He walks past a fallen Chinar tree, looks hard at it and spots a broken branch with some letters on it. “Look, this Chinar was a symbol of our peaceful resistance. During the protests of last summer, our students of Fine Arts had scribbled graffiti and slogans on it, all depicting the politics of Kashmir — from the hanging of Afzal Guru to the shutdowns,” he says.
A resident of South Kashmir’s Shopian district, the 23-year-old is a student of English literature at Kashmir University. Back in his hostel room at Naseem Bagh, in a far corner of the University campus that’s dotted with hundreds of Chinars, he agrees to talk but on condition that he won’t be named.
“What the students did on the fallen Chinar tree was a work of art. And they (university administration) didn’t even allow that. When the students were home for the winter vacations, they stripped the tree of its bark to efface what we had done. There is no place even for symbolism,” he says. “What you saw on Monday is the outcome of what you have been doing to the students over the last so many years.”
On Monday, April 16, both the political leadership and security agencies were taken by surprise when thousands of young boys and girls, many in their school uniforms, turned out on the streets of Kashmir – from Kupwara to Sopore and Srinagar to Kulgam – shouting slogans for “azadi”.
Caught off guard by the scale of the protests, called by the little-known Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU) against the police raid on a government college in Pulwama in which 54 students were injured, the police and paramilitary forces used force, resulting in injuries to more than 65 students across the Valley. Schools and colleges have stayed shut for five days now to prevent the escalation of protests.
The protests have marked a continuation of the post-Burhan Wani unrest among the Valley’s youth. Earlier, it was believed that school and college students stayed away from street protests, allowing security forces and administration to separate the “stone pelting youth” from other young people who wanted to lead “normal” lives.
But there are no longer such easy distinctions. With videos of young protesters getting killed in protests or being blinded by pellets going viral, every youngster with a phone is now connected to the “situation” in Kashmir. Online, everyone is a friend with everyone else and, if not directly, knows someone who knows the boy who was killed or the girl who was blinded. Young people now feel the need to respond.
“The conversations about politics are getting intense and unlike in the past, everyone is involved — whether it is a boy or girl from Srinagar or from a far-off village in Kulgam,” says a professor of political science.
“Our every interaction or discussion is about Kashmir politics,” says a student of law at Kashmir University. A resident of Handwara in north Kashmir, she says she had no experience of participating in a street protest before she joined Kashmir University three years ago. “Even a conversation on fashion or friends can quickly turn into a discussion on the situation in Kashmir. Or it could be about the beef ban in UP or communal tensions elsewhere in India,” she says.
As angry, young Kashmiris hold these “intense” conversations, some of their responses are evidently the result of peer pressure and the attendant risk of a backlash, especially online public humiliation. After the trolling of 16-year-old Dangal star Saira Wasim for meeting and being photographed with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, and her subsequent apology, few want to be seen celebrating being young, living in the moment or aspiring to something other than “azadi”.
“Deep down, every girl has similar aspirations to excel in her chosen field, be it studies or sport or music, but the message is going out — we cannot celebrate, we cannot be happy, we are in conflict, we have lost people,” says Waheed Para, youth leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party.
Earlier this year, the J&K Bank’s annual calendar, a coveted possession in every household in the state, triggered outrage among the online Kashmiri community. The calendar, titled ‘Pride of Paradise’, featured 12 achievers from Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The choice of Kashmiri youth icons — among them Tajamul Islam, the 8-year-old-girl World Kickboxing champion who studied in an Army school; 7-year-old Hashim Mansoor who won the Asian Youth Karate Championship in Delhi; and 2010 IAS topper Shah Faesal — did not go down well, with trolls on social media calling them “stooges” and “beneficiaries’ of the system.
Undeniably, the anger among young people is not without the confusion of competing aspirations. One of the top career choices in Kashmir is the civil services, perhaps inevitable in a place with few job opportunities and with a high unemployment rate (24.6 per cent for the state), but still not without its contradictions. At the height of the unrest in the Valley, when schools stayed shut for over five months after Burhan Wani’s killing on July 8, over a lakh students turned out to appear for the Board exams in December.
