On May 10, major newspapers published from Jammu and Kashmir gave front-page coverage to the spectacular success story of Athar Aamir ul Shafi Khan, a 23-year-old IIT Mandi graduate from Anantnag who scored all-India rank 2 in the UPSC civil services examination and made it to the IAS. Social media erupted with a tribute to all seven Kashmiris in the list besides Athar, “the new topper with devastating looks”, as one Facebook user described him.
In the last few years, there has been an increasing number of Kashmiri aspirants for the Indian civil services and the Kashmir Administrative Service, and every year the number of candidates selected has grown, generating a unique debate in the state.
On the one hand, it is celebrated as an assertion for greater representation in the top bureaucracy of the country and the growing competitive spirit of Kashmiri students. On the other, it is being denounced by a vocal minority as collaboration with an “oppressive” Indian state.
In a recent essay, “IAS in Kashmir glorifying occupation” first published by Kashmirreader.com, three youngsters from Kashmir University argued with great emotion that the civil services, both provincial and federal, are tools to maintain “illegitimate” Indian control over the Valley. In a piece in HuffPost, a Kashmiri girl wrote that she quit the civil service in Kashmir because she preferred to work for a British corporation rather than for the “oppressive” Indian government.
In a state where the faultlines run so deep and wide, where every young Kashmiri has both an individual and collective aspiration, is it right to dismiss Kashmiris in the civil service so summarily? We are talking about a generation that grew up in a culture of despair and hopelessness, conditioned by years of violence; one that was brought up in a disturbed, incomplete, uni-colour society that had diversity in its DNA, but not on the face of it anymore, after the Kashmiri Pandits moved out of the Valley.
Despite the hurdles, Kashmiri students excelled, mainly in the fields of medicine and engineering. Due to little private sector investment in higher education, the huge gap in the demand and supply of seats in technical and professional colleges widened. Youngsters started moving out for education and employment in thousands every year. Back home, government continued to be the biggest employer, unable to tackle a growing army of unemployed educated youth.
Then came the tipping point. Between 1990 and 2008, few Kashmiris made it to the civil services, IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, NLU. But suddenly, hordes of Kashmiris were entering their portals. In the last five years alone, five times more Kashmiris entered the Indian civil services than in the last five decades together, including a rank 1 and rank 2 topper, with a fair share of women. Expansion in sectors such as media, entrepreneurship, real estate, also saw the rise of a new breed of successful men and women.
But the choices youth make in Kashmir are invariably judged against the correctness of their fit into the rigid frame of Kashmiri nationalism. Wherever there is a requirement or scope for constructive engagement with the state, be it civil, police or military institutions, the ever-online armchair-jihadi is ready with his decrees and such engagement is censured.
What is forgotten is the all-pervasiveness of the state, its relationship with universities and colleges, its patronage to newspapers and media houses, its doles to NGOs, its sponsorship of research, and its involvement in day to day transactions. When beneficiaries of the state call engagement with symbols of state “collaboration”, it only reveals their own hypocrisy.
Kashmiri youth in the UPSC were first ridiculed as part of the Sadbhavana operation. The trend was then blamed on the “herd mentality” of Kashmiris. It took time to realise that it was not the tactical benevolence of a deceitful system but rather the hard work of Kashmiri youth that enabled them to conquer new frontiers outside the Valley.
The point is not that the civil service is a redemptive institution. The point is that seeing that bureaucracy is a given, why not allow good people to redeem it? It does not help that Kashmiri youngsters studying and working in other cities of the country are harassed and profiled. Compare that with the tales, true or false, of hospitality that Kashmiri students studying in colleges of Pakistan share or are made to share. See the difference in the “entry rituals” when Kashmiris reach Attari and when they reach Azadpur. It does make a difference.
Within Kashmir, people who oppose Kashmiri students getting into IITs, IIMs, Bollywood, cricket, civil services, armed forces and the police must realise that by labeling our own people collaborators and traitors we are creating more divisions in our society. By polluting the debate with such false issues, we might be holding back our own people from critical opportunities. It’s hard to miss too that these sermons of sacrifice are usually not aimed at the moneyed, nor at the relatives and promoters of armchair fidayeen. Not to forget the dilemma of those in the All India Services who have at times felt stretched across these faultlines with one side calling them Indian agents and the other side calling them Kashmiri nationalists.
One of the most unimaginative responses to occupation is to start picking on everyone as an agent of occupation. In a place like Kashmir, historical experience tells us that it is very hard to delineate where India ends and Kashmir begins. You might end up labeling, alienating, discrediting and at times liquidating those who are fighting their own battles to make things work in Kashmir. Resistance can’t become a narrow argument for restricting choices of the people, keeping them away from structures that are there to stay and rule, with or without them, despite the poetry and prose, and the stone and smoke being thrown at them.
Resistance is not politics. It is not war. It is not about writing poetry or open letters to imaginary adversaries. It is also about living with grace and dignity, about teaching the children well, about preserving the heritage and eliminating corruption from public offices, about reporting truth, about entrepreneurship that inspires youth to leave top jobs in the West and manage apple orchards here, it is about standing as a buffer between the people and the ruling elite and about maintaining order on the streets. Qualifying for the civil services is also an act of resistance. It deserves to be celebrated by all.
There are very few careers a Kashmiri youngster can choose from the occupation-resistance perspective. Whether militancy is also a career, are bodies of young educated guerrillas the only acceptable memorials of resistance, should we stop living till illusions of freedom see the light of day or who will run the show till that romantic dawn of Azadi becomes a reality — these are a few questions that I am leaving for the careerist chowkidars of the Kashmir cause to answer.