AFTER the first few years of militancy, by 1992-93 or so, I had come to realise the futility and destructiveness of armed struggle as a means to achieve our ends in Kashmir. I had also seen through Pakistan’s game, which was to exploit us for its own ends.
Once clear about both these issues I decided to come overground. This was in 1996. This single step, I was soon to realise, would alienate me from everybody in Kashmir. I was suddenly a pariah, even in my own family. Now everyone – my family, my friends, my comrades-in-arms – felt that I was a traitor to the cause. I was completely alone. But there was no going back to the path which, I knew, would lead only to the destruction of our whole society and everything we Kashmiris held dear; our very identity was under threat.
But what was the way forward? In those long, lonely years I could talk to no one of my own. But I did have time to read and to think, especially while I was in prison. I was also lucky to meet some people in authority – in the army, the administration, even some political leaders whom I found I could talk to – who heard me with compassion and respect and who did not humiliate me. But even here, I was being pressured to prove my credentials by taking to the gun, though on the other side now. This I refused to do.
For me the gun was out forever, whether in the left or the right hand. As a result the Indian authorities also held me in suspicion. They could not trust me. No one could trust me. I was completely isolated, a complete zero. But I was not the only one in this situation. There were others – tall leaders of the armed struggle – Yasin Malik, Azam Inquilabi, Sheikh Aziz, Shabir Shah among others.
These people too had realised that violence led to a dead end. Each of us was locked up in silence, despair, confusion about the way out of this dilemma. My search for answers continued. The fact that I had laid down arms did not mean that violence was at an end. What then was the next step? How was one to reach this message to people who were still in the grip of violence as the solution to the problem? And what was the way forward for them? To form a ‘party’ and issue statements against the Government of India or against human rights violations was easy. But it changed nothing. How was one to act, to intervene in civil society on the ground, so that together we could begin to turn the tide away from self-destruction towards something positive and life-giving rather than death-dealing?
Over time, I met some other people who helped me to think afresh and not to give in to despair. They gave me new hope and inspired me to take a new look at the problem. I was driven by the burning desire to find the right way to continue the struggle for dignity and self-respect, for peace with honour, for development and change in the conditions of the people. Merely to lay down arms was not enough. Merely to mouth azadi had no meaning. Now I began to see the way out of this impasse.
What was the content of this azadi we all wanted? I began to realise that if we wanted a free and democratic society, a secular and liberal society in which all of us could live in peace and without humiliation or oppression – and surely this in essence constitutes the ‘azadi’ we want – then was it not possible to make space for this azadi within the secular democratic traditions of India itself? This question had to be faced honestly. The slogans of ‘Pakistan’ or ‘Azadi’ or ‘India’ had to be examined much more closely and deeply. It was absolutely incumbent upon us ‘leaders’ to get beyond slogans and face the truth about what was in the actual interest of Kashmiris, and of Kashmiriyat which is our civilisational ethos and identity. If we wanted to find a way forward and out of the impasse all of us were in, then we had to examine all these questions very, very honestly; also have the courage of our convictions to declare our resultant stand openly.
It is not easy to face hard facts especially when these contradict popular illusions. We tend to speak in different tongues depending on who wants to hear what. I am convinced that if we could find the courage to say what is in our hearts today, almost everyone in Kashmir would speak as I do. But because of a total breakdown of trust, of communication, because of a fear of reprisals from the armed militants or the armed forces, people have driven their real feelings underground and will not reveal themselves, even to one another. In this situation the easy way out is to go on perpetuating the status quo; it is easy to go on blaming everyone but ourselves. This is a good cover for our own paralysis. Some of us are quite comfortable with this situation, even while our people are in utter misery and despair.
For me, the logical next step was to join the NC. Of course this brought down even more scorn on my head. I was not only a traitor but an opportunist. In Kashmir, even today, it is politically correct only to slam India and to be pro-Pakistan. Journalists, human rights groups, Hurriyat, and so on think that by issuing statements, making speeches, writing columns only about human rights violations by the armed forces and the oppression of the Indian state or the corruption of Farooq Abdullah, they have done their job to keep the movement alive.
But what is this movement? It is a graveyard, nothing more or less. What hope does any of this give to the ordinary, suffering people? How does it strengthen them or rebuild their shattered lives? To me this is mere cynical, cowardly and irresponsible slogan-mongering. It brings some kind of cheap popularity, some kind of false credibility because it feeds the illusion that the fight is still on. But who is fighting and for what? This question must be answered. How many of us want to go with Pakistan? What do we want to do with our azadi? Who will it serve? Do we not have a responsibility to spell out these questions and answer them?