“It’s the classic Kashmiri confusion — personal ambition versus political aspiration,” says a government official, saying that every year, hundreds of Kashmiris take a crack at the civil services exams conducted by the Union Public Service Commission. Last year, 10 candidates from J&K cracked the IAS exam, seven of them from Kashmir. Athar Aamir-ul- Shafi Khan, a 23-year-old from Anantnag, secured the all-India second rank.
In a small room at Mehboob-ul-Alam hostel of Kashmir University, a Bachelor’s student from Ganderbal in central Kashmir talks about the police cases against five of his family members for “protesting peacefully” last year.
Until July 2016, he says, he was like “any boy anywhere in the world. I loved watching movies — Aamir Khan was my favourite. I hardly missed any of his movies. I loved playing cricket and was in my department’s volley ball team,” he says. “But everything has changed since. Now I only play cricket occasionally. For more than a month, I was on anti-depressants”.
He speaks angrily of the attack on Kashmiri identity and the proposed Sainik colony, talks about the “helplessness” of Kashmiris and their “lack of a voice”. Later, talking more specifically about himself, he says, “I am preparing for my civil services examination.”
When asked about the apparent conflict between his anger and what he wants to do, he explains, “It might help my country’s struggle. And yes, when my conscience says it is time to go, I am sure I’ll leave. Besides, I can crack the exams and not join. And even if I join, I will have only one thing on my mind – how to make the administration hollow from inside.”
Among a group of agitated youngsters in Chadoora, in Kashmir’s Budgam district, who told The Sunday Express that “you can take your government and your Army and go back”, the most vocal was also a civil services aspirant. He clarified that he wanted to join not the “Indian” Administrative Service but the “Kashmir” Administrative Service.
“Having power is important. Bureaucrats have a lot of power. It will give me the power to change things, to save lives in Kashmir,” he says.
Last week’s campus protests have highlighted the ban on student politics in Kashmir for more than two decades — barring a period from 2005 to 2007 when a students’ body was allowed to function from the Kashmir University campus.
In 2002, when then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Kashmir as chief guest for the university’s annual convocation, then vice chancellor Jalees Ahmad Khan Tareen had proudly called the university the “only apolitical campus”.
A students’ union was briefly allowed on the campus, but in 2010, the building that housed the office of the Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU) was demolished.
“The problem with the government and our university administration is that they have never listened to the student community. Student politics is banned and they don’t have any platform for debate and discussion,” says a professor of the university.
“When you don’t give them space for debate, how would you know what they are thinking? And when you don’t know what they are thinking, how can you plan?,” he says.
Recalling the “vibrant” student politics in Kashmir University prior to the onset of militancy, Noor Ahmad Baba, political scientist and professor of political science of Central University of Kashmir, says the violence and angry protests are a reflection of the absence of forums for discussion and debate.
Like young people everywhere, young Kashmiris are watching American TV series such as Prison Break and The Vampire Diaries or Pakistani soaps such as Dastaan. And they love cricket and football. But unlike young people elsewhere, they are children of conflict. They watch Al Jazeera and CNN on their phones. And they read. In a hostel-room shelf in Kashmir University are well-thumbed copies of A S Dulat’s The Vajpayee Years, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations and Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria.
“They sermonise about Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat. We understand everything. Who will teach insaniyat (humanism) to us? Those who fire pellets on young boys in a campus? In jamhooriyat (democracy), everybody has the right to speak, has freedom of expression. The democracy they talk about could be on the other side of Jawahar tunnel (in Jammu); not here in Kashmir. And Kashmiriyat (the Kashmiri legacy of Hindu-Muslim amity). Should we hear lectures on Kashmiriyat from those who are trying to dismantle every facet of Kashmir and Kashmiris’ identity?”
Para of the PDP ascribes the anger and apparent fearlessness to the feeling of despair among youth, and the complete absence of engagement with them by the State except through the use of force.
“There is a lot of hopelessness and defeat. If you are bent on rubbing a defeated person’s nose in the ground, there is bound to be a reaction,” he says, adding that youngsters were “seeing more dignity in dying than in living”.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.