Kashmir’s youth bulge

SHUJAAT BUKHARI

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THE youth bulge has been at the centre of any debate on Jammu and Kashmir during the past decade, in particular with reference to unrest in the Kashmir Valley, which has been limping back to normality after witnessing an upheaval for over 20 years. Discourses on Kashmir are expectedly at variance, but the issues of youth find a place in each one of them. While there is more than a single layer of the problem that confronts the youth in Kashmir, at its heart is the political instability the state has witnessed since the partition of India. Kashmiri youth have always been at the crossroads of the situation, confused with having to face many issues at any one time. From deprivation of political rights, merit and justice, denial of a rightful place in the system, to undecided identity, they face a range of challenges. While unemployment is one aspect of the problem in Jammu and Kashmir that could push an ordinary youth towards frustration, a choked democratic space and a sense of insecurity in their own land remains the biggest hurdle in their growth. They might have avenues for better education but are in no position to widen the scope of their thinking, far less implementing the ideas for a prosperous place with the help of knowledge. The quagmire they are caught in comes in the way of establishing their identity. They aspire for many things but are held back from pursuing any of them due to immense pressure from all sides. Kashmir’s youth have talent and are capable of channelizing it to turn their place into a real paradise, but the experiences of the past 21 years have resulted in their failing to realize any dream of being free.

Politics has been at the centre stage of Kashmir’s situation and today’s youth, like their counterparts elsewhere, also set out their on journey in tune with political freedom. However, more than 65 years have passed since India got freedom but Kashmir’s fate continues to hang in the balance. The reality is that the state once ruled by the Dogra maharaja has been sliced into three – one part controlled by India, another by Pakistan and the third by China. Many tricks have been played to keep the Kashmir issue alive and not resolve it and this sense of denial of political rights has persisted across four generations now. While the part administered by Pakistan did not see any visible political revolt after it went into Islamabad’s control in 1947, the Indian Jammu and Kashmir has always been under a constant shadow of political turmoil. This has significantly contributed to unrest among the youth.

 

The story of Kashmir’s youth is directly linked to broken promises, shrinking of democratic space and denial of any meaningful participation in a genuine democratic exercise. While youth in the rest of India have speedily become part of a changing economic paradigm and possibly even benefited from it, the youth in Kashmir are still mired in the question of their political future. The last 21 years have seen unprecedented pressure on Kashmiri youth, as they are the ones who have borne the brunt of the conflict. Thousands have been killed, jailed and many continue to languish in jail. This has made a huge impact on a generation that grew up after the 1989 armed rebellion.

In Kashmir today, the politics is divided mainly into two camps – the mainstream and the separatists. The latter, which ‘flourished’ over the last 21 years claim to espouse the cause of ‘right of self determination’ to ‘decide the future of the state.’ Many among the separatists do not agree that the allegations of ‘large-scale’ rigging in the 1987 assembly elections, fought jointly by National Conference and Congress against a newly floated loose alliance, Muslim United Front (MUF), was the main reason for Kashmiri youth to raise a banner of revolt and join the armed rebellion. But those who have closely followed the developments in Kashmir point out that most of those who resorted to militancy in 1988 were the youth who had taken an active part in the elections and had seen the 1987 elections as the last hope within a ‘democratic set up’ to address their grievances.

Mohammad Yasin Malik, the leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Syed Salahuddin, the head of pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, are two living examples of the defiance to that situation. Malik was the chief election agent of Salahuddin who contested the elections from Amira Kadal constituency under his real name, Mohammad Yousuf Shah. While it is widely believed that he won the election, the government led by Farooq Abdullah threw him in jail and declared his close relative, Mohiuddin Shah, as the victor. This sense of being cheated led to a mass uprising among the youth who crossed over to the Pakistani side of Kashmir in the thousands to get trained in the use of arms, thus kick-starting the protracted armed conflict.

 

With political unrest embedded in the psyche of an ordinary Kashmiri mind since 1947, there were many attempts by the youth even before 1987 to take the issue centre stage. The governments foiled them, though without taking any serious view of the growing disillusionment among the youth. However, 1987 proved different as it led to a prolonged conflict, extracting a heavy price of seeing an entire young generation involved in it. The feeling of denial of political rights further strengthened in 1987, thereby reopening the chapter of what many call the ‘unfinished’ agenda of Partition. Pushing the educated youth of Kashmir into a gun culture changed the society and, unsurprisingly, the thinking of the following generations has evolved along those lines.

