AT 63 years of age Masood Husain thought, maybe now, he may finally get to paint some happy thoughts – tourists on the Srinagar Boulevard or the old Sufi traditions of Kashmir or just the spotless sky with its luminous blue glow. After decades of chronicling violence and sorrow and funerals and coffins, the acclaimed artist was hoping for a break from the burden of his own creative past.
Masood had always remained honest to the truth of his time. A soft-spoken, wiry man, whose head was now wrapped in a sheet of white, he had witnessed far more than he wanted to. Some years ago, when the Jammu and Kashmir government commissioned him to create a calendar of cheerful faces – a sort of ‘Happy Valley’ statement – he returned the thirty thousand rupees he had received as signing fee because he simply couldn’t visualize any cheerful people, so brutalized was his imagination by the relentless exposure to death and despair.
Perhaps 2016 may be different, he had hoped at the beginning of the year. With militancy significantly reduced and a seeming, if relative, calm in the city, his art had begun to appear on street-walks and pillars of newly spruced flyovers. Then came the summer and it all unravelled, under-lining yet again how, despite New Delhi’s consistent efforts to throw a lid over the simmering conflict in Kashmir, every time the heat is turned up the problem will boil over – the pressure cooker into which you seek to pulp your historical sins of omission and commission unfailingly blowing its whistle and sounding its alarm.
Kashmir’s summers then are not like summers anywhere else. Here June and July are not the months for playful school vacations or lazy long afternoons at the mall or the cinema. Summer is the annual harbinger of trouble, the season in which a matchstick and a single leaf in the wind can start a forest fire, a time when protest and curfew return as unfailingly on the calendar as the changing colours of the chinar.
But neither Masood Husain nor anyone else could have forecast the massive upsurge of popular rage that erupted when Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Burhan Wani, was killed in an encounter with security forces in July, locking young Kashmiri boys into battle with the state and bringing home the dangers of India’s single most intractable problem.
At 22, Wani represented a new generation of local militants all of whom were economically well off and educated (his own father was a headmaster with a government school) and who had learnt to use social media as a weapon of war. They were also highly radicalized young men, Islamized by, among other factors, the easy access to technology and the Internet. Before he was killed, Wani’s videos released on Facebook from his constantly shifting hideouts, helped reinforce the larger than life mythology around him among Kashmir’s generation-next, so that when he was eliminated he was almost more dangerous dead than alive.
In one of these digital messages Wani exhorted young Kashmiris to pick up the gun, but in the video, which was produced and edited in the style of propaganda capsules of international terror groups like the Al Qaeda, he also made an open call for jihad as well as ‘Khilafat’ or a Caliphate, first in Kashmir and then the rest of the world. This was a clear departure from the past, where Islam was a subset of the political call for azaadi; now, mirroring the global pattern, the emphasis for many on the street may well have become the other way around.
This pan-Islamic messaging was a distinct new feature of the decades old insurgency; in a sense it was proof of how the current challenge in Kashmir was a consequence of the ‘failure of imagination’. After all, the military had done its job in strengthening the counter-insurgency grid and significantly diminishing the cadres of terror groups. The next step had to be political; instead a dangerous vacuum was left wide open, filled over the years by a hardening religious extremism among a generation of Kashmiris that had never known anything called ‘hope’.
The new character of militancy had thrown the old establishment of secessionists into disarray as well. When Wani was still alive, a prominent separatist told me that he and his peers were struggling for relevance among the millennial generation of Kashmiris. ‘I never used to talk about Muslim identity in my public sermons,’ he told me, ‘but now I find that religious identity issues have the most appeal. I need to bring it up even if I don’t wish to.’ When I argued with him about the trend of growing Islamism, he retorted, ‘Go and tell Delhi. They don’t understand what’s happening here. They don’t want to talk to us; soon they will have no one to talk to. Even we are losing control of the protesters.’
