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Kashmir's new generation

Muzamil Jaleel
13 October 2008

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When Sameer Ahmad Lone shouts slogans, his voice is rough and grating. No wonder, for he has been declaiming them for hours. Sometimes the 22-year-old joins other young men to make a sports-style huddle and dance to the tune of a new chorus. He looks exhausted but his face glows with passion as soon as the cry for freedom emerges from within the group.
Muzamil Jaleel is the bureau chief of the Indian Express in Srinagar. He has won the Kurt Schork Award and the International Federation of Journalists' award for conflict reporting.

Also by Muzamil Jaleel in openDemocracy:

"Kashmir's bus ride to peace" (18 April 2005)

"Kashmir's tragic opportunity" (4 November 2005)

The date of the protest may be recorded as one of the more important in the modern history of Kashmir: 11 August 2008. Both the event itself (precipitated by a dispute over a Hindu pilgrimage which quickly acquired an explosive political dimension) and the tactics used suggested a change in the very contours of the conflict in Kashmir, where thousands have died in an armed rebellion against India since 1990. For the first time in eighteen years, the whole of Kashmir seemed out on the streets: hundreds of thousands of people had swelled the highway that penetrates the "line of control" (LoC) dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

With chants on their lips and fists raised high in the air, the crowd's aim was to march until they could - by sheer force of peaceful numbers - cross to Muzaffarabad (in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir) and thus trample this heavily militarised border. Sameer Ahmad Lone and his friend and neighbour, 17-year-old Insar Ahmad Bhat, were just two of those who had joined. The lives of these two young men have been shaped by a tragic period in Kashmir's history, yet they are also representative of a new force that is attempting to overcome it.

A pained past

Sameer's father Mohammad Shaban Lone had begun his own journey in the early 1990s, fired by passion for Kashmir's independence in the early stages of Kashmir's first mass uprising against Indian rule. In his case, he had crossed the line of control in secret to get arms training and fight with an AK-47 rifle. Eventually, Mohammad was arrested and released after a two-and-a-half year jail term. Sameer's choice is different: he has elected not to inherit the blood- debt of Kashmir, but to fight with words rather than bullets.

Sameer is an undergraduate student who studies humanities in Baramulla College. Insar, from Ushkoora village in Kashmir's northern district of Baramulla, has just left high school. His father Ghulam Mohideen Bhat too had crossed the line of control to become a militant, only to be killed in a gunfight with Indian troops in 1992. "I don't even remember my father",  Insar said. "My mother says I was too young to remember his face''.  Also on the Kashmir conflict in openDemocracy:

Gurharpal Singh, "The India-Pakistan summit: hope for Kashmir?" (16 February 2004)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan's mountain tsunami" (11 October 2005)

Jan McGirk, "Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake" (19 October 2005)

Beena Sarwar, "Kashmir's earthquake: don't care or don't know?" (14 November 2005)

Farooq Siddiqui, "India's democracy deficit in Kashmir" (31 May 2007)

Ravinder Kaur, "India and Pakistan: partition lessons" (16 August 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Kosovo to Kashmir: the self-determination dilemma" (22 May 2008)

The two young men are burning with anger towards New Delhi; but unlike their fathers, they have chosen another path. "The sentiment for azadi (freedom from India) runs in my blood. We sacrificed everything. Our lives have been destroyed - completely destroyed - when our father was killed. My older brother had to leave school to do manual labour and feed us", Insar says. "I will not pick up a gun. But I will fight. I will fight through other means. I will join every protest, shout slogans and march with people. We have to fight peacefully". He said that he feels that the government has no option but to submit to the protestors who fill the streets in hundreds of thousands. "They open fire at people but for how long?'' he asks.  "How long can they kill peaceful protestors?'' 

Sameer and Insar have been participating in the demonstrations almost every day, leaving home in the morning to walk around two kilometres along a narrow road that takes them to the town. The protestors had been keeping in touch through mobile-phones - which arrived in Kashmir in 2003, bringing a communications revolution. The government banned text-messages immediately after the first in this latest wave of protests, but this attempt to make the action too expensive to participate in did nothing to diminish or break it. 

Insar's father was a tailor before he decided to join the militant movement. "My mother says he always talked about azadi and I have no doubt that he shed his blood for Kashmir", he says. "I always think of my father. I always try to create his image in my mind. Life has been extremely difficult for us without father. I know what it means to lose a father. I don't want anybody to lose their father." 

The turbulent legacy of the last two decades is palpable in the bitterness of the two friends' recollections. "They would denigrate our fathers by calling them terrorists because they had joined the armed movement", Sameer says. "We don't have guns in our hands. We shout slogans and demonstrate but we too demand independence. How will they describe us now?'' he asks.

Sameer recalls the days when his father was away in jail. "It was very hard for us. At times we had nothing to eat. My maternal uncles helped a bit and my mother also did menial jobs. Mother had no money and there was nobody to pay for our school [tuition] fees. The school let me and my brother and sister stay but didn't promote us to the next class. We lost two years that way."

