It has been around eight decades since the youth of Kashmir first expressed their anger on the streets of Srinagar in 1931. Then the expression of their anger was seen as a sign of political catharsis. Long years of foreign rule and subjugation had brewed up a fury which was looking for a vent. The expression of anger on the streets also sought to re-assert the quest for Kashmiri identity and political emancipation. Today, some eight decades down the line, the expression and the quantum of that youth anger can still be seen in identical forms on Kashmir’s streets.
The subcontinent’s famous poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s philosophical and famous ‘Khaak-i-Arjimand’ couplet has long remained central to political philosophers’ understanding of the political volatility and spiritual restlessness in Kashmir. So what is it that sparks this anger even today?
When normal outlets of human expression remain choked, catharsis finds its likely way - either through slogans or rocks or other means of violent expression. There are reasons why despite the establishment of a ‘democratic’ political order in Jammu & Kashmir, the anger on its streets remains. The fundamental reason is political. There is a feeling of political and economic disempowerment. Kashmiri youth, faced with a strong state and its security apparatus, also nurse feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Dissent, peaceful or otherwise, has almost always meant persecution. Some youth also tend to see their religious identity under attack. The cumulative result is accumulated anger.
The fourth generation of Kashmiris is today doing what the first generation did some 60-70 years ago; they are venting their anger and frustration with the political system through street resistance. Having no platform for expressing their political opinion, they resort to hurling stones.
As the gun has taken the back seat, slogans, street protests and hurling stones are the order of the day. It is easy to attribute this street resistance to acts of ‘miscreants’ or ‘anti-social elements’, but ignoring the underlying factors constitutes a grave folly. It would be wiser to acknowledge that in an environment of political and economic suffocation, this street resistance means psychological catharsis. There is a clear action and reaction pattern involved.
In the autumn of 2009, security agencies in Kashmir sought to pick up boys who were engaged in street resistance. Over 400 youth were picked up during one single night in Srinagar and other towns. After the arrest, the charges being slapped on the arrested youth ranged from ‘attempted murder’ to ‘waging war against the state’. Public Safety Act came in handy. But did this crackdown result in silencing Kashmir’s streets? And what was done to address the issues that triggered this rage in the first place?
From conventional law and order and security points of view, a state crackdown is a natural reaction. But have the last six decades of this street rage management through a security approach worked in Kashmir? Has it silenced the streets? Has it won the Kashmiri heart and mind? Once in jail, another generation of political prisoners who had chosen peaceful means of expressing their political dissent takes birth. And what is the outcome? ‘Reformed’ youth after release, or a new brand of radicalized political activists with no faith in peaceful means of resistance?
Understanding the psychology of those who are detained and tortured is critical. These youngsters engage in means of peaceful resistance – sometimes even stone pelting – because the soldier on the street to them represents a political and military occupation. Undignified treatment to an angry young man during detention hurts his self respect. A slap or a punch on his face creates a deeper disillusionment in his mind. It reinforces his belief that no political system would work for him except the one of Azadi. It even rekindles emotions of revenge. Most importantly, it radicalizes his thoughts and visions of resistance. Suppression often leads to greater disquiet. And then angry young men don’t remain averse to violence.
India’s Home Minister, P Chidambaram in 2009 exhorted the Omar Abdullah government to seek a political course rather than a law and order one to manage the street anger in Kashmir. Such a statement from someone in India’s establishment signaled a welcome understanding and appreciation of Kashmir’s ground realities.
Kashmir has witnessed generations of its youth, espousing secular nationalist ideals for achieving Kashmir’s political goals, eventually embracing a radical religious worldview. Failure of secular, peaceful and democratic means in achieving political goals often leads to an embrace of a religious political ideology. And then the consequences prove disastrous. It is time to break away from the law-and-order approach in dealing with the Kashmiri youth anger. The new approach has to be political, and humane. There is no other short cut.