Kashmir: Youth in time of unrest

Kashmir has demographically never been so young and spirited as it is today. Around two million of its citizens are in their teens and twenties. Growing up in the years of blood and gore, the youth of Kashmir are acquainted with the state’s difficult past.

Unlike the previous generation that was smitten by the lure of the gun only to beat a hasty retreat in the face of the massive use of force by the state, this generation seems relentless. They are opinionated, argumentative and restive. Education has made them less susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by mainstream politicians and the separatists who claim to represent them. Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose killing last July whipped up a frenzy, belonged to this generation.

It’s widely believed that Wani took to guns to avenge humiliation by the security forces. Such incidents, in reality, have served to hasten the slide of many into politics of ”sentiment”, a euphemism for separatism. This seems to be the only possible explanation for many youths like Ishaq Ahmed Parray, 19, of Tral, Pulwama—whose friends called him Ishaq ‘Newton’ for his academic brilliance—or engineering student Zakir Rashid Bhat alias Zakir Musa, joining Wani’s band.

The agitated youth of Kashmir have baffled observers outside Kashmir. They judge the state on the basis of tourist congregations and large participation in the elections. Little wonder the poor turnout in the recent Parliament bypolls in Srinagar, 7.13 per cent, has shocked them and policy makers in New Delhi.

The experienced Kashmir watchers, however, know well that what is happening in Kashmir is the deepening of a political crisis rooted in history. It is indeed very difficult for many to reconcile to the depressing images of the youths—boys and girls—clashing with troops in the streets across Kashmir; mobs rampaging government property and provocatively confronting security forces during security operations. At least 18 civilians have been killed in clashes with security forces during protests since February. This is largely due to the fact that separatist sentiment has survived despite a crushing defeat of the militancy in the 90s.

Much of the renewed anger in Kashmir is directed at the PDP, the party that had emerged as the political middle ground—between the NC and the Hurriyat Conference—for people who supported the separatist movement in the 90s. Most of them, victims of the state’s atrocities, sought refuge in the PDP including the supporters of Jamat-e-Islami, one of Kashmir’s dominant social-religious organisations that command influence on Hizbul Mujahideen, the biggest indigenous militant organisation of Kashmir.

The PDP dramatically emerged as a major political force in Kashmir mainly due to the backing of many separatists after its inception in 2002. As a consequence, the separatist tendencies of many Kashmiris were subdued, or so it seemed. The surface calm, however, proved deceptive as many separatists argue they supported the PDP to unseat the NC, deemed authoritarian, and not as a matter of political conversion.

A relative calm, between 2002 to 2008, actually helped the battered separatist constituency to rejuvenate. By 2010, south Kashmir, the political base of the PDP, was witnessing a slow revival of the militancy. It didn’t seem threatening though. After Burhan’s charm offensive on the social media, the enticement proved too tempting for many educated youths to resist. Suddenly, the politics of sentiment had found new vanguards. Many signed in. The trickle of support turned into a gush in a very short span of time. After Wani was killed, Kashmir erupted like never before. More than 95 people were killed, 65 were blinded in both eyes, more than 1000 suffered a varied degree of visual impairment and over 1,000 were injured. Wani was no hardcore fighter but he did succeed infusing new life in the otherwise marginalised separatist cause, especially, in the PDP’s political base of south Kashmir comprising 16 assembly constituents in four districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian, and Kukgam.

One of the major provocations for the 2016 rage was the PDP’s decision to form an alliance with the BJP. The PDP supporters felt betrayed. They accused the leadership of having traded their trust for power. The separatists, who had backed the party, were outraged. For the first time in a decade, the number of militants in Kashmir is nearing 400 with 50 per cent of them being locals. The PDP’s decision to side with the BJP has shrunk the political middle ground.

According to south Kashmir-based senior journalist Khalid Gul, “PDP is the new Ikhwan in south Kashmir”. What about the NC? “They are a condemned lot. The PDP is attracting more attention because they are in power,” Gul said.

The alliance with the BJP has completely discredited the PDP. The rise of the BJP has directly fed into the sense of siege and persecution that Kashmir’s young have experienced since infancy. That is the crux of the matter. The state and Central governments’ iron fist approach are unlikely to work as the new generation have been seized by a strange death wish. Recently a young boy in a video message appealed to the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Kashmir chief, Abu Dujana, to help them make guns and heavy weaponry in Kashmir to fight the troops.

Unless the Centre comes up with a major political initiative on Kashmir, as has been demanded by the PDP, the situation is unlikely to improve. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will have to rise above the nationalistic and militaristic approach on Kashmir and reach out to the people much like former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, or else, the situation is unlikely to witness any improvement.

(This article was first published in The Week)

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