I will give an example of what I mean about slogan-mongering as opposed to action. Recently I went to meet a senior military officer regarding some urgent matters of violations by the armed forces. I did not make a hue and cry, but just sought an appointment. He gave me this readily and heard me out carefully. When I had finished he looked at me and said, ‘I assure you these matters will be dealt with at once. I also assure you that if what you say is right then action will be taken against the offenders.’ My sense is that this kind of approach rather than one of outright hostility and confrontation will get us further with the authorities. Otherwise their response tends to be either dismissive or defensive. This kind of experience has convinced me about the kind of action that is needed today. Action that will make a difference to ordinary people rather than grab a headline in the press or score political points.
For me it has become clear that I can find a meaningful azadi in a secular, democratic India. I feel that there is sufficient institutional maturity and stability in this country for us Kashmiris to fulfil our needs and dreams; to fight for peace and dignity, for the development of our people and our state, if we have the courage and the patience and the honesty to go out to our own people, to the villages, to the poor and downtrodden and the homes and families widowed and orphaned and destituted by the violence and conflict that has ravaged us for more than ten years; to help our people back onto their feet, and to give them courage and strength to make a new start; to revive civil society and its institutions. For this we urgently need the help and support of civil society in the rest of India. If we have the courage to actually work for our people instead of trapping them in webs of deceit and illusion, then together with them we can move towards what constitutes real and lasting azadi.
Once I myself became clear about these things, the question remained – how to act? When I discussed this with friends, I was asked, ‘Can you bring some 15 people together, just to talk to one another? Can some of these come from all three regions of Jammu and Kashmir?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ And so started the process of the dialogue – between the different regions of Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir, and between us and ‘the rest of India’.
The first meeting, in Jammu last March, was the testing ground. I was so apprehensive that no one would come. When I went to the hall of the venue and looked at all those chairs, I said, ‘Take some of these out, there are too many.’ But I was amazed at the response we got. Many more came than I had expected. In Srinagar in June and again in September, the numbers were beyond all expectation. This has convinced me that this is an idea whose time has come. People are ready to listen to something new, something concrete and positive. Now I feel that I can dream again, for Kashmir.
Three years back, I went along with a documentary film group to a spot near the village of Drang, not very far from the tourist resort of Tangmarg. What followed left a lasting impression on me. While roaming around, we came across a few half-naked children with running noses, busy playing with some stones and sticks in the forest. On seeing us the children, who were five or six years old, suddenly started crying and shrieking for their mothers and ran towards a nearby mud house. Though we tried our best to calm them they wouldn’t listen to us and with even louder shrieks they continued running for ‘safety’. It was evident from their reaction that they were terrified of us.
Bewildered, we narrated this event to an elderly person from a nearby village. ‘These children have never before seen people like you carrying all these strange things’ (pointing towards our denim clothes, the video camera and allied equipment), we were told. The conditions in our villages, where most of our people live, are so difficult, so tough and so untouched by modernity that a simple encounter with people like us from the city is enough to send the village children running for safety.
If this anecdote is any indication, it is beyond doubt that the biggest flaw with our development plans is that these have remained more or less urban-centred. The fruits of progress and development are either yet to reach sizeable chunks of the population living in the rural areas or the pace of development in these areas is so slow that that the gap between urban and rural life is just too big.
My dream is of a clean, healthy, developed, peaceful, modern village, where anything you want to happen happens – no more, no less, in the best of all possible worlds. Although the gold dust of fantasy very rarely makes the gold bricks required by reality, still it doesn’t limit one’s dreams. And if the aim is clear and directed towards the greater good, I have found that dreams automatically carve out paths leading to realisation.
William Ogburn in his famous theory of cultural lag points out that the uneven rates of change in different sectors of society gives birth to social stress. In fact it is this social stress that results in the sharp rural-urban divisions, which, if left unattended, festers into grievous social unrest. A peaceful and healthy relationship between the various sections and sectors of society is not possible unless there is an equitable distribution of opportunities for progress and development between all individuals and groups within society.
The village economy in Kashmir is much like that of the rest of the country, i.e., it is predominantly agrarian. The land reforms of the early fifties were a significant development as they liquidated serfdom and gave everybody some land. But very little was done subsequently in terms of the further emancipation and development of the rural people. Although an average villager owns a substantial portion of land which should have been sufficient to bring him economic prosperity, this has not happened. Rural people not only lack access to modern agricultural technology and knowhow but, given the lack of other socio-physical infrastructure, they remain mired in abject conditions of misery. Not only is clean drinking water a distant dream but the other basic amenities relating to health and hygiene, education, electricity, communication too are not available to them.
