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Archive for the ‘Kashmir’ Category

Old Kochi is home to a small community of Kashmiri traders. The weather, the food, the culture, everything is different here. But it has one thing in common with home—the warmth of the people

The half-open grey windows of the white Jewish synagogue, partially visible from the entrance of the by-lane, entice you to explore more. The slanting tiled roofs, the curio shops exhibiting antique and vintage artefacts and the colourful walls, all sport old-world charm in the Jew Town of Mattancherry in Kochi.

Just as you are transported back some centuries, you hear the chants of azadi (freedom). A group of young men are watching a protest video, shot in August in Srinagar, on a mobile phone. A man asks in Kashmiri, “Protest kathaez gov—downtown haez (where did the protest happen—downtown)?” Nodding his head, a young boy replies, “Ahnaez (yes).”

Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town.
Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town. (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

It’s a dull day for business in Jew Town’s Synagogue Lane. The shops in this by-lane, which sell embroidered kurtaspashminas, papier-mâché boxes and hand-knotted silk carpets, are deserted. And the Kashmiri traders who own or work in these shops are catching up on news from home.

“This is the only place in India where we can live the way we want,” says 42-year-old Nasir Hussain, a Kashmiri who hails from Saida Kadal, Srinagar, and runs two shops in Synagogue Lane.

At a time when over eight million people have been through a lockdown in the Kashmir valley, after Article 370 of the Constitution was effectively revoked on 5 August, serene Mattancherry and adjoining Fort Kochi offer the comfort of home to about 500 Kashmiri traders, who own over a hundred shops here.

They first started shifting here when militancy gripped the valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following in the footsteps of Gulshan Khatai, the first Kashmiri businessman to open a handicrafts shop in Kochi in 1972. Another trader, Khursheed Geelani opened the first Kashmiri handicrafts shop in Jew Town in 1992. Over the years, many others left strife-torn Kashmir for a peaceful life in this southern port city, about 3,500km away. Everything is different here—the weather, food habits, culture and language. There is, however, one thing in common with Kashmir—the warmth of the people.

Hussain is one of the many Kashmiris who have settled here. As a 17-year-old from Saida Kadal, he says he wanted to escape the daily intimidation by security forces. “They frisked me every time I stepped out of home. They would not even let me put my hands inside the pheran (loose Kashmiri cloak) even in cold winters, as if I was carrying a gun under the pheran,” he recalls.

After he cleared class XII in 1999, Hussain left to work at a handicrafts factory in Madurai, without informing his family. In 2001, he was sent to Kochi when the company opened a unit there. Four years later, he opened his own shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi. Today, he owns four shops—two each in Fort Kochi and Jew Town.

Hussain is married to a local Malayali, Mouhzeena Nibras. He met her in 2003—she was studying in a school close to his shop. Tasked with an assignment on the Shia Muslims of Kashmir, she sought the help of Kashmiri shop-owners like Hussain. They fell in love and married nearly seven years later, in 2010. Some local Kashmiris objected—Hussain is Shia and Mouhzeena, Sunni. “For us, religion and its complexities were never important. We were in love with each other and it was good enough a reason to get married,” says Mouhzeena.

“This is my home now,” says Hussain.

In August, an IAS officer from the state, Kannan Gopinathan, resigned from the civil service in protest against the lockdown in Kashmir. “People of India have failed Kashmiris, we didn’t stand for them, we never registered our protest against the lockdown. It is shameful that Kashmiris feel safe only in Kerala. The onus is on us, Indians, to build a safe environment across the country,” Gopinathan tells Lounge.

In today’s polarized India, this could sound like wishful thinking but Kerala, a state with 54.73% Hindus, 26.56% Muslims and 18.38% Christians, is a pluralistic society. Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, former Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, have remained havens of tolerance, pluralism and multiculturalism. Yamini Nair, co-author of One Heart. Two Worlds. (2019), says the 5 sq. km radius of Mattancherry has traditionally been a multicultural space. It is home to at least 39 communities, including Jews, Sindhis, Konkanis, Rajasthanis, Tamil Vannans, Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Dakhinis (from Hyderabad), Anglo-Indians (from Goa), early settlers from Yemen, and now Kashmiris. “It has always showered its warmth to all; it gave equal space to all,” Nair says.

She adds that historical evidence shows that the earliest Jewish traders, popularly known as Malabari Jews, landed in present-day Kodungallur as early as 970 BC. They dealt in spices, silk, pearls, ivory and animals. Apparently, they later shifted south to Kochi, owing to floods.

Jew Town is named after a later community of primarily European Jewish migrants, also called Paradesi Jews, who arrived from Spain in the 15th century. “The Hindu kings of Kerala warmly welcomed the Jewish settlers over the years and gifted them several pieces of land. The Paradesi synagogue in the Jew Town of Mattancherry is built upon one such piece of land,” Nair says.

You have to cross the Kashimir handicraft shops to enter the Paradesi synagogue.

“Interestingly, the clock tower of the synagogue itself is an example of the multiculturalism of this place: The numbering of the clock is done in four different languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Malayalam and Roman,” says Nair, adding that there are only five Jews left in Mattancherry. The others have left or passed on.

Historian Rajan Gurukkal says, “The contiguous existence of synagogues, churches and the temples and mosques accounts for the mutually complementary coexistence of communities.”

Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town
Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

This year, on Eid, when the Kashmiris went for morning prayers to a mosque in Fort Kochi, they prayed for peace in the valley. “This Eid, we were only worried about our families back home. For the first time, we had no celebrations for Eid, there were no guests or special dinner,” says 44-year-old shop owner Sajid Khatai, originally from downtown Srinagar. Usually, festivals in Mattancherry are occasions for communities to celebrate together and savour fusion cuisines such as the coconut milk curries of the Malayalis, the papadams popularized by the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins and the brown gram of the Gujaratis.