 

Today’s youth in Kashmir are very different from those in the rest of India. While being part of modern education that has spread all over India, Kashmiri youth, particularly those born after the 1989 revolt of militancy and who are in the age group of 18 to 22, form a special category. For them a soldier on the streets of Srinagar who asks for proof of identity and forcibly makes them wait on the highway till the time an army convoy passes, is what India represents. Controversial laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), denial of delivery of justice and merit are other important benchmarks which intensifies their belief that Jammu and Kashmir was never treated as an ‘integral part’ of India, unlike claims by governments and political parties. Harassment of Kashmiri students in universities in the rest of India also stands testimony to the fact how suspicion vis-a-vis an ordinary Kashmiri is deep-rooted in the minds of a majority of Indians.

Besides a pampered political setup, which a common Kashmiri believes serves the purpose of New Delhi, disillusionment draws on a mixture of many things. It comes through the high-handedness of the Indian state and rests in the corrupt system that has been ‘protected’ to ensure New Delhi’s supremacy. Apart from the strong presence of the armed forces, it is a particular political class which has distanced the youth from any engagement that might help resolve even contentious political issues.

 

The impact of violence on the minds of the youth over the last two decades, has contributed to a belief that there is no scope to change anything. It has played an important role in shaping their ideologies, in one or the other perspective. This also makes them feel that they cannot be the agents of change and transformation in the society. A study on Kashmiri youth by Oxfam in 2003 claims that as many as 90.38 per cent of the respondents interviewed were angry and families of 63.44 per cent of the respondents were directly affected by violence. ‘Students demonstrated grave impacts of the violence, which were portrayed in their painting, writing and conversation’, the study revealed. ‘The only collective activity possible in Kashmir is participation in weddings or attending parties at the mosques.’

Similarly, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in a study in 2006 found a huge toll on the mental well-being of communities. It revealed that the suicide rate had increased by 400 per cent due to violence and ‘58.69 per cent youth had experienced traumatic events, most commonly gunfire and explosions.’ While the influence of religion has significantly increased in the past 20 years, it has nevertheless failed to change the liberal outlook of the society. A 2010 study by the Sociology Department at Kashmir University showed that 72 per cent of respondents in the age group of 15-18 years believed in religious tolerance and coexistence of religions.

A continued feeling of living under siege in their own homeland, coupled with economic deprivation and denial of participation in the democratic processes, has led to dejection. This has ultimately forced these youth to get together to take on the police and other security forces on a large scale. Just one incident of fake encounter in the remote Machil area in 2010 in which three youth were killed by the army, allegedly to get rewards and promotions, triggered a long cycle of violent unrest in the valley. As the youth took to the streets to protest repeated violations of human rights and absence of justice to victims, the cycle finally ended with the killing of 120 civilians. Thirty-four of these mostly young men were between the age of 11 and 20 years and 44 were between the ages of 21 to 30 years. A smaller number, 16, were above 31 years of age and three were between 5 to 10 years of age. The highest number, 39, was of students and rest were skilled/unskilled labourers and businessmen. They used stones to challenge the state apparatus but the response was the bullet.

 

Earlier in 2008 and 2009 too, the youth had actively participated in the protests in the Amarnath land row and alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian, widely believed to have been done by the state forces. However, an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation gave a clean chit to the forces and maintained that the women had died of drowning. The participation of youth in these protests has been termed by many as Kashmir’s transition from violence to non-violence in the backdrop of an armed rebellion of 20 years.

A study conducted by New Delhi based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation in the backdrop of 2010 agitation makes an interesting observation that most of the youth had no political affiliation. ‘An interesting observation is the response of the victims’ families to the question on political affiliations. When families were asked if they, or those who were killed, professed any political affiliations, an overwhelming 78 per cent cited a complete lack of political affiliation. There have been a number of claims of who led and how the protests were sponsored or channelled, but insofar as the victims of the protests are concerned, neither they, nor their families, claim to belong to any one political faction’ (CDR, Kashmir Unrest, 2010).

 

Of late though, militancy is on the wane, the participation of Kashmiri youth in the separatist militancy has declined and more and more youth are interested in pursuing education. But the sense of political disillusionment has not gone down, reflective of the state’s tough response. For example, in 2010 alone, nearly 5000 youth were arrested for having indulged in stone pelting. A few hundred, including some minors, were booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which has of late proved to be more draconian than even the AFSPA. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who came to power by creating high hopes among the youth, failed to seize the opportunity to attract them towards the larger goal of economic development of the state. Though he announced general amnesty for these (stone pelting) youth in 2012, his decision is yet to be implemented.

