Changing tack in Kashmir


In the two decades since I first went to Kashmir as a reporter, everything has changed—on the surface, anyway. In Srinagar last week, I struggled to find my old bearings: Many of the buildings are new, most of them hotels and home-stays. Some iconic old structures have been repurposed in more unexpected ways. I was astonished to find that the infamous “Papa II”, where an unknowable number of Kashmiris were brutally tortured and from where many of them disappeared during the 1990s, is now the official residence of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.

I remember feeling a bilious upheaval when I drove past the place on Gupkar Road in 1999, when I was working on a cover story on Kashmir for Time magazine. Since then, I have been in, or in the close vicinity of, some of the world’s worst torture chambers, from Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad, and Evin, in Tehran, to Scorpion, near Cairo. 

But there’s something especially egregious about torture practised by a democratic state: In addition to being bestial, it is also a betrayal, of values and expectations. 

Driving past the green-and-white building last week, I felt…baffled. Who had come up with the idea of turning this symbol of state repression into the home of the state’s current elected head? It must have been a person, more likely a committee, with little understanding of politics, and even less of optics. It would have been much better to have destroyed the building, and replaced it with a park, or some other public space.

As it stands now, the repurposed Papa II is a symbol of something else: the superficiality of change in Kashmir. The conversion of its function has not altered the fact that Kashmiris feel deeply disillusioned about their place and future in the Indian state.

You could, of course, make a glass-half-full argument: At least there’s no Papa III. In the late 1990s, much of the talk among Kashmiris I met was about the atrocities by the security forces, ranging from unexamined “encounter killings” and unexplained custodial deaths of accused militants, to gruesome punishments meted out in Kafkaesque prisons. 

In comparison, the security forces today exercise considerable restraint. The cruelty visited upon the previous occupants of Mufti’s residence is now unheard of.

Kashmiris aren’t comparing their current condition with the worst years of the 1990s, and nor should they be required to. To their mind, pellet guns have taken the place of Papa II as proof that the Indian state cares nothing for their concerns, and is willing to inflict pain—and in some cases, blindness—upon them. 

But Kashmiris aren’t comparing their current condition with the worst years of the 1990s, and nor should they be required to. To their mind, pellet guns have taken the place of Papa II as proof that the Indian state cares nothing for their concerns, and is willing to inflict pain—and in some cases, blindness—upon them. 

The state may well argue that the pellets of today are better than the bullets of the past, but such gainsaying ignores the larger reality that parleys are better than projectiles of any kind.

Everybody I met in Kashmir agreed that dialogue, rather than pellets, is the only way forward in the valley. In the quest for complete candour, all my discussions were off-the-record, so you’ll have to take my word that I met credible representatives of every category that counts: mainstream politicians, separatists, security forces, students, civil servants, civilians. They were unanimous that a political process is the only way out of the problem.

No change there: This was the consensus view in the late 1990s, and through most of the years since. Every Indian government that has tried to punish Kashmiris into submission has eventually accepted the futility of such an approach. I have no doubt that the current dispensation in New Delhi will do so as well. But when? 

Everyone I met in Srinagar is of the view that time is running short. The differing perceptions of the latest symbol of the conflict in Kashmir suggest a hardening of hatreds that, if allowed to continue, will be difficult to soften. 

Farooq Ahmad Dar became a symbol when, on 9 April, he was tied to the front of an army jeep, and used as a human shield against a stone-throwing mob. He had, by his own account, gone to vote in the Lok Sabha by-election. But Dar’s plight brought him little consideration from any quarter. A parade of prominent Indians, including no less a legal luminary than the country’s attorney general, defended the army unit that mistreated him. On social media platforms, hyper-nationalists pigeonholed him as a Pakistani sympathizer who deserved what he got. And most telling of all, many of his fellow-Kashmiris say it served Dar right, for being an Indian sympathizer who went out to vote.

Even when the two sides agree on something—that Dar got what was coming to him—it’s for the completely opposite reasons. 

What’s the way out from here? Kashmir desperately needs new symbols. A good start would be a symbolic gesture: a visit to Srinagar by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, perhaps. A speech in Lal Chowk, offering balm instead of bellicosity. Maybe even a “Mann Ki Baat”, in which he chats with young Kashmiris speaking their minds. The opening of dialogue, first with the mainstream political parties, followed by a widening circle of the willing.

Gestures in other directions would help, too: a stern warning to Bharatiya Janata Party members and their allies who spout hate speech about Kashmiris; an appeal that Kashmiris living in other parts of India be treated with courtesy; an encouragement of other Indians to visit the valley.

Oh, and it’s not too late to tear down Papa II

The Article First Appeared In LIVE MINT

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