“Even though most Kashmiris avoided eating beef in Kashmir to not hurt the sentiments of their Pandit neighbours, they have taken to Malabar parantha and beef curry, the popular cuisine of Malayalis here,” Sajid says.

Kashmiri children go to local schools and speak fluent Malayalam. Hussain’s two children—a nine-year-old daughter and five-year-old son—have picked up Kashmiri during their annual visits to Kashmir. They are fond of Kashmir but often fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.

“This year, while stepping out of Srinagar airport, when my son gave a salute to the tricolour because he has learnt to do so in school, one of my relatives objected to it. My son was confused; he asked me the reason for their objection. I was not sure how to explain the strained relationship between the Indian government and people of Kashmir to a five-year-old,” Hussain says.

The lockdown in Kashmir has impacted business in Mattancherry too.

Hussain says he had ordered items such as carpets, shawls and papier-mâché boxes worth 10 lakh in June—these still haven’t arrived from Kashmir. “The labourers working in shawl factories were mostly from Bihar, and they left Kashmir. The colours required for papier-mâché are not available since the markets are closed. After having been stuck in their homes for about four months, people don’t know where to pick up their scattered lives from,” says Hussain.

About 150 unemployed men from Kashmir have arrived to work in their shops since the lockdown in August.

Parvaiz Ahmed Dar of Srinagar is one of them. Dar, 28, used to earn about 15,000 a month as a salesman at a handicrafts shop in Srinagar—but the lockdown changed that. Now the sole bread-winner for a family of eight, he arrived in Fort Kochi about a month ago. “Safety is the bonus here,” says Dar, who earns 12,000 a month now. “There is no frisking, no questioning and no detention by police.”

Of course, the local police do keep an eye on them. Sajid, who heads the Kashmiri traders welfare association in Kochi, routinely provides them an updated list of all Kashmiri shop-owners and workers. His strong connect with the place, however, remains intact.

“This is a truly cosmopolitan and secular place which welcomes everyone,” Hussain says. “It is India, yet not India.”

The story was published on 13 December 2019 in Mint Lounge : https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/the-kashmiris-of-jew-town-11576236697100.html

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

New Delhi is stepping up arrests of Kashmiri clerics and monitoring mosques, sparking concerns of a religious crackdown, not just a political one.

By Sonia Sarkar

It was a dark Eid for 11-year-old Saeed Mutaiba this August. When she returned home from a brief vacation at her grandfather’s house, she discovered police taking away her father, Mohammed Ameen, a prayer leader at Jamia Masjid in Awantipora, in the strife-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir. She, her mother and her 6-year-old brother have repeatedly visited the police station to appeal for his release — in vain.

“He looked tired. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him,” says the young girl.

A secular democracy, India has long tried to avoid emphasizing the religious undertones to the conflict in Kashmir, blaming it instead solely on Pakistan-backed militancy there. But in recent months, police have stepped up arrests of Islamic clerics and prayer leaders and clamped down on mosques in what was the country’s only Muslim-majority state. That has coincided with the Indian government’s move on Aug. 5 to strip off the constitutional provisions of autonomy Kashmir enjoyed while placing the region under lockdown. Though there is no official number of arrests, the government’s approach — which it argues is necessary for the region’s security — threatens India’s credibility, say analysts.

WE KNOW WHO IS WHAT IN THE MOSQUES AND HOW ANTI-INDIA MESSAGES ARE SPREAD BY THESE CLERICS AND RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS.

DILBAG SINGH, JAMMU AND KASHMIR POLICE CHIEF

Ameen, 39, was arrested on Aug. 6. In June, the police arrested a cleric in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. In March, two imams in south Kashmir’s Pulwama were arrested. The head of a religious body was denied a passport after he was charged with “anti-India” activities. Since Aug. 5, policemen in plainclothes are also recording the khutbahs (sermons) read out in mosques after Friday prayers, law enforcement officials concede. On Eid, Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal Shrine — two of Kashmir’s most iconic shrines — were shut.

Donations made to Baitulmal, the charity fund in mosques, are being monitored. Police are asking clerics to divulge details of relatives living in Kashmir and in Pakistan. Their bank accounts are being scrutinized, officials say, arguing that these moves are aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in mosques.

“We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions,” says Dilbag Singh, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indeed, religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir have long espoused the right to self-determination. And Indian officials too have kept the group’s imams under surveillance earlier. Others, like Jamia Masjid imam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been detained multiple times over the past three decades. But earlier Indian governments have tried to avoid the impression that they’re against religious bodies, by only targeting individuals. Farooq has been part of negotiations on Kashmir’s future.

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Friday prayers at Srinagar airport, Jammu and Kashmir.

SOURCE SONIA SARKAR

This February though, India banned the Jamaat. And now, notwithstanding ideological affiliations, all imams and mosques are under vigil. In September, religious processions for Muharram — the day of mourning the tragedy of Karbala — were banned in parts of Kashmir. Officials accuse some mourners last year of holding aloft portraits of slain militant leader Burhan Wani. “We use every occasion to remind ourselves that our fight is for freedom,” says Ubaid, who requested that his last name not be used, in downtown Srinagar’s Soura neighborhood.

But the Indian government is now increasingly blurring the line it maintained between religion and security practices, say many experts. Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni calls the clampdown on mosques and religious leaders by the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “ideology-driven.”

