They, the people

Hindustan times

Srinagar, Aug. 7 -- In 2006, my friend Amin Bhatt and I were talking at a Srinagar cafe. "When I look at kids who are in their early 20s who have seen no other Kashmir but this, I wonder whether it's extraordinary patience or something that is smoldering inside, rage that is quietly being nursed," he said. Today, when Kashmir burns, when teenagers confront armed security forces with stones, when at least 36 men and women have been shot or beaten to death in demonstrations since June, I can't help but remember his words.

Amin Bhatt is not a prophet or a separatist whose popularity rises with the death toll of Kashmiri civilians. He is a playwright and a theatre director. He is also a man whose younger brother was beaten to death in Baramulla in December 2005 when a grenade lobbed at an army convoy missed its target, provoking the soldiers into attacking bystanders. Far from the soldiers being punished, the army insisted Amin's brother was a militant involved in the attack. Amin's response was to write more scripts and direct plays that opened to packed audiences in Baramulla and in Srinagar.

He may well have picked up a stone.

Bakhti is an illiterate old widow in Tragpora, a village just north of Sopore who has for the past decade fought the Indian State in Srinagar's courts. Her son, Manzoor Ahmed Wani, was a victim of enforced disappearance. The police tracked down Tantray, a surrendered militant who worked with the army, and Major Bhattacharya of the 28 Rashtriya Rifles (RR). But the Kashmiri was the only one to be arrested, tried and convicted, while Major Bhattacharya was hurriedly transferred out of Kashmir. Bakhti still tucks a thick file under her arm and travels to Srinagar once a month to seek justice. "I don't want compensation or jobs for my other children. Please just ask them to show me where they dumped his body so I can hold my child's bones to my breast one last time."

In March 2000, soon after the infamous massacre of Sikhs of Chittisinghpora, the 7 RR picked up Mohammad Yusuf Malik, a sheep trader, and four others, passed them off as militants and murdered them in cold blood for cash rewards. Post-mortem reports of the exhumed bodies showed that two had died of bullet wounds, two had 50-60 per cent burns plus bullet wounds and one was burned to death. In Halan I faced his distraught 12-year-old son. "They murdered my father," he said, fighting back the tears. "I know," I reached out to stroke his head. "No!" he brushed my hand aside, "You don't know anything! We got his body, but his body had no head."

I left Halan fearing for the little boy. How would he ever forget this nightmare, how would his scars ever heal? If we were in the West, there would be trauma centres and shrinks to counsel him and then when he grew up, if he still picked up a gun and ran amok at a McDonalds outlet, everyone would point understandingly at his traumatised childhood. But when it comes to Kashmir even senior politicians wonder: What do 'they' want?

Since June 11, the state has done little to soothe the hurt and anger. There have been close to 80 civilian killings since Omar Abdullah took over as Chief Minister in January 2009. And each time the Valley erupts in protests the entire political edifice collapses. Ministers, MLAs, district level politicians, halqa (circle) presidents and party workers vanish. The entire political class cowers in their fortress homes. And this includes the so-called separatists.

Despite the successful legislative elections of 2002 and 2008, power has not trickled to the grass-roots. Panchayat elections are yet to happen in Kashmir. In this political vacuum, all power is abdicated to the security forces, who have trained for the past 20 years to define the problem only in terms of law and order. It is no surprise that casualties are high. The mob is fierce, the police understaffed, overworked and stressed. Eighty per cent of the J&K Police is used for security of politicians. The remaining 20 per cent that man police stations don't have the equipment or the training to deal with angry mobs.

"What is granted under fear can be retained only so long as the fear lasts," wrote MK Gandhi prophetically in Hind Swaraj. With Kashmir's youth losing their fear of the Indian State, New Delhi is fast running out of options. Perhaps the Prime Minister would find some answers if he went to Tragpora and listened to the old widow.

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