Unlike in the past, per capita income is no longer the yardstick for gauging the welfare of the people. Instead, it is the degree of access to basic facilities that determine developmental levels. For instance, in Kashmir today, though the people are ready to buy electricity, the government is in no position to sell it to them. Similarly, people can pay for better health facilities but the government is in no position to market these let alone provide them free.
I believe that if people are provided with basic civic amenities, it will automatically bring about changes in their mentality and attitudes which in turn will lead to the overall physical, social and psychological improvement of village society as a whole. Of course, this can only happen with the active cooperation and participation of the local population. For this what is needed is that the villagers be provided the necessary technical expertise and support so as to coordinate their efforts and channelise the locally available talent and resources in a productive manner.
To begin with, if the dry lavatory system in the village is replaced with wet lavatories, this alone will bring about a marked change in the lifestyles of the people. In fact this change alone will trigger a series of events that will follow, supplement and complement each other in a sequential order. For instance, the introduction of a wet lavatory system necessitates laying down a network of pipes and taps for the supply of water. Once the taps are laid down, pure and safe drinking water will be available to the village. A drainage system and sewage management techniques will follow. This, besides bringing about a big change in the overall outlook of the village will also inculcate a better sense of health and hygiene among the rural folk. Similarly, when the drains are laid down, improved and pucca roads will also have to be provided.
Cattle-rearing is a major rural activity which can be developed on modern, scientific lines to improve not only overall productivity, but also in creating an environment-friendly attitude in the village people. If the village is provided with a few biogas plants, it will prove a great boon. Biogas, besides fulfilling the energy requirements of the village will also reduce the villagers’ dependence on the forests for firewood and will thus aid in checking deforestation, a major ecological hazard today. These plants will also be of great help in solid waste management.
Human faeces and cow dung – two major pollutants in the village environs – will be effectively and productively managed through these biogas plants. Biogas will thus not only provide the village with cheap energy but will also supply quality manure. This will automatically minimise the farmers’ dependence on expensive and toxic chemical fertilizers and aid in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of the environment.
Along with this infrastructural and economic development, education – the window to the modern world – will of course be a major thrust area. Not only will education at primary and secondary levels will be a prime focus, but the educated youth can be involved in adult literacy programmes so as to achieve total literacy in the village. Here again both technical as well as infrastructural assistance would be needed.
A small dispensary, manned by a specialist and the necessary para-medical staff, will go a long way in improving the health facilities of the village. In fact, this and the other facilities can be made available for nearby villages as well.
Most villages in Kashmir have a good network of canals and streams. These can be harnessed for the generation of electricity. For this, micro-hydel projects, much like those in vogue in China can provide the village the requisite power, thereby making it self-sufficient in electricity.
The entire valley, thanks to its climatic conditions, is amply suited for both horticulture and floriculture. And both these can be exploited to improve the economic conditions of the village. The latest horticulture and floriculture techniques can be introduced with the technical and infrastructural support of the relevant government departments and expert NGOs in the field. Cold storage, transport and marketing facilities can be organised on a cooperative basis to productively channelise the villagers’ efforts in these spheres. For the B and C grade horticultural produce, which often goes waste, a jam and juice making plant could be set up. Similarly for floriculture products, refrigerated vans if provided, will benefit the growers immensely in transportation of their produce from field to market.
Acommunity hall in the village will act as a nodal point from where all the activities of the village can be coordinated. It will act as a cultural centre as well as a meeting point for the villagers to deliberate over and discuss issues facing the village. A library and a reading room with the community hall will prove of immense help as through it the villagers can keep themselves abreast with the happenings of the world. The community hall will also have a STD facility, a community television set, and a small computer centre. The computer centre besides providing for access to the Internet and e-mail, can be used as a database for the village. Similarly, computer related know-how can be imparted to the interested students in this centre.
Our villages are rich in both natural as well as human resources. What is needed is a serious, concerted and continuous effort to coordinate and channelise the activities of the population in a positive direction. This is what will be attempted in the model village I dream of. U Thant, a former Secretary General of the United Nations, once said: ‘It is no longer resources that limit decisions. It is the decision that makes resources.’ Thus all we have to do is to assist and coordinate the efforts of the villagers and help them in making positive decisions. For this we have to offer them our trust and cooperation and lead them towards progress and prosperity. We have to give them the choice to decide for themselves between change and status quo. And once they decide in favour of change, the resources will follow.