Abdur Rashid Mir counts himself among the earliest members of the PDP in Pulwama. The first meeting of the party in this south Kashmir town was held in his house, and he is now its co-ordinator. But Mir doesn’t have the look of a man whose party is ruling the state. On a wet and cold day this week, he sat among thrones for brides and grooms, carpets and the other faux finery of his wedding shamiana shop, looking dejected, tearful — and lonely.
For, there is no one lining up at his door for favours.
“I will tell you the truth. When Mufti Saheb went for an alliance with the BJP, people thought it would bring in money for development from the Centre. But that did not happen. Even when the money meant for flood relief came, it was not adequate and even now, not all the affected have got it,” he said.
Mir said neither he nor other PDP workers had been able to face those who voted for the PDP from this area. It was no longer safe for political work in Pulwama, he said. “When there is a protest, there’s a fear that anything can happen. Both me and my family, we have that fear. I had a security guard, but he has been withdrawn,” says Mir.
Security forces say the alarming alienation among the youth in south Kashmir needs a politician’s healing touch, which is missing.
Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, a CPM veteran, who has represented Kulgam in south Kashmir for four successive terms since 1996, says the anger is not new nor is it confined to south Kashmir. The events of the last year have only fuelled it, he said.
”While American intervention in many parts of the Islamic world, Western military campaigns in there and the rise of fundamentalism have had some influence on Kashmiri youth, what has been happening in the rest of the country since the BJP came to power (at the Centre) has created a great impact,” he says.
How was it that over the last year, incidents of Kashmiri students getting beaten had spiked, he asked.
Social media, he said, had made a difference in breaking the insularity of Kashmiris. When the BJP announced its Kashmir Mission 44 (aimed at winning 44-plus seats in the 2014 elections), “people thought they were going to be virtually invaded, and there was a huge mobilisation on the ground to prevent that”, says Tarigami.
“The PDP was saying more strongly than others, ‘only we can save you, only we can stop this monster’. But a new relationship emerged after the election. Should the youngsters not be angry, should they not be disillusioned?” he asks.
Pulwama resident, Waheed Para, the PDP youth wing president, says the alienation did not begin with the BJP alliance but started six or seven years ago, and it’s not something that a politician alone can address.
”After the 2010 stone-pelting agitation and all the deaths, a fatigue set in. If you look at the graph of protests and militancy, it came down steadily. But then, Afzal Guru was hanged. That was a turning point, and it sent a message to the youth of Kashmir,” says the 28-year-old Para, who was a political advisor in the office of the late Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.
”Today, we are talking of protesters on the streets who are below 18, and our entire political process is for those above 18. Our political work does not touch 10 or even eight-year-olds who are out on the streets,” says Para.
”A boy this age needs a parent, we are giving him an SHO,” he adds, showing a photograph on his phone of three children with kerchiefs over their faces and stones in their hands who stopped his car last week in Pulwama.
Para, too, said youngsters in the Valley are being influenced by what is happening in the “mainland”.
”The unrest you see in Kashmir today is the result of what is happening outside,” he says, pointing to social media as the game-changer. “Had there been social media in 2002 when the Gujarat riots took place, the Valley would not have remained isolated from it. Today, when something (communal) happens in India, it reaches Kashmir within 30 minutes,” he says.
Para described the Prime Minister’s Scholarship Scheme as a waste of money that achieves the opposite of the “integration” it wants from Kashmiri youth.
”The biggest integration for a Kashmiri is to allow him to remain Kashmiri. Instead of spending Rs 1,300 crore annually to send Kashmiris to B-grade campuses in UP or Rajasthan or Haryana, why don’t they spend that money to set up a central University in Srinagar, with one campus in Pulwama and another in Sopore?” asks Para.
There are 17 lakh students in the Valley below the age of 18, Para says, “and we need to redefine our political engagement to include them”. He said the most dangerous trend was the religious radicalisation of these youth.
”There is such a generation gap between parents and their children because of technology, they don’t know what their kids are seeing or listening. There are five new mosques in every village, and in the same family, fathers and sons are going to separate mosques. Today, I fear for our big syncretic shrines if we remove the security around them,” he says.
The answer to radicalisation, he said, is not deradicalisation with Sufism as Delhi seems to think. “The minute Delhi patronises a certain sect, it gets tainted in people’s eyes here. The answer to radicalisation is democratisation,” says Para.
At a school he runs in Pulwama, Para has begun an experiment, now in its third year, which he hopes the government will scale up across the Valley. Here, instead of the class teacher appointing the class head, the class elects him or her. “These kids will have had eight years of democratic practice by the time they leave school,” says Para.
Let alone the democratic “soft separatists”, even hardline separatists such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq or yesteryear militants such as Yasin Malik get little traction among the youth. “Everyone is compromised. The 1990s militants got into armed struggle for their own political ambitions. They are not pure,” says a student in Anantnag.
The leader they still respect is the Hurriyat’s ageing Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “He is the only one who never compromised, who has stuck to the same position. But we won’t respect even him if he moves close to India,” says the student.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the leader of his own Hurriyat faction, said the irrelevance of the Kashmiri leadership to the new situation was the result of New Delhi’s denial of political space.
“It is true that we want Azadi and India wouldn’t like to give it to us but the problem is they have no regard and respect for the sentiment. They don’t even acknowledge the problem and the issue. They have always weighed it in terms of economic packages and development,” says Umar Farooq.
It’s “inhuman”, he says, “that first they kill and then they don’t allow us to (visit the families of the dead)…If they (the state) would have allowed us to go to the people, we could at least push towards a peaceful movement. But since there is no space, Hurriyat is slowly getting sidelined — the sentiment is there but when we are not able to reach our people, we get sidelined. India itself is pushing the state towards anarchy,” he says.
Mainstream political leaders point out how the absence of dialogue with Pakistan has aggravated the situation.
“It is the Kashmiris who bear the brunt of India’s hostile relationship with Pakistan. The same PDP said they would facilitate an internal dialogue with the Hurriyat. The Hurriyat said they would act as facilitators for the external dialogue. Now there is neither an internal dialogue, nor an external one,” said Nasir Aslam Wani, the National Conference’s provincial president for Kashmir.
There is a sense of triumph in the NC at the extraordinary unpopularity of the PDP now, but Wani said his party also recognises the danger. “We don’t want them to fail entirely because when they discredit themselves, they discredit other mainstream parties. In J&K, the mainstream has to remain relevant,” says Wani.
Wani said that as an opposition party, the NC had only a limited role to play in trying to retrieve the situation in south Kashmir. “We are reorganising. It’s only 10 months since the election,” he says.
Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir, who lost the 2014 Assembly election in his south Kashmir constituency of Duru, says there is one solution to the growing alienation: immediate urban local body and panchayat elections.
Civic elections have been overdue since 2010 (they were last held in 2005), and panchayat elections, last held in 2011, are due this year.
“They seem to have decided not to announce them yet because they fear losing, but it’s a big mistake. If the elections are announced, today’s stone-pelters will be candidates tomorrow. There are 38,000 posts, so you will have at least 1.5 lakh candidates, if not more. The PDP should not sit on this for its own political reasons,” says Mir.
Mir’s optimism is based more on hope than experience. It will take more than just elections, almost all political players here say, for a politics that addresses the gathering grievance — and anger and impatience — of a new generation via democratic institutions.