“The BJP’s strategy is to polarize and demonize Kashmiri Muslims,” he says. “These actions largely express communal prejudice compounded by an electoral calculus for political gains outside Kashmir.” The government’s moves, he says, are “intended to intimidate people of the Kashmir valley and tell them, ’Look, this is what we can do to you.’”

Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the current Indian government sees the Muslim identity of Kashmiris as a threat. She says the efforts to exert control over religious spaces and leaders “is not surprising.”

India, experts point out, has seen worse threats to its sovereignty over Kashmir, such as in 1989, when local men picked up guns demanding azaadi (freedom). The government at the time mishandled the crisis, say analysts. Sahni recalls how after the Friday prayers in 1990–91, a section of mosques would name Hindu families and threaten them with violence if they didn’t leave Kashmir. “The government made a strategic error by facilitating their exodus, instead of providing them with security where they were,” Sahni says.

Yet there was no crackdown on religious institutions then. Now, a policeman at Awantipora police station has no hesitation in telling me on a Friday afternoon in August that he’s rushing to the Jamia Masjid — to “lead the prayers” — instead of letting the imam do so.

Some clerics point to the fact that especially over the past five years since Modi came to power, many educated Kashmiris, including engineers, research scholars and professors, have joined militancy. “If mosques are the only places of radicalization, then why would a research scholar or engineer join militancy?,” asks Hilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old imam at a Srinagar mosque.

But the government’s strategy could backfire, caution analysts. “Long detentions of religious leaders … [instead] of the narrow targeting of the troublemakers, will be interpreted as a broader communal assault on the Muslims,” Sahni warns.

For the moment though, those suffering the most are families like Ameen’s. Mutaiba’s wait for her father continues.

 

 

Now India Clamps Down on Kashmir’s Mosques

Okus-Bokus, by two Kashmiri women, comes as fears grow over loss of identity amid perceived attempts to erase culture.

by

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Granny takes little Billa and Munni for a walk in Srinagar, and stops by the tomb of the mother of Zainul-Abidin, Kashmir’s former king, built around 1430.

“Look at Kashmir’s history, you see how tough the people are,” she tells her grandchildren. “They have been ruled by foreigners for long – 700 years of occupation.”

Granny, or Naen, Billa and Munni are fictional characters in a new children’s book, Okus-Bokus, written and illustrated by two Kashmiri women, 29-year-old Onaiza Drabu, and Ghazal, 24, respectively.

The story has resonated in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown since August 5, the day India stripped the region of some of its autonomy.

The title of the book is derived from the Kashmiri phrase hukus–bukus, which broadly translates to: “Who is s/he?, who am I?”

In the tale, granny teaches Kashmiri words from A to Z to the children while identifying traditions, culture and food habits.

This book comes against the backdrop of rising concerns that Kashmir’s demography and unique culture will change, with fears that India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party will attempt to “Indianise” the region.

“Traditional ways of being Kashmiri are slowly losing relevance, and this book can tie Kashmiris to their roots,” co-author Drabu told Al Jazeera. “This book could help children of this generation [learn] all that we have in our history and culture, and hopefully set them on a quest for their Kashmiri identity.”

The author of the book [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Okus-Bokus co-author Onaiza Drabu, 29, said her book aims to educate children about Kashmir’s unique culture, which is neither Indian nor Pakistani [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu]

Drabu said the book was written as an apolitical text, but acknowledged that it is not above political interpretation.

“Even though the book was not written consciously to refer to the pain of a Kashmiri, the language in use is alive, sub-consciously in my head too,” said Drabu.

Young Kashmiris related to the “language” Drabu referred to.

For instance, Javed, a 17-year-old from Srinagar, read “E” for “Enz” (goose) who “don’t fly like other birds,” as a metaphor.

“Like Enz, we too cannot fly. Indian forces have caged us,” he said.

In another entry that could be read as having a double meaning, the book refers to “al-hachi”, a dry Kashmiri pumpkin which is prepared in the summer and saved for the winter when it is unavailable.

The book says this helps when supplies are low, when the “roads become difficult to navigate”. 

Kashmiris preserve a range of vegetables, also including turnips, eggplants and tomatoes, so there is enough to eat during sudden curfews.

“At the peak of militancy in the 90s, curfews brought the valley to a standstill for days. In 2016, Kashmir was under curfew for about 99 days. Currently, despite government’s claim of ‘normalcy’ in the valley, shops are shut.

“Over the years, we have learnt innovative ways of coping with the crisis and to not die hungry,” Asiya Mushtaque, a 45-year-old teacher from Awantipora, told Al Jazeera.

Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India. There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.

SOUZEINA MUSHTAQ, SRINAGAR RESIDENT

US-based anthropologist Ather Zia recently wrote a series of children’s stories titled Gula of Kashmir, about Gula, a young fish who lives in the Verinag spring, that touches on Kashmir’s history and ethos.

She believes short stories can teach children about cultural and political resistance.

Nyla Ali Khan, a US-based author, academic and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, the first Muslim prime minister of Kashmir, said the narrative around Kashmiri identity tends to centre around “militancy”.

“Kashmir has a distinct identity and any attempt to homogenise it and make it part of the ultra right-wing monolithic identity should be thwarted. It is important for people to be educated about one’s culture first,” she told Al Jazeera.

Young Kashmiris allege that the Indian government has long tried to “Indianise” Kashmiri history through textbooks.

“Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India,” 30-year-oldSouzeina Mushtaq, who grew up in Bemina, Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

“There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.”

Social scientist Mohamad Junaid, of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believes that attempts to wipe out Kashmiri culture will intensify under the BJP.

