NEW DELHI: The third narrative that has emerged around the incident in Handwara that collected a mob, and has led to a spate of protests killing four youth and an old woman till now, is one of pathos, sorrow, exploitation that has come to associate itself with the Valley.

The young girl who appeared on a video shot by the army, denying that she had been molested by an army soldier but by a local youth, visibly frightened, almost incoherent remains at the centre of the story, with the police having detained her and her father at some undisclosed destination.

The communications in the Valley, always the first to be snapped when violence threatens the government, have virtually isolated Handwara where protests still continue, with more forces being “rushed” to Kashmir by the central government. Reporters in Srinagar have no idea now of what is happening inside Handwara, leading to wild rumours and speculation as the Kashmiris have learnt to expect the worst.

In New Delhi, a sense that the violence has spiralled out of control came from the decision to rush more forces to the Valley that has the dubious distinction of being one of the most militarized zones of the world. The violence is clearly spreading with clashes reported from Ganderbal (the Abdullahs home constituency), Kupwara, Baramulla town according to the very sketchy information being received.

The third narrative has now emerged from the young girls mother, terrified about the wellbeing of her husband and child.The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has questioned the police about the two who are said to be in ‘protective custody.’.

According to the mother, her daughter had gone to the washroom in the market, as she went in an army jawan came out and she screamed. The boys around the area immediately rushed to help, a crowd gathered and the Army and the police opened fire. She was neither molested by the Army or the youth, but just reacted out of fear as many young Kashmiris do at the sight of a soldier at such close proximity. The crowd collected, as it will, given the deep suspicions the Kashmiris entertain about the Army, and instead of dousing tempers and intervening immediately, the armed police and the Army opened fire as is its usual response when confronted with a mob in the Valley.Rubber bullets, despite any number of recommendations, have not been added to the police weaponry with even the standing orders to shoot below the waist not followed. Firing becomes the first resort, and as the injuries again demonstrated, firing to kill has become the standard operating procedure for the armed forces in Kashmir.

The first narrative built itself around the immediate trigger that collected the mob. The young schoolgirls scream and the presence of an Army soldier at the site led the young people, already living at the edge of the bayonet as it were, to come together in protest. As has been the trend for a couple of years at least now, being ignored entirely by New Delhi and the PDP government in the state, the crowd turned violent, it was fired upon and the first three persons died. A protest that the civilian authorities could have easily handled, provided the police and the Army had used lathis and water cannons and not the bullet in the first stance.

The story that the girl had been molested by an Army soldier spread like wildfire, as the Kashmir grapevine is highly volatile, fast and as the incident demonstrated furious. It has been made so further by the constant attack on the Valley by mainstream politicians in power both within and outside. The recent threat to Article 370, the constant comparisons and equations with Pakistan, the beating of Kashmiri students in states outside, the word ‘terrorist’ used to brand all Kashmiris… it is a long list that the ordinary Kashmiri who wants peace and development above else reels out. “They call us separatists, they are making us separatists,” a young journalist said. “In your view we are all terrorists anyways, aren’t we?” he asked.

And how did the state respond to this first story, after the initial spate of violence. Instead of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti visiting the area immediately, instead of forming a team with some credibility to come out with the facts within a 24 hour deadline, the government placed the Army in the line of fire by bringing out a counter video. As anyone following Kashmir---let alone Mufti and her politicians who are Kashmiris---could have told New Delhi, this was the worst counter that could have been conceived. For one, the rumour was the Army soldier was involved so it became a party with vested interests;

Two, the Army had opened fire and killed young Kashmiris and was completely in the dock by then;

Three, the Army has a history in Kashmir that even Army commanders in place and New Delhi governments have admitted, is to put it mildly, controversial.

So not one person in the Valley believed the second Army inspired narrative, that had the nervous girl saying on camera that she had been molested by a local youth. It perhaps gave an argument to the establishment outside Kashmir that was of course, pushed on the social media. But then what good is a story if it is not believed by the people most directly affected? The point here is not whether it was true or not at that time, the fact is that it was not believed as it came after three people lay dead in firing by the police and the Army in Handwara.

The third narrative now from the mother seems to be the honest and direct. As it pins the overreaction of both sides on a ‘scream’ that was a spontaneous response of a young Kashmiri girl, born and brought up in conflict, with her life infused with stories of atrocities and human rights violations.

