In late July last year, during a visit to Pulwama I had a chance encounter with a group of bright young college students. Almost all of them, residing in suburbs of the town, had similar stories to share: of surveillance by security forces in civvies, unprovoked night raids, daily humiliation, detentions without a shred of evidence against them, insurgency encounters, street protests, bullets and pellets. They also had stories of dreams and ambitions of pursuing different careers, now almost buried under layers of daily experience of violence, which doesn’t automatically suck every-one in; rather, it is methodically designed and managed to devour everyone whichever side an individual chooses to take – pro-azadi, pro-state or completely neutral. Like everybody else, these students were aware of their limited choices and knew that sooner or later they’d have to pick a role and still be consumed and forgotten like a speck of dust. Their narratives were not only evident of the way this South Kashmir district had been virtually turned into a mouse trap, the detailed conversation brought to surface the sad realization of the extent of inescapable hopelessness, uncertainty and lack of security even in the very cosy-space like home. “Even when we don’t do anything, we are just sitting at home, we are still humiliated, abused, detained and showered with bullets,” said one.

The army chief may choose to use the word “Operation All Out” for this kind of a muscular military strategy employed on the ground. Jammu and Kashmir Governor may choose to deny the very existence of the word. The word, like the Shakespearean rose is immaterial. What exists in action on the ground is what matters and that fact remains undeniable.

The ground reality is the existence of chilling multiple stories of living in a militarized zone. By average estimates 150-200 civilians have been killed by Indian security forces between 2016 and 2018. Hundreds have been injured, atleast 200 fully or partially blinded and many others have suffered major disabilities. Violence is the norm. The Indian government operating solely through its security apparatus has just one policy – kill and brutalise. The only variable is the change from one so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapon to another. Eventually, they all lethally kill and maim people. Human suffering goes deep, finding expression in the swelling size of funerals as a monument to grief or in the street protests as the only retaliation. The random street protests where stones are the weapon of the unarmed and rained with immense ferocity, often also sense of precision, may have declined but the protests around encounter sites, obvious attempts to help the militants against security forces, have not. The landscape of deaths, proliferating grave-yards and ravaged houses, bombed and destroyed after encounters, are all real, call it what you may – ‘Operation All Out’ or nothing at all. It all comes at an extra cost which goes beyond human suffering including the massive and disproportionate loss of security personnel, India’s vital human resource reduced to a scoreboard count and forgotten about beneath the celebration of “killing militants” and tags of “remarkable year”.

The muscular policy being followed with all its elements of repression is staple diet for young Kashmiri men, often educated ones giving up bright career prospects, picking up the gun and fight back the state with passionate vengeance. Whether or not any of those young men I met in Pulwama were tempted with the idea of picking up the gun or subsequently did, experiences like theirs manifest the vulnerability of the youth and their victimization. It feeds young men to the unstoppable militancy. Despite all the repression, brutality and muscular policy, and the heavy economic and human resource cost of it, being officially pursued in a vain bid to stamp out militancy ironically ends up enhancing the level of militancy and increasing its venomous quotient. From the rural South, militancy related attacks are traveling to other parts including the heart of the summer capital with frequency.

The situation right now may not seem as dangerous but has the potential of completely tipping over. The internal dimension is only one factor. The changing geo-politics of the sub-continent especially with United States of America finally bidding adieu to Afghanistan, which will eventually loosen the American grip over Pakistan. The talks with Taliban, an initiative of the Russians, has still not taken shape. Absence of concrete shape to talks will in most likelihood tempt Pakistan to seize control of at least a section of Taliban militia. From pointing the moral compass at India for its poor human rights track record in Kashmir, an exercise that Pakistan has resumed in great excess, it might not take very long for the militia trained and patronized for Afghanistan to be dispersed over the eastern borders – like a repetitive sequel to the 90s. Thankfully, so far things haven’t reached that point. Worrying prospects are round the corner but there is still hope of preventing such a scenario. Pakistan’s political leadership has repeatedly made calls for peace and dialogue. Indian leadership should consider and reciprocate without setting pre-conditions. If cross-border terrorism is a ticklish issue, even that needs dialogue and co-operation to sort out. The present mode of belligerence will only strengthen the knot. If India can throw its weight behind talks with Taliban, why not talks within the sub-continent?

The dialogue needs to be resumed here at various levels to deal with the multiple bilateral issues between India and Pakistan and resolving Kashmir once and for all. With respect to Kashmir, people to people dialogue on both sides of the borders needs to be encouraged and facilitated and New Delhi and Islamabad must begin engaging with their respective administered parts of the state, Gilgit-Baltistan included. An oft asked question on this side is: who should New Delhi talk to? The but obvious answer is – everybody. But a beginning has to be made by reaching out to those who have lost all confidence and trust in New Delhi. The Hurriyat, despite its many flaws and weaknesses, is the best political representative of that. But others need to be brought on board too. My mind goes back to the group of college boys from Pulwama. The words of one of them, spoken during the over two-hour long conversation, ring in the ear: “No one has ever spoken to us like this, heard us and allowed us to speak!” Do we have a winning answer to that question here?