In December, in a move that angered linguists, the Indian government withdrew the Kashmiri language from Bhasha Sangam, an online portal it had set up to celebrate the “unique symphony of languages of our country”.

Some Kashmiri Pandits had complained that the version of the language on the website was widely used by Muslims, and therefore ignored Hindus, who according to them, speak Kashmiri differently.

“Some Kashmiri Pandits want to assert themselves politically in all matters related to Kashmir in order to settle the tragedy of their exodus,” M K Raina, a Delhi-based theatre director who has worked with Kashmiri artists for decades, told Al Jazeera.

Several Kashmiri Pandits support India’s move to revoke Article 370, the part of the constitution which had given some autonomy to Kashmir for seven decades.

“There could be a cultural aggression by BJP through imposition of Hindi in Kashmir like everywhere else in India,” feared a former director of education in Kashmir, who requested anonymity.

For now, though, Okus-Bokus is making its way to Kashmir’s children.

On the last leg of their journey, granny reaches the final letters of the alphabet.

“Y” is for “yaemberzal”, the fragrant narcissus flower which signals the arrival of spring.

“Will there ever be another spring in Kashmir?” said Faraz Khan, a 19-year-old from Srinagar, as he flipped through the children’s book. “India is the current occupier of Kashmir. It has paralysed us for 70 years.”

 

[The story appeared in Al Jazeera on 16th September 2019: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/kashmir-children-book-highlights-region-culture-190915140353211.html%5D

By Sonia Sarkar

 

A school in Kashmir's Tral area with Musa - a rebel killed by security forces - written on its entrance [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
A school in Kashmir’s Tral area with Musa – a rebel killed by security forces – written on its entrance [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

 

When the bearded man in blue tee screamed – “There is only one solution,” hundreds of others on the street cheered  – “Gun Solution, Gun Solution.”

These were the scenes from Srinagar, capital of the Indian-administered Kashmir, soon after Friday prayers on August 23, showed a New York Times video.

 Curfew has been imposed across the Valley since August 5, the day the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 and 35 A which gave special status to Kashmir. Barring a few landlines, all communication channels have been snapped since then.

 Forces have been deployed in large numbers, especially during Friday prayers to prevent possible protests.

But these visuals showed that the locals defied all restrictions and gave a stern message to the government that the only solution to this crisis is militancy.

These sentiments have been echoed by 24-year-old unemployed commerce graduate Rasheed in Dangarpura village of Awantipora in south Kashmir.

Rasheed claimed, since the lockdown, he has been summoned by paramilitary personnel posted at a nearby camp several times because they wanted him to work as an “informer.” As he rejected the offer, they have started harassing him.

“Recently, two paramilitary personnel came home and threatened to slap a case under Public Safety Act against me if I don’t accept the offer. I would never work for an Indian security agency but if this harassment continues, the only way to protect myself is to join the militants, pick up a gun,” Rasheed said. “I prefer to die only once than dying multiple deaths every day.”

South Kashmir has turned into a hotbed of militancy in the past half a decade. Two militants of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa, killed by security forces in 2016 and 2019 respectively, belonged to Tral in south Kashmir. People came out in large numbers in their support at their funerals. Names of Wani and Musa are scribbled on every second wall including that of a school in Tral (see pic). A tag — “Burhan Wani, you are still alive,” stencilled by local boys outside Burhan’s house has been recently replaced with “India,” written by the security forces.

Detentions of boys

Police sources said, many “troublemakers” have been picked up from Tral township in the past three weeks. 

Locals alleged, the number is, at least, 100.

A day before Eid, a 12-year-old boy has been picked up by the police from his house on this lane adjacent to Khanqah-e-Faiz Panah shrine in Tral. “They picked him up for stone-pelting but the truth is, he was confined to his house all these days, didn’t go to tuition either,” alleged Salma, the boy’s Aunt.

Estimates said, around 4,000 people have been detained by the police across the Valley ever since the lock down. The director general of police of Jammu and Kashmir Dilbag Singh didn’t comment on the figures or on detention of minors but told Al Jazeera, “Detention is a dynamic process. We keep picking up men and releasing them.”

Tral-based contractor Tariq Dar said this harassment and torture would push the boys to join militancy.  “When they are being picked up, questioned and tortured for no reason, how else they would heal their wound other than picking up guns?” asked  Dar.

Human rights violations have been a routine affair in Kashmir for the past three decades. But what hurts young Kashmiris like 18-year-old Sameer of Tral most now is the snapping of all communication channels and ripping them off the special status and statehood. 

“The Indian government has made us non-existent in one blow,” Sameer, a Class XII student said. “If we follow the path of armed resistance like Burhan, we would, at least, feel we have done something fruitful to avenge this humiliation,” he reasoned out.

Burhan’s father Muzaffar Wani, a school principal, told Al Jazeera,  “Children don’t have the strength to bear the torture that we have been bearing for the past 70 years.” 

Adding that he never encouraged students to join militancy, Wani said, “Currently, everyone has been forced to remain silent. We will know how the boys react only after this lull.”

But Singh is confident that there will be “better days” ahead.

“Whenever our intelligence reports reveal, any boy is joining militancy, we tell his parents that he too will get killed like Wani and Musa, then the parents try to dissuade him,” he told Al Jazeera, adding, 127 militants have been killed so far this year.

Singh claimed, the number of men joining militancy has gone down in the past one year. About 120 men joined militancy between January – August, 2018, as compared to 70 in the same period this year.

