SRINAGAR: Waking up to the news of Manan Wani trapped in an encounter was never going to be easy for anyone in Kashmir. It was followed by a lot of chaos especially on social media. Some were calling it fake news, others celebrating his escape from cordon without realising that this is actually the new modus operandi of security agencies, to mitigate any sudden outburst of anger from people, as happened in Burhan Wani’s case. The security agencies deliberately created confusion in the air about whether Manan was alive or dead, and succeeded in averting any sudden violent protests.

Things are evolving, the security agencies have learnt new methods of dealing with protests, and pre- and post-encounter scenarios. With new technologies, strategies, mitigation and management in place, the work for security forces has become easier. But one thing remains unchanged, the sufferings of common Kashmiris.

We died in the ’90s like sheep and we die today the same way, unnoticed, unheard and unvalued.

Manan’s death generated a widespread debate across Kashmir. With some questioning his decision to mix gun and pen, and some venerating him as a symbol of resistance, but most agreeing that given the present scenario Manan was left with no option but to pick up the gun.

I knew Manan from his student days at AMU. We were friends on Facebook and I could see and feel the political acumen of him. On Facebook he would discuss different issues, we had a few small discussions, and his interest in student activism was what I adored the most.

The years passed and I could see him growing, writing blogs and winning awards at conferences. I can feel the kind and type of effort he had to put in to make it to one of the best institutions for a PhD degree, as I come from the same district to which he belonged and both of us had a conflict-ridden childhood.

Kupwara is the most militarised district of Kashmir. Economically and educationally a downtrodden area, the district has to bear the brunt of the ongoing conflict, with some of the most brazenly horrific incidents in the ongoing conflict witnessed in the district. It’s never easy to excel in studies if you come from Kupwara.

Manan was amongst those rare youth from the district who through their hard work managed to make it to good institutions to pursue their dreams. He comes from the area which produced the Muslim world’s well known theologian of the 20th century, Allama Anwar shah Kashmiri, a scholarly figure who is known throughout the world for his works. The Tehreek e Hurriyat’s current head Ashraf Sehrai also comes from the same area. And Shah Faesal, the first Kashmiri IAS topper who almost inspired a generation in Kashmir, is from his neighbouring village.

So one could well ask why Manan wasn’t inspired to choose the path of the scholarly Anwar Shah, the peaceful revolutionary Ashraf Sehrai or the youth icon Shah Faesal. Why did he end up picking the gun and dying at such a tender age?

Political analysts, think tanks or armchair journalists in their cozy rooms may present different theories responsible for his decision to pick up the gun. But for someone living in Kashmir, especially those belonging to the nineties generation like Manan, his decision to pick the gun won’t surprise many. In the past too, many highly educated youth from affluent families have joined the armed insurgency and so do many today. There is darkness all round in Kashmir. How New Delhi has handled the Kashmir fiasco since 1947 and even today is enough for anyone to get fed up with the system.

From Delhi's favourite mainstream leaders in Kashmir, who have only eroded the image of Delhi in Kashmir through their wrongdoings, to its extreme ‘muscular’ policies, people in Kashmir have somehow convinced themselves that the Government of India is not going to listen to them. Killings, curfews and strikes, and extraordinary laws like AFSPA and the PSA, is the atmosphere in which a Kashmiri lives and darkness is all she finds around.

A couple of days ago, a famous Kashmiri columnist wrote that even if New Delhi decides to carpet bomb Srinagar, no one will bat an eye, and there will be huge support for it. Kashmiris feel there hardly is any sympathy at all in New Delhi, or for that matter in the hearts of most Indians, for Kashmiris.

In such a scenario, educated and politically aware youth will certainly feel heart-wrenched, and will try to think out of the box from their own perspective. This ends up with people like the bright scholar Manan Wani picking up the gun.

Oversimplified theories like radicalisation, brainwashing, unemployment aren’t enough to convince a rational mind for the decision of likes of Manan Wani to pick up the gun. It is this darkness and hopelessness for a peaceful and dignified life in Kashmir which is pushing youth towards the gun.

On most normal days in Kashmir there is a Twenty20 match of bloodbath on the streets, murder, maiming, stone pelting, pellets, bullets, on and on. At night, someone like me who is fed up with this violence turns to TV channels to feel the mood of Indian intellectuals. Listening to them makes one more nervous, the kind of venom some of them spit against Kashmiris, how brazenly they justify killings and brutalities in Kashmir without listening to our side of the story.

I immediately turn off my TV. It has been more than three years that I and many like me have ever watched a news debate related to Kashmir on any Indian TV channel.

What should a common Kashmiri do, when they feel there is no one around to listen to them, to sympathise with them, let alone to talk of raising their voice for Kashmiris?

When it comes to Kashmir, India’s left, right and centre seem to be on the same page. They don’t consider Kashmir as a serious political issue that needs an immediate solution. Rather, everyone has inputs to give on how to manage Kashmir, how to replace bullets with pellets, and pellets with plastic bullets. But no one is advocating for peace in Kashmir through the initiation of a dialogue process with all concerned parties in the dispute. Kashmir has been craving peace for decades and Kashmiris will wholeheartedly welcome any positive steps for talks.

Manan was an arduous reader, fond of many western writers like Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemingway. A vivid writer who published many blogs, including political sarcasm highlighting multiple sociopolitical issues. He got his early education from Navodaya Vidyalaya, a well known schooling system of the central government enriched with a dynamic and inclusive social milieu. He worked in the best labs with a scientific temper, interacted with some of the best brains during his student activism. Yet he ended up picking the gun.

We may not be able to infer what exactly went through his mind, but we can make certain correlations. How in the 21st century, when all the facilities of life are available at one’s fingertips in other parts of India, when his counterparts are living a dignified life in other parts of India, when there is so much hue and cry even for animal rights, but the rights of Kashmiris are ignored and not taken care of.

Even to reach home, someone like Manan has to cross dozens of security check posts. When you are not allowed to roam freely, when you are questioned about your hairstyle and attire, and none of your achievements and educational credentials come to your rescue from the wrath of cops, you end up with a gun in your hand.

When there seems no hope of any possible talks between India and Pakistan. When Kashmir takes a central position in the BJP’s 2019 election agenda, for no good reason. When there is regular scratching with Article 35A and Article 370. When you have to satisfy the average voter from the Hindi belt with your muscular policy in Kashmir… The common Kashmiri feels terrified and he foresees only darkness in the offing.

With new army camps being installed in hitherto peaceful areas of Kashmir and conditions seeming reminiscent of the 90s, or even worse than that, expect more youth joining the militancy, more violence and more deaths. As security experts have predicted, Manan Wani’s figure may attract many youth from colleges and universities towards militancy.

Kashmiris want peace and a serious effort from the government of India could save hundreds of youth from turning to militancy and dying at a tender age. History stands testimony that even a tiny gesture for peace is always welcomed by the people of Kashmir. If New Delhi truly considers Kashmiris as its citizens, it should immediately take measures for the restoration of peace in Kashmir, so that the confidence of disgruntled and alienated youth can be won back.

Instead of simply managing Kashmir, had the respective governments taken certain strong and bold steps like revoking AFSPA at least from certain militancy-free areas of the state, demilitarising civilian areas, or punishing those guilty of human rights violations, the ground situation would have been entirely different. Such steps would have restored people’s faith in democracy to a large extent, and the bloodbath we are witnessing today on the streets of Kashmir may have been minimised.

(Ishfaq Jamal is a columnist for Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and other Kashmir-based dailies).

(Cover Photo Basit Zargar)