Kashmir: Defusing The Tinderbox

With multiple questions and no ready answers, these are dark times indeed for India's Kashmir Valley. Nearly a fortnight since security forces killed Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old militant who enjoyed immense popularity among a sizable section of the youth, the region remains on the boil.
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Kashmir's concerns need to be dealt with sensitivity and compassion, rather than aggression and chest-thumping nationalism.

Situation check: A groundswell of public protests. Nearly 40 dead and over 2,000 injured. Hundreds -- including children -- lying injured in hospitals, scarred and blinded for life, having been shot with pellets by security personnel. Gag on internet services and newspapers. Thousands of youth up in arms. Ineffective political response. And a state standing at a crossroads.

With multiple questions and no ready answers, these are dark times indeed for India's Kashmir Valley. Nearly a fortnight since security forces killed Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old militant who enjoyed immense popularity among a sizable section of the youth, the region remains on the boil. Wani's killing has once again embroiled the people of Kashmir in a dangerous cycle of socio-political unrest and violence. Calls for peace and appeals to restore normalcy by many--including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi--have not restored normalcy. The narrative of the mass uprising remains the same as in the past. So do the expert commentaries and opinions doing the rounds in televised debates, op-eds and seminars.

However, one thing remains unclear in the smokescreen of the prevalent rhetoric: that for the youth, what exactly is this "Kashmir issue" ? Some call it an "emotional affair that New Delhi does not get"; others deem it "a political issue that needs a definite political solution." But not many can clearly articulate the precise problems that have led to the crisis in Kashmir, and even fewer can understand them. It seems we are looking for solutions without knowing the problem(s) at hand.

Casual conversations with Kashmiri youth and their families reveal a palpable sense of collective angst and alienation, which stems from a plethora of reasons: underdevelopment, alleged state excesses, radicalization by extremists of all hues, and political doublespeak, among others. First and foremost, there is a deep-rooted and widely prevalent pain of historical "wrongs" committed against Kashmiris, a narrative that finds validity whenever errant security personnel commit excesses--ranging from alleged fake encounters and reported rapes. Though these are largely aberrations, a popular claim that strongly resonates with many locals is that everyone in Kashmir can recount at least one case of human rights violation committed against someone they know.

Significantly, most such stories of conflicts and pain have been internalized by children and youth alike. This radicalization of young minds has been further accentuated by the presence of hardliners and strife-makers, who often feed on imagined fears and insecurities. The widespread outrage and mourning that followed Wani's killing is evident of the adulation enjoyed by several radical and divisive elements in Kashmir.

Then there is the rising frustration among those wanting to break the generational cycle of poverty and conflict by acquiring quality education and decent jobs, which are not forthcoming. The glaring mismatch between growing aspirations and inadequate educational and employment opportunities is an immediate trigger of a sense of deprivation and hopelessness. Moreover, political opportunism (generally high on optics and low on substance), rhetoric-laden political speeches (primarily aimed at generating media coverage than lending a healing touch) and lofty promises that are never brought to fruition has also caused widespread public mistrust towards parties and governments.

Clearly, the so-called "Kashmir issue" isn't one single issue at all. It is, in fact, a complex mix of local political, social, religious and economic grievances that, in the absence of requisite corrective measures by successive governments, have evolved into a festering wound. The hurt runs so deep in Kashmir's veins that now, every perceived excess and even the slightest of slights conjure memories of a painful past and trigger public outrage.

However, since the protests of 1989, much of mainstream India, the political elites and the media have looked at Kashmir mainly from the security angle rather than focusing on the local flash points mentioned above. General responses have so far followed a standard formula that not only dilutes the centrality of socio-economic issues in the Valley but also brings in nationalism into the debate, thereby vilifying anyone taking to the streets.

Looking at Kashmir through the narrow prism of self-serving nationalism and communalism only adds fuel to fire, and creates a gulf between Kashmir and the rest of India. This way, contentious issues such as the draconian Armed Forces Special Forces Act (AFSPA) and cases of reported excesses by security personnel are brushed under the carpet, and the voices of the locals drowned in the din of tangential issues. This has made the region a tinderbox waiting to explode, with armchair patriotism and political nonchalance only worsening the situation and giving credence to extremists on both sides of the border.

The Valley's concerns, therefore, need to be dealt with sensitivity and compassion, rather than aggression and chest-thumping nationalism. Greater political engagement is an imperative: Indian political parties must now join hands instead of trying to score brownie points over one other, and engage in extensive public outreach in Kashmir to calm the tension and defuse the situation. Perhaps a special parliamentary session dedicated to Kashmir, along with a multi-stakeholder representation of Kashmiri politicians, youth and social influencers would help address the flash points and frame a generally accepted roadmap for the future.

Bringing in the youth into the decision-making processes, and boosting education and employment opportunities -- by setting up new institutions, facilitating a spirit of entrepreneurship, creating centers of excellence in diverse areas and directing Indian corporates to proactively pursue locally-specific CSR initiatives -- would foster development in the region as well as discourage young adults from joining extremist forces.

Of course, strengthening border security and bolstering internal security through more effective policing would be essential to create an enabling environment for any fresh paradigm to succeed. However, excesses must be checked with timely punitive action in accordance with the law. And not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done. Looking for peace through the barrel of a gun and wounds of the oppressed does not help anyone anywhere, after all.

In a speech last year, Prime Minister Modi hailed 'Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat aur Insaniyat' (Kashmir's consciousness and cultural values, democracy, and humanity) as the 'pillars of development' in Kashmir. The vision is promising; all it requires now is strong political will and nationwide public participation towards the quest for peace. As a popular Kashmiri proverb goes: Yeli pyeyi chhanas panas peth (When it is your responsibility, you will be more serious about it). It's time we as a nation take on the responsibility to lend a healing touch in Kashmir, and treat the issue with the sensitivity it deserves. (Samarth Pathak is a New Delhi-based policy analyst and public advocacy specialist with a keen interest in international relations, politics and sustainable development. He was recently inducted as a Fellow at the South Asia Democratic Forum, a Brussels-based institution. Follow him on Facebook. Views expressed are personal. Comments welcome on samarth.pathak@gmail.com.)

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