‘Muscular’ approach 

The ruling nationalist BJP has adopted a “muscular” policy in Kashmir soon after implementing Operation All Out 2017 in order to “flush out” militants.

 

But Delhi-based defence expert A.S. Dulat warned that this muscular approach may not work.

“The excessive use of force won’t work if you use it as a policy to sort out Kashmir insurgency. There will be a reaction to it. Remember, the whole population is angry,” former Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Dulat told Al Jazeera.

Krakow-based Kashmir expert Agnieszka Kuszewska said, “People seem to be more determined to defend themselves against what they perceive as occupation and unprecedented military presence.”

Delhi-based national security analyst Happymon Jacob believed, historically, “political missteps” have led to a spike in militancy in Kashmir. 

“In all these years –1987 (rigged elections), 1990s (militarization of the Valley), 2008 (the Amarnath land dispute), 2010 (when over 100 Kashmiris were allegedly killed by the Indian security forces) and 2016 (killing of Burhan Wani), pre-existing alienation and proximate causes led to increased violence. What has happened now is a step further. New Delhi has not only stripped Kashmir off the statehood but also made mainstream politicians irrelevant. These factors could lead to a spike in violence in months ahead,” said Jacob.

Three pro-India former chief ministers have been put under house arrest after abrogation of Article 370.

“Indian government labels all Kashmiris as terrorists,” Rasheed said. “Let’s then prove the government right.”

ENDS

By Sonia Sarkar

World’s largest democracy, India, is electing the representatives for its next Parliament but a large section of people in the Indian–administered Kashmir has chosen to boycott. Amid the unprecedented deployment of security forces and internet shut down, nobody came to vote at 122 polling booths in Kulgam of Anantnag constituency on Monday.  The trend was similar in other two constituencies – Srinagar and Baramulla.  No votes were cast in, at least, 107 polling booths there a fortnight ago.

Srinagar-based Asma Firdous, who had taken to streets against Indian security forces with Franz Kafka in her bag and stone in hand, refused to get her finger inked in the ongoing elections. This 26-year-old postgraduate student, who often chanted slogans of  “Azadi (freedom)” on the streets, says –“We don’t consider ourselves as Indians, nor do the Indians consider us as one of their own, why vote for India, then?

Like her, many Kashmiris allege, India is only concerned about retaining Kashmir as its territory but never considered them as its own people. This disillusionment has been growing among Kashmiris ever since the Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came to power in 2014. The party articulated its core agenda to abrogate Article 370 and 35 A, which give autonomy to Kashmir and permanent residency to state subjects under Indian Constitution, respectively. Kashmiris allege, BJP is trying to change the demography of Muslim-dominated Kashmir, the strife-torn Valley of India over which at least two wars have been fought with Pakistan.

Poll boycott in Kashmir is a stern message to New Delhi and Narendra Modi that Kashmiris don’t trust them, Srinagar-based political scientist Sheikh Showkat Hussain says. “This is also an indication that the alienation has reached at such a level that people have become indifferent now.”

In 2014, BJP also formed a coalition with Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to govern the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it intensified Army excess – crackdown, detentions and killings. At least 100 civilians were allegedly killed and hundred more were blinded by pellet guns when they protested against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, a Kashmir boy. Human rights activists claim, at least, 57 civilians killed in 2017 and 80 in 2018 allegedly by security forces during street protests. In 2017, an Army officer even tied up a Kashmiri to the front of his jeep and used him as a human shield to ward off stone pelters.

Kashmiris argue they have no reason to vote for a country which uses its brutal forces against them.  “India is a land of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, the peacemaker. Why vote for a country run by fascists?” asks human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who was detained for 76 days on charges of being an “instigator “of violence three years ago.

The latest bone of contention of Kashmiris is the gag order from New Delhi banning civilians from travelling on a key highway, which connects Kashmir to its twin city, Jammu, twice a week. The ban came after Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Kashmiri militant killed 42 Indian soliders in a suicide attack on the same highway. Kashmir doesn’t like this high-handedness by New Delhi. It started an arms movement pressing for the right to self-determination in 1989. After a lull period in the mid and late 2000, youths have started joining militancy again – 191 joined in 2018 and 126 in 2017, as per Army records. But the anti-India sentiment is so strong especially among the educated middle class that they call them “our boys,” not terrorists. A common narrative is – “If there is terrorism in Kashmir, it is in the hands of men in uniform.”

It is this hatred against India that pulls  them  away from the democratic process of polling. Kashmir never witnessed huge turnout in parliamentary elections — it was 50 per cent in 2014 — highest as compared to 40 per cent in 2009 and 35 per cent in 2004. But this year, it looks abysmally low so far. Out of the six parliamentary constituencies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, three –Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag – are in Kashmir Valley, others in Jammu and Ladakh. The voter turnout was 34.1 per cent in north Kashmir’s peaceful Baramulla constituency, still five per cent less as compared to the last general elections in 2014. Barring the Congress bastions of Dooru, Kokernag and Shangus, the turnout was exceptionally low in militancy-hit south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, where polling is scheduled in five phases, last one slated for May 6. Anantnag’s Bijbehara, the home turf for PDP head and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, recorded only 2.04 per cent voting as opposed to 36 per cent in 2014. No votes were cast in 40 polling booths in Bijbehara. Fearing resentment of people, who feel betrayed by PDP for joining hands with BJP, Mehbooba couldn’t campaign there. It’s a different story that the allies fell out and Kashmir is under President’s rule now.

In an exclusive telephonic interview, Mehbooba Mufti tells me, her party’s “credibility has been tainted.” “People are angry and disillusioned. They feel democracy is limited to elections, there is no democracy after elections,” she says.

