himself on the back for having effectively controlled the fall-out of the Afzal Guru hanging. Perhaps, the state government would be doing so too. Samoon certainly said this in no uncertain terms. “Today, not only is the situation under control, we are in control,” he said. When the government speaks the language of the police, you know that it controls nothing; not even the political space in which an illusion of hope for the future can be created; even if to buy time. But maybe the time has already run out.