The complexities of Kashmir are such that every side has a point; and no side is ever entirely in the right. This beautiful land has been coveted and claimed by unpopular leaders since the beginning of time. And the betrayals and broken promises it has both suffered and inflicted are undeniable.
In 1947, a referendum was promised. In 1987, the elections were rigged. In 1991, Pandits were forced out of their homes. Boys cross the borders. Homes are searched. The armed forces are empowered to do just about anything to the locals and get away with it. These are facts.
India will never let go of Kashmir, because India cannot afford to let go of Kashmir. Surrounded by enemy countries, India would be opening its borders up to attacks from all sides if it were to grant the azaadi for which Kashmiris have been asking. This, too, is fact.
But then every party in the battle for Kashmir has its own narrative. There is the narrative of India-Occupied Kashmir. There is the narrative of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. There is the narrative of Azad Kashmir. The political map of the region varies in India, Pakistan, and China. There is the narrative of the pandits. There is the narrative of the militants. There is the narrative of the CRPF. There is the narrative of the boys tortured in classrooms converted into interrogation camps. There is the narrative of mothers of children who disappeared. There is the narrative of the separatist. There is the narrative of the moderate. There is the narrative of the man on the street. There is the narrative of the stone-thrower. There is the narrative of the soldier, hated not for what he is, but for what he represents.
Facts cannot be contested and rarely change, but narrative determines our attitude.
The reason no solution ever seems to be in sight in Kashmir is that the attitude of each party remains rigid.
When the party in power at the Centre is one that has not just admitted, but boasted, a religious bias, the narrative becomes even more crucial.
The rhetoric of rabble-rousers may win or lose them positions of power. But once in power, a politician is no longer an orator; he is a leader, and a leader is bound by duty to represent all the people in his charge.
Kashmir is in the charge of India. The people in the Valley carry Indian passports. They are citizens of India. Why, then, are they not entitled to the most basic rights we take for granted?
I visited Kashmir in the summer of 2013, a period of peace broken during the course of my stay by the killing of two students on suspicion of being militants. On my first day in the Valley, I was struck by how distant things to which I had grown accustomed were – the cinema, internet access, SIM cards. And yet, people lived normal lives, not so different from mine – they visited friends, lounged in coffee shops, bought clothes and cosmetics, had relationships, and took selfies.
They had accepted things no one should have to accept in a democracy – that someone could barge into your home and order you out; that you could be stopped and frisked at a public place; that your educational institution could close indefinitely; that your exams could be cancelled, and no one could tell you when they would be held, and that this would affect your chances of admission into a course of further study; that all communication systems could be shut down at any point, and there would be no way to get in touch with your loved ones.
Most of us believe that the banning of YouTube in Islamic countries because it refused to take down the controversial film Innocence of Muslims was drastic and dictatorial. But successive governments both at the centre and the state believe it is completely logical to cut off access to the internet and even the phone in Kashmir as a preventive measure on significant days.
When there is a constant “other”-ing of a country’s own citizens, how can one expect them to identify with that country, to want to belong?
If essential channels of communication must be blocked to prevent “rumour mongering”, why is that rule applied only to Kashmir? Aren’t rumours constantly spread by trolls, including the trolls the Prime Minister’s Twitter account follows? Isn’t panic spread by 24-hour news channels gasping out updates on every current event, even when there is no update?
Kashmir is different from the rest of the country, we say, because of the “situation”. But are Kashmiris entitled to fewer rights than their fellow-citizens? Can the “situation” affect rights enshrined in the Constitution?
What would be a lathi charge elsewhere in the country morphs into blinding and mutilation by pellets in Kashmir. What would be a procession of armoured vehicles elsewhere morphs into a jeep with a human shield tied to its bonnet in Kashmir.
Is it any wonder, then, that the people are so angry that they abhor anything which represents the government and support anything that rebels against it? Is it any wonder that only seven per cent of the population felt inclined to vote in the by-elections of April 8? Is it any wonder that the people of Kashmir feel no allegiance to India?
In a climate that fosters fear and uncertainty, there is no hope for change unless the narrative changes. The new narrative needs to allow people to support cricket teams of their choice without having to pay in blood. The new narrative needs to combat rumours with facts, not with blackouts. The new narrative has to reassure people that the men in uniform exist to protect them, not to protect the nation from them.
Without this new narrative, the militants will remain martyrs and the soldiers oppressors.
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