People allege, both mainstream politicians –Mehbooba and her rival Omar Abdullah of National Conference – never kept their promises of demilitarization. “People know these leaders can’t do anything in Parliament without orders from New Delhi,” says Parvez of Srinagar, where the voter turnout was 14 per cent as compared to 26 per cent in 2014.

Barring a routine boycott call by Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir chief Riyaz Naikoo on social media and a press note on the same by separatist alliance, All Party Hurriyat Conference, there has been no organised campaign on poll boycott unlike previous years. “At this juncture, people don’t need any leader to decide for them, they boycotted voluntarily,” says Firdaus Ahmad Shah, chairman of Democratic Political Movement, part of the alliance.

It is believed, those who voted are party cadres, relatives of political parties and tribals in the hilly terrain. Political activist Javaid Trali of Tral in south Kashmir, Burhan Wani’s home district, says, he would vote on May 6 because he “believes in exercising his democratic right.”

People who vote are stigmatized as “traitors” by many.  “When people vote, India tells the world, Kashmir is with us, which is not true,” adds 35-year-old pharmacist Nasir Patiguru of Anantnag.

The participation of villagers, who vote for better roads, electricity, water, employment,  and not much influenced by the sentiment of “Azadi.”has been less too this time, “There is no promising candidate; even if we vote, they won’t do anything for us,” alleges 39-year-old Sarir Ahmed Bhat of Srandoo villange in Kulgam, where the voter turnout was 1.7 per cent on Monday.

Former civil servant Shah Faesal, who resigned to protest against “unabated killings” in Kashmir and formed his own political party- Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement – says, many villagers moved around the polling booths, finished their daily jobs but didn’t go to vote.

There are some who voted to register this dissent. Government clerk Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Srinagar, who voted for NOTA (None of The Above) says, “I voted against poll boycott of separatists. I also voted against ‘mainstream’ politicians who are concerned about capturing state power and resources and don’t want any resolution of Kashmir conflict.”

Meanwhile, Mufti promises to do take up some “confidence-building” measures among people. Is this another poll promise?

(A version of the story with additional inputs has appeared in DW: https://www.dw.com/en/india-elections-why-are-kashmiris-not-voting/a-48547313?fbclid=IwAR0mlTeChBu0D3R0mcemMS3EmzdOyDmog84BvLAUeWo8ox6ZI0UYO4VsQnw)

ENDS

Kashmir’s nomadic Bakarwals are looking beyond their traditional wandering lives, reports Sonia Sarkar

UNEVEN GROUND: Bakarwals leave for higher altitudes with the onset of summer  

As a child Shahnawaz Chaudhary had no money to buy notebooks. He memorised lessons by writing them down on rocks with pebbles for chalk. In fact, when he got the news that he had passed his Class X examinations, he was busy grazing sheep in Mandhar of Poonch district in the Pir Panjal range, a good six-hour drive from Srinagar.

“It was the turning point of my life. I realised that even we can have a better life,” says Chaudhary, who is now editor-cum-culture officer at the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

Chaudhary is one of those rare Bakarwals who dared to dream.

 

The term ” bakarwal” is a derivative of the word “bakri” or ” bakar” meaning goat or sheep. Bakarwals are nomadic Muslim tribes. In the summers, the Bakarwals travel from Jammu to Kashmir and sometimes all the way up to Ladakh. In October, they give a slip to the impending harsh winter and return to the plains of Jammu in search of green meadows and favourable climate for their livestock.

The eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered earlier this year, in the state’s Kathua district also belonged to this community. According to activist Talib Hussain, who belongs to the community and has been fighting for justice for the girl, Bakarwals are now looking for a life beyond shuttling between the hills and the plains. Hussain [he has since been accused of rape and arrested] says, “Living the life of nomads should not remain a compulsion for us. We should be able to look for opportunities to study and be successful professionally.”

In 1991, Bakarwals were recognised as Scheduled Tribes by the state. But, as Hussain points out, they have never enjoyed the benefits or concessions in education or jobs that ought to have come with this. But now, the young of the community are increasingly deciding to take charge of their own destiny.

Hussain has been walking barefoot for over seven months as part of his campaign for implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act in Jammu and neighbouring areas to ensure that his own community has a better life.

He says, “Since the Act is not implemented in Jammu, we have no dwelling rights on forest lands which have been our traditional habitat for generations. What’s more, we are barely left with any forest land to travel through; we are facing eviction.”

Bakarwals are often clubbed with Gujjars, another nomadic tribe. Together, the two constitute around 11.9 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, according to the 2011 census.

The Bakarwals, however, feel that this clubbing together has been detrimental to their case. Says Chaudhary, “A sizeable number of Bakarwals is still landless and without proper shelter. They have no idea of what is happening in the larger world. On the contrary, most Gujjars are studying in schools and also have a secure livelihood.”

Talib Hussain was desperate to study but had little opportunity in his home state. He fled to Delhi, worked at a property dealer’s office and joined a government school. But he had to go back, as he couldn’t sustain himself for long. Later, he got into a state-run hostel for Bakarwals and Gujjars. “But very few Bakarwal students succeed in getting into these,” he claims.

Humera Chowdhary, a 26-year-old dentist, shares her experience. She says, “As children, some of us have had to live away from our parents for the sake of getting an education. Our parents travelled for six months. I could see my parents because they survived the harsh weather conditions and the dangerous hilly terrain, but there were many who didn’t see their parents the next season as they failed to make it. Had there been functional mobile schools in every district, Bakarwal children could at least be with their parents.”