It is this environment that needs to be understood by those making policy in New Delhi and Srinagar. One cannot say whether this response, of protests and firing and deaths, is what many in government desired at this stage. But it certainly has pushed parts of Kashmir over the edge, and even if contained with the use of force, it could prove the catalyst for a period of unrest and violence that might eclipse the 1990s. For the very simple reason that if the Valley is made to erupt through ham handed policies and abuse and threats as have been evident for the past few years, this time it will be from the inside not from the outside.

In that the 1990’s insurgency was fed by Pakistan across the border with terrorists being flushed into the Valley. Locals in the border villages told this reporter of armed men across the area, who they did not recognise and who were clearly not from within Jammu and Kashmir. These were the militants that came in large numbers at the time to lead the violence, with local Kashmiris becoming caught between the armed forces from India and the militants from Pakistan. This is a simplistic summary endorsed by Pakistani intellectuals, and Kashmiris, with some political parties in New Delhi now admitting the truth behind the claims of enforced disappearances, and deep violations of human rights at the hands of India.

Kashmir today has a new generation of young people, and as pointed out several times by this writer, they are highly political, well informed, sensitive and far more direct and honest in their responses than the older generations. They are also more on the edge, starting life with a negative than a positive, and this has led them since 2010 to question all that they see. Some suffer from a sense of victimhood, others who are more intelligent convert this into a demand for the realisation of their aspirations, and a unity that was not visible in the Kashmir of the 1980s-1990’s. This unity is unspoken, and was first evident when the protests following police firing on stone pelters in 2010. Young people collected together every now and again on various grievances to pelt stones at government targets, they were fired on, they died, they collected yet again…..and in the process 118 were killed in the summer/autumn months of 2010.

The unity reasserted itself during the floods when again the Kashmiri youth came together, in unspoken communication, in large scale rescue work. Initially there was coordination between the youth and the Army, but the big mainstream media did great disservice to the Kashmiris and to peace, by highlighting the role of the soldiers and ignoring the excellent work the youth had done in rescuing people with no facilities whatsoever. This again drove a wedge into what could have been an occasion for both the Army and the Kashmiris to come together with the government unable to bridge the gap with exemplary relief and rehabilitation measures.

There was no leader for these protests in 2010 initially. The Hurriyat leaders reputation was as low as it could get, as they were seen by the young generation as self serving. Even Syed Ali Shah Geelani, at the time did not have the following he has now. In fact, realising that there was no single leader he entered the field with a program for coordinated protests by the youth, and from then on became the ‘leader’ they so desperately needed to speak for them. The National Conference and the Congress government made the youth its enemy, and instead of reaching out, pushed them away through a series of actions starting with the police firing and mass arrests under the draconian Public Security Act.

The stock of this government sank so low that when the PDP and BJP emerged in alliance, there were many in Kashmir that welcomed the new government. But the jibes and the barbs by BJP leaders outside Kashmir created a sense of unease, with several incidents----two of these being the abject funds for the relief and rehabilitation of the flood victims, the beating of Kashmiri students in states outside---adding to the alienation and anger. A year down the line this was evident, with the support that Mufti got for forming a government with the BJP by many in Kashmir turning into severe criticism for his daughter.

This unity amongst the Kashmiri youth was visible in the immediate response to a young girls ‘scream.’ It was a reaction of panic and anger in an environment almost deliberately created by an unaccountable media, and a ruling establishment that is a victim at times of its own propaganda against Kashmir. The state government has refused to dialogue with the people, with the PDP losing its credibility and in the process, its authority with the people it represents.

The biggest mistake that New Delhi has always insisted on making is branding the Kashmiri youth as little more than separatists and/or terrorists. In the general accusations hurled at them, there is no effort in word or deed to differentiate. This is a faultline that can cost not just the Kashmiris, but India a great deal as the clock has been turned back rapidly now. Development and progress and dialogue could have strengthened the forces of democracy in the Valley, but this was never a priority.

Kashmiri young people berate, “you insist we are part of India? And you act as if we are enemies.” Perhaps those now ‘rushing’ forces to deal with a violence that could have been easily avoided by the government through prudent, sensitive, quick and efficient response should pause for thought. Or is that again asking for too much, as the only political party that has responded to the Handwara killings is the CPI(M) whose “the shooting of unarmed stone pelting crowds by the security forces, whichis the common practice in Kashmir, must be stopped forthwith. The people of Kashmir must be assured that such atrocities will not be tolerated,” does not seem to have any takers in New Delhi or for that matter in the corridors of power in Srinagar.

(Photograph: Basit Zargar)