His words would prove prophetic. In the aftermath of the Wani encounter, a leaderless agitation spilt over onto streets across the Valley, especially in the rural hinterland, leaving negotiators in government with a piquant question: Even if they were ready for a dialogue, who could they talk to now? And yet, no one was willing to answer or even ask the most essential of questions: Why did Burhan Wani come to evoke this near-hysterical response? Yes, Pakistan’s interference, support for terrorism and active collaboration – as the subsequently released taped conversations between Wani and Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed would show – was a very real issue for India. But the strands of the external dimension needed to be separated from the internal; serial denialism of Kashmir’s home truths had only perpetuated the problem instead of mitigating it.
Like many other moments in the 27 year-old insurgency, early warnings of this new trend had been ignored or underestimated. A year earlier the state’s police released a census that showed how for the first time in ten years local militants outnumbered foreign terrorists routinely pushed in across the border and line of control by Pakistan. Of the 142 militants estimated to be operational, 88 were local, police said, making that about 62% of the total. The census went on to say: ‘New trends reveal terrorist cadres have influenced impressionable youth, a significant number have gone missing in the recent past.’
A year later Wani was dead and the violent turmoil and unrest on the streets locked the Valley down into its longest continuous shutdown in history – nearly sixty days of curfew and counting.
Entirely homebound for 51 of these, Masood Husain had been busy at work. His canvas was directed, yet again, by the scenes of chaos and suffering out on the streets – happy thoughts would have to wait. For now all he could bring himself to create were images that captured the trauma of violence, like that of a melancholic Mahatma Gandhi, his indented face traced by the tiny, pelleted, pockmarked hands of a child who seemed to be decoding a braille script – a powerful digital metaphor for the real life hospital images of teen Kashmiri protesters many of whom had been partially or permanently blinded by the metallic pellets of controversial pump action guns, guns that threw a fountain of iron balls into the air with every shot fired. ‘I wanted to paint flowers and happy faces, but then after what happened I couldn’t bear it. I went to the hospitals and saw children. This is my protest,’ Masood told me.
Children and teenagers are now at the heart of the Kashmir crisis. Living in the shadow of perennial conflict has corroded their innocence, hardening even the very young into a state of perennial and sometimes, militant rage. Those who came out onto the streets in this period of turmoil were not even men – many were teenagers, some as young as thirteen or fourteen, boys who would be men punching the air with stones, casting themselves in the self-image of the Palestinian Intifada. Some like Insha, a young girl of 14 who is now permanently blinded, came to be a victim even without participating in the protests. She was standing at the window of her house looking out at the clashes between security forces and protesters when pellets from a pump action gun, not intended for her, tore through her head and eyes, transforming her life in that single moment from a young cheerful girl who dreamt of being a doctor to a sad, ailing child who only had one question for her father – when could she read her books again?
What do I tell her, her father, Mushtaq Manzoor asked me, remembering small details as people often do in times of gigantic crisis, ‘Do you know she has a very good handwriting. She did very well in school; she could have been anything she wanted, a doctor or an engineer. What can I tell her now?’ Insha was not a protester, but in Srinagar’s hospitals we met many other teenagers who were, their eyes framed by bandages, injured and partially blinded by the use of pellet guns. In conversations with these school-going boys, we tried to understand what it was about Burhan Wani that brought them out on the street, that made them near unafraid of the consequences and that kept them angry, even while strapped to a hospital bed. The answers varied: for some Wani was a symbol, for others he was a literal saviour. One teenager told me he liked Wani because he had promised to protect Islam. Your faith or azaadi, which one do you come out to march for, I asked the boy. ‘Both,’ he said, ‘both’.