Humera and others who have had enjoyed better fortune are now thinking in terms of payback. Rafaqat Hussain Khatana is studying to be a doctor at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. He says, “I would like to run mobile clinics for Bakarwals. They sleep and eat wherever they get space, it is important to see how to make them more aware of hygiene and sanitation. Plus, providing them mobile medical facilities would improve the quality of life.”

No one wants to sacrifice one good thing for another, but sometimes to have both is difficult, if not near impossible. Chaudhary tells us he misses his old wanderer’s life. Occasionally he even takes off from work to spend some days roaming the Pir Panjal range with the people of his kafila.

He says in hushed tones, “I miss the charm of the old life.”

Far removed from political jingoism and posturing, individual efforts are afoot to make whole a splintered Kashmiriness, says Sonia Sarkar

 

 

Only connect: Jaibeer Ahmad (above) and (top) Meanka Handu    

As Facebook pages go, Raabta is fairly basic. A stack of cards in muted colours, the image of a bench emblazoned on each – stark, awaiting its occupants – and jottings upon jottings. In some cases, as the written word spills onto the screen, an audio clip comes alive. Clang, clang, clang, the rabab quivers with emotion, and its soulful notes falling on alien ears seem to emanate from a sad hollow core.

Raabta might mean connection in Urdu, but this page, launched earlier this year, is about lost connections and old yearnings.

The community page for Kashmiris describes itself sans specifics thus – “…a small endeavour to help search and reconnect old friends, neighbours, school mates, colleagues who haven’t heard from each other in three decades.” Gurgaon-based Jaibeer Ahmad, who is from Kashmir, launched it. Ahmad, however, tells The Telegraph, “This page is only to reconnect those who parted ways in 1990 and reconnect them.”

One post is about Chennai-based Samir Pandita who has been looking for his teacher these past 35 years. “My favourite teacher was Mohammed Sayed from Bon-Bhawan Mattan… I am not sure where he is currently.” An S.A. Wahid is looking for classmates Vijay Pandita and Ajay Bhat. He has put out as much detail as he could summon from memory – Vijay lived in a rented house next to Regina cinema, Ajay was from old town Baramulla. More details. Someone is looking for a Vinod Kumar who used to live at Dharkocha near Temple Khankah-i-sokta between Safa Kadal and Nawa Kadal. There is an Anamika from Canada looking for childhood friend Saeba. Someone else looking for a third son “just born in a different house”.

 

When old connections are re-established, those experiences are posted too. A day after Pandita posted his message, his teacher was traced. “We spoke for over 30 minutes on the phone, recalled the school days and caught up with each other’s lives,” says Pandita, who is now a general manager with a chain of hotels. Dubai-based media professional Sameer Bhat connected with neighbour Arun Koul. “Nearly 28 years later when he said ‘hello’ over the phone, I could immediately recognise the voice. He was unmistakably Bunty bya[that’s how Kashmiris pronounce bhaiyya meaning brother].” He adds, “The first thing Bunty bya asked, ‘Do you still wear a watch on your right hand.’ He remembered.” Others recall with fondness, shared feasts, a tumble in the snow, the sheen mohnuv or the snowman.

Meanka Handu, another Kashmiri Pandit who left Srinagar in April 1990, is also trying to reconnect with her homeland, but through humour. The IT professional based in the National Capital Region’s Noida area has started a YouTube channel called “Asvun Koshur”, which means “smiling, happy Kashmiri”. Asvun Koshur contains a series of family-oriented comic video monologues presenting unknown aspects of Kashmiri culture and language. Though Handu keeps switching between Hindi and Kashmiri, the humour eludes translation. But it has traction within the Kashmiri community. The channel to date has 10,000 followers. A lot of elderly people from Kashmir watch her videos. Says Handu, “Language is a common thread that binds us, Kashmiris, regardless of our faith and individual beliefs.”

Raabta and Asvun Koshur are celebrations of a holistic Kashmiriness. Post the outbreak of militancy in the Valley, there was a mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. It has almost three decades since, but Pandits continue to ache for the land they had to leave perforce. Kashmiri Muslims stayed on, but life as they knew it changed. While steering clear from all talk of who is to blame for what and who fared the worse, Ahmad and Handu seem to be attempting a social corrective in the interest of Kashmiriyat.

Amit Wanchoo, a Pandit who lives in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, talks about the syncretic culture of the Valley that was. He says, “Pandits ate the halal meat as did Muslims. Before a wedding, a Kashmiri Pandit would seek blessings of the eldest Muslim neighbour and vice versa.” The two communities, apparently, celebrated a series of festivals together. In fact, as a nod to this, Ahmad launched Raabta on Herath or Shiv Ratri.

Some years ago, Wanchoo also started an initiative called Salaam Mahara – that’s how Kashmiri Muslims greet Pandits. It tries to bridge the gap between the two communities. Last year, a programme called Ikwaith or coming together was organised on Eid. This March, another one was organised on Kashmiri new year, Navreh. He organises cultural shows, sponsors trips of Pandit students from Jammu to visit Srinagar and live with locals in camps. “This is how we plan to change the narratives and bridge the gaps between two communities,” says Wanchoo, whose grandfather was killed by militants in 1992.

Bridging the gap is what Delhi-based singer Pragnya Wakhlu is doing too. In one of her songs, titled Henzay – Returning to Peace, she has tried to fuse the Butta and Musalman wanwuns or Hindu and Muslim musical styles. In 2017, she released a Kashmiri-English album, Kahwa Speaks. In the title track, kahwa is the metaphor for Kashmir. She says, “Just as kahwa is made of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, the fragrance of each coming together to make a wonderful brew, life in Kashmir is beautiful when all the communities come together.”

