NEW DELHI: There was sufficient warning from persons associated with Kashmir while the NIT fracas was on. There were warnings, in articles by even the former Srinagar based 15 Corps Commander General Ata Hasnain, where he concluded, “No inquiry is going to satisfy anyone because when passions are inflamed, and no one has the national good at heart, this will become one more issue for point-scoring. This is the new state government’s first challenge. There will be more campus standoffs elsewhere in India now that the scope for a politics of confrontation via such incidents has been established. There’s only one victor in all this — our adversaries, for whom burning India internally continues to be the priority.”

However, instead of rushing to soothe inflamed passions and urge students--local and non-local---to bury the hatchet there were clear indications that someone, somewhere, was pushing a section of the students to step up the agitation. The national flag, as was the case in Jawaharlal Nehru University not so long ago, became central to the protests along with ‘bharat mata ki jai’. As in other campuses in India, those who waved the flag and shouted the slogan called themselves ‘nationalists’ and those who did not became the anti-nationals. This controversy played itself out with disastrous results in the Hyderabad Central University and JNU, but when brought into play in the NIT located in Srinagar the divisions created, and the abuse exchanged, turned into a Molotov cocktail that has the potential of spinning out of control.

Before detailing the protest at Handwara, and the Army over reaction against unarmed protesters in which two were killed, it is perhaps essential to examine the takeaways from the NIT controversy insofar as the sensitive, and increasingly volatile, state of Jammu and Kashmir is concerned. The first is the division created between the students, to feed into the politics being pursued at the national level where again the Kashmiris were pushed further into the branded ‘anti national’ corner by a polity that has refused to understand the nuances of the crisis within. This carried the threat of attacks on Kashmiri students outside the Valley, with Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh demonstrating this in action. This did lead to Kashmiri pandits from both within and outside the Valley to issue statements to express solidarity with Kashmiri students, and question the propaganda linking nationalism to waving the national flag. But the general feeling of insecurity is high, with parents pleading with their wards to return to the Valley. If this happens it will be the beginning of the end.

The second takeaway from the NIT fiasco has been the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir police by right wing activists and trolls on the social media. The attack, to put it mildly, has been vicious and deliberate and while this writer certainly carries no brief for the police, this has opened yet another crevice of anger in a state fraught with tensions. The JK police was in the dock for the killing of 118 students over the summer and autumn of 2010. It was protected at the time by the Congress-NC government from relentless attack, to the point of violating human rights conventions. However, the defence came from the assessment that the state police was perhaps the only institution left for the government to use against the frequent protests in the Kashmir Valley, and was seen as the bridge between the civil authorities and the Army. At the time the police took the flak directly, using the draconian Public Safety Act with impunity, and opening fire as the first, rather than the last recourse. But even so it managed to get the Army back into the barracks more oft than not, and helped it escape from the direct line of fire. In fact the government then was proud that the number of soldiers deployed in civilian areas had dropped substantially, and in Srinagar the Army was more or less confined to the cantonment.

The attack on the police now led to many officers actually defending themselves on the social media, and reports from the state suggest a grave anger with New Delhi for allowing this diatribe against the cops. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has been quiet on this, but will have to take immediate steps to ensure that the local police does not drift away from the state---as sections of the Punjab police did briefly at one time---and remains well within control of the political executive. More so as the tension levels are spiralling, and the protests are likely to touch new levels of violence sooner than later.

As Hasnain has written in his rather perceptive article, “Everyone knows what Kashmir is all about. Take your eyes off the scanner, and things will get out of control.”

And here it is not a question of taking the eyes off the scanner, but actually taking steps to provoke passions that even at the best of times lie over the surface. This is because the Kashmiris, rightly or wrongly can be debated till death but will make no difference on the ground, are weighed under a sense of deep injustice, grievances of neglect, apathy, enforced disappearances, violence accumulated over the decades.

The youth today is different from the earlier generations, it is more sensitive, more political, more passionate,and more direct in what it says. Like the youth in other parts of India---of course for very different reasons---the Kashmiri young people are not prepared to accept the injustice that their forefathers bore, often with silence. And as 2010 demonstrated, they came out on the roads with little more stones that they pelted at the police and the paramilitary, asking to be heard, and for their grievances to be settled. The death of the first student took the situation out of control, with protests breaking out in different parts of the state, followed by police firing, deaths, more protests, more firing, more deaths….

