“I am a stone pelter,”, “I am too, you can arrest me,” “I was not, but now I will be,” are the voices that shout at us in Kupwara in Kashmir. Young, articulate boys who have been in and out of jail, beaten and tortured for doing nothing, now let us know that they have nothing more to lose as they have lost it all. Their lives are ruined, their future is vacant, and they live with harassment and humiliation on a daily basis.
They have all been booked and served sentences over and over again in the last one year under the draconian Public Safety Act. “I have four FIRs against me,” “I have nine FIRS on me,” “I was playing cricket for India and came back to be arrested and jailed,” are just some of the stories that come pouring out. Their eyes are angry, their voices tense, they are the youth of Kashmir who are being systematically targeted by the police, and the state administration. “Tell me why do you call these men “security forces”, how are they giving us security,” shouted a young man from the crowd. “I want to stay in India,” said another “but only if you can prove to me that India is a democracy.” And of course he went on to prove that it is not, and never can be.
Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir is a dump. Except for the one road where Chief Minister Omar Abdullah lives, and has built his second mansion, the once beautiful city is falling apart. The youth has no life, nowhere to go, nothing to do after 5 pm. Many are Facebook junkies, others are in deep depression. If a few gather at some corner they are detained under PSA. Some go to Delhi and other cities for work, and find that they cannot get a house; they cannot get a job, and are looked upon as ‘terrorists.’ They return to hopelessness and ask us, “tell us are we terrorists, is that how we appear to you Indians. Is that our identity now?”
Is it? This is a question that the Omar Abdullah government and his mentors at the centre must answer. One wonders whether the ruling elite, attending cricket match finals and spending weekends in Delhi, has any idea of how deep the despair and the anger is. In fact there is no need to wonder, as the callousness is visible in the inaction, and the indifference in the government’s refusal to recognise the reality that it has created for the people. “Let us go, give us azadi,” they shout. “Go back India, go, go” they chorus with the same words in graffiti scrawled on walls, on roads.
Our presence gives them a target, an opportunity to speak out, as we listen with tears welling up, to stories of 21 year olds, of violence and oppression. They dislike Pakistan, they hate India, they detest and despise the Abdullah’s, they are critical of the separatists, they do not know what to do, how to restore harmony in their lives, where to go from the point where the state and the governments of India have left them. Azadi is the only hope, the only option that prevents them from turning into schizophrenic wrecks. And like children, that they are, they cling on to this as the only hope, their only option for a peaceful existence.
At the same time they wonder why the media in India is so indifferent to their plight. “Why you people don’t write the truth, they ask. Why do you spread only government propaganda, why don’t you speak to us?” Why indeed? Because we in the Indian media have sold our souls, we do not write about the people any longer, we only write for governments and the ruling elite. We love these pretty, smart chief ministers like Omar Abdullah, the English speaking gentry while we reject the Kashmiris. A young lawyer points out, “when Omar Abdullah says Kashmir is a dispute, it must be solved, you people in Delhi applaud. When we say the same thing, you dub us terrorists and arrest us.”
This is not hyperbole; these are the voices of truth, of the harsh reality in which the youth in Kashmir are convicted to live. The older generation listens quietly, and as we leave the elders come to us and say quietly, “our young people want peace, our fear is that you are driving them to violence. And that is perhaps what you want, for it is easier to contain us when we have guns in our hands and not just stones, for it gives you an excuse to mow us down with impunity.”
We have no answers. Just silence and thoughts that keep us tossing and turning through the nights in Kashmir. The faces of these young people—entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, academics, students—-haunt us. More because there are no answers, no solutions in sight. The governments have decided that the people do not have rights, they should not have a voice, and they should follow what the corridors of power in both Srinagar and Delhi decide and dictate for the Kashmiris. Remove the Army, scrap PSA, release the detenues, release the youth, begin talks with all sections of Kashmiri society are demands that have been reiterated over and over again by civil society groups, by political leaders and even by the government appointed interlocutors. There is need for action from Delhi, but the absence of a political will has ensured the imprisonment of those who yearn to breath in the Valley.
It is thus, for civil society to reach out, to embrace, to listen, and to communicate. The you and the I to come together and ensure that the people make up for the absence of government, and together build bridges for the future that the Kashmiris feel can give them peace and a life. Independence becomes a solution when governments imprison their own people in a cage without rights, and without a voice.
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