As an observer of Jammu and Kashmir for over two decades, this answer marked a watershed moment for me. Apart from the obvious horror of watching adolescents and teenagers at the centre of the agitation, my sense from observing this summer of unrest was that we were soon going to make even available political solutions redundant. Commenting on the failure of successive governments to deliver even on demands for greater autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, a senior Union minister had argued with me and said, ‘Autonomists and Humanists (like you) are now redundant. It’s the Islamists who now control the street.’ Let’s assume for a moment that the minister was right; that Islamists today hold a much greater influence in the Valley than they ever did. Let’s also agree to not argue about how we got to this point (I would say because of decades of political neglect and complacency). Don’t these trends make it even more imperative to engage the moderates?
Jammu and Kashmir’s history is unfortunately defined by the same mistakes being made over and over again. When India should have engaged with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), we did not, thereby giving rise to the more dangerous Hizbul Mujahideen. When our intelligence agencies tried to directly talk to the militants of the Hizbul, that process was not followed through consistently and each one of the militant ‘commanders’ who agreed to come to the dialogue table ended up being killed – a reminder of the cost of peace. Thus, the Pakistan backed Lashkar became stronger and more entrenched than indigenous militant groups with whom Delhi may still have been able to do business.
Now in this age of hyper nationalism, when patriotism itself is policed and mandated, even the suggestion of engaging with separatists in the Hurriyat Conference invites derision and judgment. Even proposals for decentralization of power by mainstream political parties like Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP or the National Conference are treated with scorn. Isn’t this the exact moment to strengthen those still willing to talk?
Instead the Kashmir crisis has got locked into a myopic debate around who is morally responsible for the fact that school-going children and young men were part of street protests. Children, boys who are not yet 18, were used as human shields, argue the police and the paramilitary forces, in mob protests more violent than ever before, using not just stones, but even petrol bombs, undeterred by tear gas shells, often snatching weapons with an audaciousness that suggests a complete lack of fear.
We walked with a paramilitary officer in downtown Srinagar, epicentre of many violent clashes between stone-hurling protesters and security forces, to understand why they felt compelled to use ‘pellet’ guns, weapons that even the former Home Minister, P. Chidambaram argued, had ‘weakened the moral authority of the Indian state.’ As we walked through deserted streets, he argued that his forces had been vilified. ‘The boys of today come charging at us with stones; even when we use tear gas shells they don’t back away or retreat. What should we do?’ Perhaps, worst affected were the Valley’s policemen. Locals themselves, these police officers began disguising their identities while on duty, masking their face with a black cloth to avoid being recognized. They feared the backlash, not just from their own people but also from separatists and militants who often singled them out for violent ‘retaliation’.
As complex and multilayered as the truth of the Kashmir issue has always been, and as tough as the job of the police and paramilitary is, there is no doubt that our security forces need a different SOP (standard operating procedure) and a different security protocol from the blinding force of the pump action guns. In just 32 days of unrest, the CRPF admitted to having fired 3000 cartridges, that is 1.3 million pellets.
The presence of children at the frontline of the ferocious demonstrations also exposed a deep political fault line in the argument that the Valley’s politicians ended up having among themselves. The chief minister put the blame squarely at the door of parents, saying they had to keep children away from demonstrations that could turn violent. ‘When a ten year old goes out to these marches, he isn’t going to buy a toffee,’ an enraged Mufti said, ‘these children are being exploited.’ The opposition retaliated, with the former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah arguing that it was not just that children were defying their parents; more worryingly, the families themselves may be actively lending their support for their young boys to become part of the protests.
The fury of Kashmir’s millennial generation, and those even younger, may be traced back to the images that have shaped their consciousness – captured most poignantly by Masood Hussain in an illustration of a school bag, heaped not with books but with stones. ‘This is the only reality they have ever known. This is what has shaped and formed them,’ Masood told me.
One image created by Masood left an indelible impression. From afar it looked like a baby’s makeshift swing made from cloth slung across two branches – perhaps a child sleeping under the gentle shadow of a protective tree…
Look again, Masood urged us.
Not barks, branches and leaves… but grenades, automatic rifles and cartridges – the birth of an entire generation of children literally in the shadow of the gun.