When an army vehicle rumbles into a village in militancy-prone north Kashmir and a voice calls out, “Charge…”, this no longer heralds impending gunfire that sees people killed and property ravaged. Today, this signals the arrival of an army “cellphone charging patrol,” a lorry fitted with a generator and banks of sockets into which electricity-deprived villages can plug in their cell -phone chargers. This is the army’s response to complaints that local officials were exploiting villagers by demanding Rs 50 for charging a cell phone.
The army’s current operational philosophy in Kashmir – theatrically phrased as, “the heart is our weapon, not the AK-47” – implemented by an exceptional commander, Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, is just one of the changes visible in Kashmir. Another is the youth engagement programme of Kashmir’s Inspector General of Police, Shiv Murari Sahai, who aims to transform the J&K Police from a counter-militant force into a community police that works with troubled youngsters who are rejoining the mainstream. With just 150-odd fugitives remaining of the 2,000-3,000 militants that roamed the Srinagar valley a decade ago, these far-sighted officers have shifted their battleground to the Kashmiri psyche.
Sadly, the Kashmiri mindset remains a gaping wound. Within the blasé Indian leadership, which measures Kashmir violence by the number of coffins flown out of Srinagar and normalcy by how many tourists and Amarnath Yatris visit the valley, there is scant understanding of the seething resentment over the deaths of 120 protesters in street violence in 2010. The year before that, 2009, had seen months of street violence over (eventually unproved) accusations that two Kashmiri women had been raped and murdered by security forces near Shopian, in south Kashmir. In 2008, Kashmiri protests over the allocation of forestland to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board triggered a blockade in Jammu that led to Kashmir’s babbugosha (soft pear) crop rotting in trucks in the valley. With the face-off communalised along the Jammu-Kashmir Hindu-Muslim divide, the valley erupted in three months of frenzied street protests.
Those three years of police heavy-handedness resurrected a Kashmiri movement that was obviously going nowhere, even after consuming thousands of Kashmiri lives. Between 2008 and 2010 a new Kashmiri generation that was sick of its leaders – whether pro-India, pro-Pakistan or pro-independence (azaadi) – discovered its own revolutionary identity. Having seized the baton of separatism that generation will ensure, through unarmed street protests rather than armed militancy, that the azaadi struggle lives on.
Established Kashmiri separatist leaders, who built their followings over decades, now see their powers ebbing. “They follow the mob, not lead it,” says Engineer Rashid, an independent MLA from Langate and probably the only legislator who moves around without security. Srinagar’s most respected religious leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, concurs.
Can such yawning gulfs be bridged through the army’s softly-softly approach? I saw the relationship play out last week at a riveting seminar on “Enhancing Kashmiri pride”, for which General Hasnain had invited a large group of Srinagar students to Badami Bagh, his heavily fortified citadel in the city. A galaxy of speakers, including Kashmiri celebrities like Shah Faesal, the young doctor who topped the all-India civil services exam in 2009 and who is now the Additional DC in neighbouring Budgam, preached the message of hope. The students would quietly hear out every speaker before unleashing their anger during the Q&A sessions. “What is Kashmiri pride? Being frisked at checkpoints,” asked a young woman. “The security forces have broken the Kashmiris’ hearts,” another student said bitterly. “Kashmiris who go to India are all treated like terrorists; they can’t even rent a house in Delhi,” said a third. Each salvo was greeted with handclapping.
So what’s noteworthy here? Firstly, the Srinagar student, that most politicised of all Kashmiris, was debating ideas with the senior-most generals in Kashmir and freely criticising, even excoriating, the army. The depth of their anger somewhat surprised the army, which usually talks to village leaders who know the benefits of telling commanders what they want to hear. But the military listened.
Secondly, and even more encouragingly, the icy exchanges of the seminar melted during tea and lunch breaks into cordial conversations, often one-on-one between locals and officers. The same students who were blaming the security forces (the distinctions between army, paramilitary and police forces are seldom noticed by the Kashmiri public) for all their ills were chatting with army officers about education opportunities and jobs. The political and identity-related demands that were non-negotiable inside the seminar seemed less relevant in the format of human contact.
There are lessons here for those who would see. Firstly, Kashmir is a political issue that, without a political settlement, will outlive the last militant, the last Pakistani and the gainful employment of every last Kashmiri. Secondly, the Kashmiri people are ready for a face-saving political solution within India’s (and J&K’s) Constitution, no matter how vocally they demand azaadi. Thirdly, the army has (yet again) set the stage for a political solution by imposing an acceptable modicum of security; but it cannot create so much security that a political solution is no longer required. Fourthly, the incapacity of the J&K government is sucking the armed forces into the civil realm, running schools, skills development programmes and generating employment. An army engaged in the so-called Operation Sadbhavana is being diverted from its primary task.
The current détente is fragile. And the talented officials who have engineered it will not be around forever. Given government apathy in New Delhi and Srinagar, Kashmir remains a tinderbox that can be set alight by a single spark.