By: Abishek Malhotra
It was the era of Maharaja Hari Singh when Jammu and Kashmir last witnessed peace. Sheikh Abdullah, with the support of Britishers, planned and initiated a silent operation to isolate the region and disrupt the harmony for geopolitical motives. The Union Government of India, in 2019, abrogated the temporary provision of Article 370 and 35A that were the major hindrances in bringing the region back into the mainstream. This structural change has kickstarted a transformation process by implementing democratic laws to reverse the damage done in the last seven decades. Over the years, different governments have tried to ‘target’ terrorism, insurgency and religious extremism through dialogues with separatist leaders. However, these are just the symptoms. The root of the problem is yet to be treated. Once the root is diagnosed, the symptoms will automatically be taken care of.
Till a week back, my view of Kashmir was broadly based on the print and electronic media which largely talked about the encounters in the valley, the ‘misguided’ youth pelting stones and the idea of Jihad that the young minds in the valley were brainwashed about. Another view of Kashmir was based on the political leaders of the newly formed Union territory. The political leaders have changed their stance based on the situations in the valley to support agendas that will help them get back in power. The leaders have made statements to instigate the youth and create a picture that will keep Kashmir isolated from the rest of the country.
However, three days in the valley have changed my perception about Kashmir and the Kashmiri youth. Over these three days, I got an opportunity to interact with the youth in the valley from different age groups, the brave soldiers deployed by CRPF and SSB, and the Kashmiris serving in the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP). One common thing in their stories was that they were all victims in their respective stories and none of them was happy with the prevailing situation. The security forces were in a comparatively better psychological situation since they have been trained for hardships and their passion to serve the motherland keeps them going forward despite the unfriendly residents, difficult living conditions and the three-decade-long insurgency.
The personnel in the JKP have a different view of the entire scenario. JKP is a part of all the operations that are undertaken in the region along with CRPF and the Indian Armed Forces. It forms one of the three layers formed for cordoning off the area of operations. JKP has played a major role in the success of the operations by providing information through locals. However, there have also been a couple of incidents of JKP personnel helping the terrorists. This has made them face the heat from both ends (the army and the locals). Any operation in the valley is bound to draw the anger of the residents against the JKP jawans living in that region. The jawans, in the past, have been victims to stone pelting and abusive slurs following the army operations in the valley. The JKP jawans have lost their fellow jawans and their loved ones, and have lost all career aspirations. They are serving the nation hoping that peace will be restored soon. All they ask for is a little respect from their fellow Kashmiris and the armed forces as they too lay down their lives serving the motherland and saving the innocent Kashmiris.
The story of the locals is inexplicable. Every story is unique based on their personal experiences and what they hear from their elders at home and their teachers. On a trek during my visit, I met three young boys under twenty from Srinagar had come to visit Pahalgam. Shockingly, they had no hopes of peace and had no education or career aspirations. They just knew what they were hearing from people around them and accepted it as their reality. One of the them accepted that he goes for stone-pelting because he enjoys the act and it makes him a hero in his peer group. While money is one reason that encourages them to pelt stones, the feeling of being a ‘man’ pushes them forward. They happily recalled the militants who were neutralised by the army in the last one week referring to them by names followed by ‘bhai’. I met another group of men in their mid-twenties who had a different view. They had studied and worked in different parts of the country and had a more open approach. They were forced to come back due to the fear of their families of them being misled or being targeted for being a Kashmiri. The boys had mixed experiences as they made some amazing friends in different parts of the country and also had to face the heat, sometimes, by a selected few for being a Kashmiri. According to them, the solution lies in expanding economic opportunities for the youth and by providing ‘azaadi’. ‘Azaadi’, not from India, but in India, from the local leaders and separatists who have used the youth to fulfil their personal and geopolitical agendas.
The experience has changed my fundamental beliefs of what Kashmir is. I believe that the solution lies far away from what a common man perceives. I don’t think I am required to aggressively give the slogan of ‘Voh Kashmir Humara Hai’ anymore. Kashmir is an integral part of India and the Kashmiris believe it too. It is not the Kashmiris who need to understand that they belong here but it is for us to believe that they belong to ‘Bharat’ and hence the new slogan should rather focus on integrating Kashmiris with the mainstream.
The fight for Kashmir is not a physical battle but a psychological war. The solution lies in managing the perception that is created by the so-called human rights activists and local political leaders, who are running the separatist agenda. A similar perception is created by the big media houses, funded by international powers, who want Kashmir to stay isolated for geopolitical reasons to complicate the path of India’s growth trajectory. The 9 P.M. debates targeting Kashmiris should shift their focus to the real culprits who brainwash the youth and create a divide. A psychological solution is required for the young Kashmiris, so that next time a fifteen-year-old does not pick up a stone just because he thinks that it will help him impress his peer group. The young minds need to be engaged in studies, not by religious institutes (Madarsas) but formal education system, and provided economic opportunities to engage in work. The unemployment levels in Kashmir are much higher than the national average as they solely depend on government jobs. A young mind sitting unemployed at home, staying isolated from the rest of the world is bound to believe what he is being told by the people around him.
Kashmir has a tremendous amount of land and resources which need to be utilised by engaging the local youth in work. Empty vessels are bound to make noise. If an average youth is educated and is given job opportunities, he is more likely to be engaged in raising a family and being occupied with work rather than being misled by the separatist leaders and those instigating the youth for picking up arms on religious lines. Abrogation of Article 370 and the Union government’s attempts to attract private investments in the valley is one of the initial steps in the right direction. It might not have changed much on the ground in the short run but has made a move in changing the perception towards Kashmir and giving confidence to the people outside Kashmir. It has initiated a structural transformation that will show results in the long run, probably a decade, when a generation will complete education, get engaged in work and be free from the clutches of those spreading hate and keeping them isolated. Once the Kashmiris are mixed with the mainstream youth, the symptoms like militancy, terrorism, etc will be gone permanently.
(The author is a PhD Scholar pursing his doctorate in Economics in University of Hyderabad. The opinion expressed by the author does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Kashmir Despatch)