Sameer's father Mohammad Shaban Lone says that armed movement is not needed now. "When I became a militant, the situation was altogether different. It was an extreme step because we felt nothing else works", he says. "We have realised that it is impossible to fight and win with guns. We have sacrificed an entire generation of our young men during the armed struggle. Now there is no option but to fight peacefully". Mohammad says that he understands the pain and anguish of his son. "While I was away in jail, he was suffering. He is angry but I am happy that he doesn't want to become a militant". Since his release from jail, he has been working in the small apple-orchard of his family and has joined a group of former militants in north Kashmir to support each other and help rebuild torn lives.

Sameer and Insar are two among many. Thousands of young men like them, who were toddlers when the armed rebellion began across Kashmir in 1990, have become the aroused but peaceful frontline figures of this latest period of separatist uprising. They have been met on several occasions by gunfire from Indian security forces, which has killed (at the time of writing) fifty-eight unarmed protestors. But the use of the gun has - so far - remained almost wholly one-sided, and retaliation has been limited to desperate stone-throwing.

Kashmiri militant groups, sensing the public mood, declared a unilateral ceasefire. True, intermittent clashes with the Indian security forces continue (six militants were killed in two separate incidents along the line of control on 11-12 October 2008); but a space for politics has been opened. Will it now be widened, or closed?

A turned page

This latest shift has not taken place overnight. There has been a debate within Kashmir's civil- society movements on the way forward since 9/11 had the effect across the world (in ways aided by those with an interest in such confusion) of blurring the line between peaceful campaigning and armed struggle. What is interesting about the latest phase of this debate in Kashmir is that it is not just the secular leadership within Kashmir's separatist movement who are among the proponents of non-violence, but Islamists too.

Kashmir's separatist leadership is following the popular mood and attempting to mobilise society to achieve its goal without using force. The most ardent Islamist among Kashmir's separatist leadership, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has consistently urged the protestors to remain peaceful. Indeed, the new mobilisations have created their own political dynamic, in that the intensity of the unarmed protests has forced the separatist leadership (after years of dividing along hawk-dove lines) to unite. The leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Yasin Malik, for example, was among the first group of young Kashmiri men to pick up the gun in 1990; now, inspired by Gandhi, he is now holding hunger-strikes to push for the separatist demand. The other top separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, heads a conglomerate of moderate separatists whose credentials too are exclusively political.

A separatist movement that transforms gun-battles into vehement but non-violent marches challenges New Delhi to refine its own thinking and tactics. So far, however, the response from India's capital is unchanged from 1990. Then, when Kashmir erupted and millions of people took to the streets demanding independence, New Delhi dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to contain the uprising and regain control over Kashmir. This "iron-fist policy" underpins its attitude today: militarism, not politics, is in the lead. It is still prepared, as before a planned demonstration on 6 October 2008, to turn Srinagar into a gated city and to detain leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik to prevent them taking part and inspiring their followers.

True, New Delhi has offered talks to Kashmiri separatists during these eighteen years, especially at moments of extreme crisis. Even militant commanders joined in dialogue to find a solution. But the cycle became familiar: a temporary calming of tempers in Kashmir each time would mean that the process became nothing more than a photo-op, and failed soon after. In the absence of political progress, the militant groups - always suspicious of the talks in any event - would escalate violence and thus change the discourse. The din of bombs came to overshadow the whispers of peace (see Sumantra Bose, "Kashmir - missed chances for peace", BBC, 22 August 2008).

But today's different dynamic of events removes the justification of New Delhi's hardline approach. In 1990, New Delhi justified its military response by reference to the armed rebellion that had followed the public uprising. Now, it faces a new - and unarmed - wave of opposition led by a fresh generation of protestors that is enthusiastic about peaceful means alone. The five major public protests that have taken place since 11 August 2008 have confirmed this non-violent impulse. A simple declaration of three English words - "we want freedom'' - is now uttered even among the poor and uneducated people of Kashmir.

New Delhi needs to take serious note of these latest developments, upgrade its thinking accordingly, and respond with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist - and begin a sincere process of dialogue. If they do so, the reward may go far wider than Kashmir; for if the transformation from guns to peaceful mobilisation takes root, Kashmir could become a pioneer among Muslim conflict-zones - and perhaps become an inspiration to those engaged in comparable conflicts across the world.

If the stakes are high, so are the risks. India's state authorities must recognise what is happening before their eyes: that a people are laying claim to a moral authority as the foundation of a political objective, and in pursuit of trying by an act of collective will to replace a violent movement with a mass-based political struggle. The world's largest democracy needs to find a way to engage with a campaign inspired in part by the very Gandhian ideal on which India too was founded. If it fails, Sameer, Insar and many others of their generation will lose faith in slogans; some in desperation may go looking for the long-buried Kalashnikovs of their fathers. In that event, Kashmir will repeat the worst of its recent history instead of transcending it, making prospects of peace again a mirage.

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