Fahrenheit 1989 – The Year Kashmir Burnt

Those of us who are old enough to have seen it will never forget:

Kashmir was a tinderbox, ready to burn. The elections had been rigged. The Kashmiri on the street was feeling betrayed, sad, helpless, and a sense of uninhibited doom was setting over the Valley. The ‘armed revolution’ was round the corner. The youth, already fired up from the inevitable victory of the Afghan Mujahideen over the Soviets, were waiting for the right time. Commentators would later write about the ‘demographic bulge’ in Kashmir’s urban centres, which was coupled with a loss of job opportunities, the terminal decline of fine handicrafts and arts in Kashmir, leading to the loss of old means of livelihood and the inability to adjust to new realities. Commentators would also write about how the first petro-dollars and the ‘political Islamic propaganda,’ they came with, had arrived in Kashmir. The Palestinian Intifada had begun, the romanticism of a Laila Khaled hijacking an airplane and blowing it up in Amman, came back, and along with it the feeling of shared victimhood with the Palestinians that the Kashmiri youth felt. The world was just opening up. Glasnost and Perestroika were the buzzwords. ‘Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall,’ was the oft repeated slogan the world over. Hope had transcended hatred, detente had replaced confrontation, borders were being made irrelevant in Europe, despotic rulers brought down in Africa. The African National Congress, the representatives of the oppressed blacks in South Africa, were in talks with the White regime. In South America, long-standing dictatorships were on their last legs.

 And the youth of Kashmir, the post-Indira-Sheikh accord generation, who had witnessed the ignominious ‘surrender’ of Kashmir by the tallest of leaders to grace Kashmir in centuries, bereft of means to express their legitimate complaints, and awash with romantic stories of freedom and sacrifice from abroad, would take recourse to violence. In 1989, that watershed year for Kashmir’s history, now 25 years old.

 Overnight, friends became enemies, neighbours stopped recognising each other, and relatives became familial outcasts. Lines were drawn, arbitrarily, on who was right, who was wrong, and who was in between. Kashmir was carved out into pieces. Too small to count. What followed was an unmitigated disaster. A spiral of violence, aided and abetted from powers in capitals far from Srinagar, consumed all in its path.

 The common Kashmiri lay in the middle, watching as his life unfolded in front of his eyes, out of his control. Schools would shut, for the first time in recent memory for ‘hartals,’ ‘curfews,’ ‘crackdowns.’ The word ‘crossfiring’ entered our lexicon as 9-year-old kids, followed by the names of various guns, pistols, grenades and rocket launchers. They held the pride of place along with the word, ‘militant,’ or ‘mujahid.’ Kids would cover their faces, pretending to be the ‘mujahids,’ games called, ‘hide-and-seek,’ became, ‘hide-or-be-killed.’ Kids would hear gun shots for the first time. It was common place to find kids discussing how to know the exact type of gun from the sound it makes when being fired – a talent most Kashmiris now possess. The concept of the daily ‘body count,’ came about. People would meet in mosques at night, or early morning, to talk about the number of people having died in the last 24 hours – all this happened towards the end of 1989.

 Whether this violent phase of Kashmir’s history ended after being defeated by overwhelming military force, and counter-terrorism, used to crush what began as a peaceful movement in 1953, or whether it died its own death, is a debatable issue. Looking around in Kashmir, one gets the feeling that the security doctrine of ‘shock-and-awe,’ in terms of forces deployed, still holds.

 However, looking around the world now, and seeing the end-result of some modern-day movements, like in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Palestine, Kashmiris can pride themselves on the modes and methods the movement has used. Rather than be sucked into a well-designed vortex of never-ending hatred, sectarianism, regionalism, and ethnic divisions,  events in Kashmir, post-2008, have shown not only the resilience of Kashmiris in seeking a permanent, peaceful solution to the political issue of Kashmir, but also their single-minded determination, to not let ‘jobs, development, and khush-haali,’ take precedence over what Kashmiris claim is their birthright.