Kashmir is complex. It has been made more complex by the politicians in both New Delhi and Srinagar over the years. But it has to be understood by all dealing with it, that it is a border state, it has Pakistan monitoring its every breath, it is flooded with the Army, with intelligence agencies, with differing political streams, with separatists also differing on the final solution, all against the backdrop of a decade of violent terrorism, a violent state response and internationalisation of what the international community has spoken of as not just a dispute, but as the most dangerous place in the world. The ongoing effort to communalise Jammu and Kashmir, along with the increasing isolation of the Kashmiris, is fraught with consequences that are dangerous for the stability of India and the region.

Those officials who have handled Kashmir with a little more success than others, own this precisely to a better understanding of the people and the complexities. Over the years this writer has met several officials, intelligence, Army and others who have one, not allowed their secular sight to slip, two, shown a sensitivity for the people, and as a result three, this has always coincided with a period of relative peace between New Delhi and Srinagar. Unfortunately, no such response is visible today with the slogan of nationalism being used to subsume the diversity of India all across. But while this can be absorbed and countered more democratically elsewhere, in Kashmir it feeds into a narrative of alienation.

As General Hasnain has acknowledged through two telling examples, Kashmir for all the reasons above needs special handling. He speaks of how during a cricket series he as the Army Commander decided to set up television screens across the Valley for the youth, as part of a reaching out. But when it came to a direct match between India and Pakistan he was faced with a Hobsons choice, as he knew that the match would raise tempers; but that if he removed the screens the Army would again get brickbats. He opted for the latter, as he felt he could cope with the anger directed at the Army, than with tempers that could result in protests and trouble.

Again at one point, after a visit to Ankara, he decided to install a few national flags in the Valley. And then realised that given the sentiment (that the politicians of India have never seriously addressed through a series of much needed actions) he would require to post at least 40 soldiers for each flag to prevent it from being desecrated. He gave up the idea without a fuss, understanding the history, the background, the politics, the sentiments that characterise Kashmir.

The Kashmiri youth are tired of being branded as terrorists. This is a huge issue within the Valley where even the first spontaneous protest in 2010 was first sought to be suppressed as “terrorist” action by the Kashmiris. Young professionals that this writer met and interviewed at the time, went out of their way to say that they too had pelted stones. “Am I a terrorist,” was the refrain. Or just young people protesting against what has come to be their lot? Time and time again Kashmir reposed hope in the political parties to make at least their daily lives a little better. The last time was when the youth reposed faith in Omar Abdullah in the hope that he was different. 2010 was a watershed of sorts, as it finally shattered even the new adult generation’s faith in the political system, in a mascot they had deliberately selected as more sincere than the others, and as a consequence with New Delhi’s ability to handle and answer their aspirations. As many said at the time, and subsequently, “we are not asking for a solution, let that be worked out by the governments, but we want a life of dignity and respect, of opportunities and development.” On the one side this is denied by the establishment, on the other by the growing lobby of hardline conservatives who oppose music concerts, and cinema in Srinagar and have managed to instil a sense of guilt in the young against enjoying themselves, even momentarily. The only recourse to the world outside is the mobile and the internet, that then become the first services that the government suspends during its frequent curfews and clampdowns in Kashmir.

The secular narrative in Kashmir where it seeks to embrace the Kashmiri pandit even as it protests against enforced disappearances, deaths in police firing, rights violations is under pressure from New Delhi, from Islamabad, from the extremists in both communities. Yet surprisingly it has held forth, with the youth in particular refusing to be muzzled by what they do not believe or understand. However, the push having become a shove ever since the PDP-BJP came to power is placing this discourse under deep pressure with the NIT incident having had an extremely adverse fall out, more within the Valley than without.

Unfortunately for the BJP it is just another nationalist feather in its caps, for the PDP it is an issue that needs to be somehow managed, for the NC it is scoring brownie points, for the Congress continuing confusion---with not a single political party reaching out to the people through action. And as Handwara has again demonstrated, with bullets that were fired over the waist, at unarmed protestors. As for whether a girl was molested by the soldiers or civilian youth, in Kashmir today it is the perception that counts. And the perception has already travelled over the ground to reach every hamlet in the Valley, a trigger that the state has had to counter with a clampdown.

(Tomorrow: The Dialogue That is Not)
(Photograph: Basit Zargar)