Unemployment is another serious concern which the Kashmiri society is facing. While the educated youth appear unwilling to compromise on their political concerns, at the same time they look towards better opportunities in government, semi-government and the corporate sector. In the past few years, a new trend of joining the civil services can be discerned. With a Kashmiri doctor, Shah Faesal, topping the civil services exam in 2010, more and more Kashmiri youth are aspiring to join the elite services. Every year not less than five youth from the state are making it to the All India Services. Similarly, thousands of Kashmiri youth are pursuing education in major cities of India, such as Delhi, Mumbai, Banglore and Pune, and looking for better opportunities.

However, those who stay back in the valley still find it hard to get employment. With the state government seen as the only job provider, its depleted exchequer comes in the way of reaching many jobless people. An absence of industries and no visible extension of corporate houses in Kashmir further increases frustration among these youth who make up about 40 per cent of the population. According to the Oxfam survey, ‘Kashmir today is a sea of unemployed youth, a place where infrastructure is crippled and there is almost no effort to encourage private enterprise and self-employment.’ The study reveals that opportunities for professional education remain very limited. Out of roughly 700,000 youth in the age group of 18-30 years, close to 50 per cent remain unemployed despite higher education.

 

In addition to the fact that employment is a major issue confronting youth, addressing the political conflict also occupies a special place in the entire discourse revolving around them. A recent survey by the London based NGO, Conciliation Resources, has concluded that people working on youth issues have focused on youth bulges, education, employment, health, leisure activities and armed conflict. ‘The discussion around armed conflict has, however, been skewed by youth being viewed mostly as a contributing factor and not as a solution’, it notes. But it further argues, ‘Their needs of quality education, meaningful employment, proper healthcare and recreational activities are also genuine but these all have been made complex by the unresolved political conflict and the full potential of their lives is thus held hostage’ (Living in a Pressure Cooker Situation, Fayaz Ahmad Dar, Conciliation Resources, 2011).

 

What could conceivably resolve the conflict in the minds of youth is free democratic space. But the way this has been choked from time to time has only contributed to the confusion, with the result that their energies have never been properly channelized. Much before the partition in 1947, the student’s movement in Kashmir had played an important role in the awakening of political rights, but in the 21st century such movements are not allowed, even on university campuses. In early 1930, the Reading Room movement proved to be a major initiative for providing a platform for Kashmiri youth from where a tall leader such as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah emerged on the political scene. This was followed by the Young Man’s League in 1964 and then the Youth League in 1967, which ultimately culminated into an armed group called Al Fateh in 1968-70. The group, however, soon dissolved as most of its cadres were absorbed in the government service.

Until the 1975 Accord between Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi, no student’s movement existed. When Abdullah came into power, his party, the National Conference, formed its own youth wing but it remained closely associated with the party agenda rather than providing a larger space to the youth in general. Similarly, the Jamat-e-Islami launched its youth wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Tulba, that mainly worked in educational and social sector but the main objective was to spread the Jamat’s larger political ideology. However, a new youth outfit, Islamic Students League, emerged on the political scene. Its cadres were actively involved in the 1987 assembly elections, but they too soon lost heart. Notably, the first batch of the armed rebellion drew primarily on the cadres of ISL. Many of the current leaders in the separatist camp such as Yasin Malik, Shakeel Bakhshi and Javed Mir are among the founders of this organization.

With no independent student body being allowed to function, the frustration among the youth is on the rise. For example, Kashmir University has not allowed the student union to function on the campus. But two political parties from the mainstream camp have established their units, though they do not enjoy much support. Similarly, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi has visited the campus twice to interact with the students. To keep this ‘activity’ confined to a particular ideology has proved counter-productive in winning the heart and mind of the youth.

 

In such a constrained atmosphere, the youth in Kashmir are pushed to the wall. While they face the serious dilemma of political identity, their urge to be part of the rapid development around the world is also hitting a roadblock. Their aspirations are for political rights and a right to live with dignity, which could allow them to reap the benefits of economic development taking place in the subcontinent. Without addressing this political demand, the youth cannot be won over only by doling out economic largesse, which so far has only benefitted a small section of the political class in the valley. Even if they agree to wait for the resolution of political conflict, the endemic corruption does not allow them to be away from this. That is why the widespread belief that corruption is a tool which New Delhi uses to legitimize its rule in Kashmir through its ‘selected’ people. Similarly, even if elections are genuine, the ordinary Kashmiris believe that they are always rigged to ‘select’ those people who suit Delhi’s agenda in Kashmir.

 

* The article was written before the hanging of Afzal Guru.

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