Raabta founder Ahmad wants to start a campaign next – to reconnect erstwhile neighbours in the Valley, “beyond the virtual world”. He says, “The tagline would be – do you miss your neighbour.”

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/bridge-from-lost-to-found-221717?ref=india-new-stry

– Enough of romancing the chinars, the Dal Lake, the snowcapped peaks. Kashmiris are turning to film-making to tell the story of the Valley as they know it.  Sonia Sarkar talks to some of them
DIFFERENT TAKE: On the sets of Half Widow; (below) a still from Partav

Ovais, pursuing a degree in Psychology from Kashmir University, says, “I thought of the film when I was frustrated at being confined… It was the only way I could have expressed my anguish.”

While Memoirs is Ovais’s first film, Dilnawaz Muntazir, a dentist based in Srinagar, is a couple of films old. Kashmir’s first digital feature film, Akh Daleel Looluch (A Story of Love), was released in 2006, but the digital film that got everyone’s attention was Dilnawaz’s Partavor Influence (2013). It bagged the Award of Excellence at the Canada International Film festival that year. Currently, Dilnawaz, who runs his own production company, is working on Ek Pal Zindagi Ka, a film about children orphaned by the ongoing conflict.

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Electrical engineer-turned-filmmaker Danish Renzu says, “Being a Kashmiri, I feel an obligation to tell stories from my world and the place I grew up in. There are so many untold stories and they need attention and platform.” Danish, who has directed the 2017 film, Half Widow, is speaking for himself, but what he says is true of Ovais and Dilnawaz and a lot of young Kashmiris today.

“I have deliberately avoided showing the clichés associated with Kashmir, such as gorgeous landscapes and snowcapped mountains,” says Hussein Khan, whose 2017 film Kashmir Daily tells the story of drug abuse and unemployment.

They must be driven by some compulsion for all of these people are going out of their way to find the time and make the effort to craft this emergent narrative. Danish quit his job with a firm in the US and returned home to Kashmir two years ago. Since then he has made one film – Half Widow; two others are in the making.

Half Widow, as is evident from the title, revolves around a woman who has lost her husband in the web of unrest that has had Kashmir in its stranglehold for decades. One night, in the middle of dinner, he was picked up by some armed men, never to be traced again. Minus her husband and minus any intimation about whether he is dead or alive, the woman finds herself living the unenviable life of a person who is not quite wife, not quite widow. Estimates say there are over 20,000 such half widows in Kashmir. “I believe it’s a very important story and must reach audiences worldwide,” says Danish, whose forthcoming film projects are Pashmina, the tale of the common people of Kashmir caught in the crossfire between militants and the state, and Winters of Kashmir, which is about a young woman who chooses to fight for her right to be educated.

Kashmir had its own film industry till the late 1980s. The first Kashmiri film, Mainz Raat or Mehendi Raat, from 1964 was a typical formula film, girl-meet-boy and the inevitable. But director Jagi Rampaul was given the President’s medal for bringing before the rest of India a slice of Kashmiri life.

It was not a thriving industry by any stretch, but some films of note did come out of it. There were nine cinema halls in Srinagar alone and old-timers recall long queues in front of the ticketing counters of Palladium in Lal Chowk; many of those would have been for Hindi movies. But in the late 1980s, when militancy picked up, many terrorist organisations started a campaign against all forms of entertainment in the Valley. They called such activity “un-Islamic” and forcibly shut down cinema halls.

The feature film, Inqalaab, was made in 1989, but it was never released. Ten years later, the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah encouraged screening of films in Kashmir. The theatres, Broadway, Neelam and Regal, were reopened amidst tight security. But Regal was shut down again after militants aimed a grenade at it, killing one civilian and injuring 12 others. In 2005, following an encounter, Neelam too was shut down.

The current trend is therefore no less than a renaissance.

Shot in Kashmiri, Urdu, Hindi and even English, filmmakers try to involve as much local talent as is possible, but it’s not been easy. Says Hussein, “Traditionally, filmmaking was never encouraged in the Valley. It was mostly theatre and television where a large number of local artistes – scriptwriters, directors and actors – showcased their talent.”

The other hurdle is finance. Hussein took three years to complete his film. “My family makes sacrifices to ensure I pursue my dream. My children have stopped taking the school bus, they take the local bus to save Rs 3,000 per month,” says Hussein, whose Kashmir Dailywas screened for 7,000 viewers at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre in Srinagar this March. There was no big bang commercial release as there are no cinema halls in Kashmir.

Among the other problems are poor shooting infrastructure and lack of post-production facilities. Some, like Muntazir, have opened their own studios to help the filmmakers.

Of late, many Kashmiri actors – Rufy Khan from Yuvvraaj and Dhara 302; Zaira Wasim from Dangal, Mir Sarwar from Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Jolly LLB 2 – have been making waves in Bollywood. Will their success help the cause of filmmakers and films from the Valley? Perhaps. Mir is trying to collaborate with Bollywood for the upcoming Bed No. 17, a film on the healthcare scam that he will be directing. “It will be the first such collaboration,” he says.

In the meantime, those who cannot manage enough investment for feature films are making documentaries that are comparatively low-budget. Bilal A. Jan’s documentary, The Ocean of Tears (2012), raises the issue of alleged mass rape at Kunan and Poshpora in 1991. The film was funded by the home ministry, but was stopped from being screened at Kashmir University in 2014. Ovais’s Memoirs was released on YouTube.

A song from Danish’s Half Widow comes to mind. The track, in Hindi, goes: Kuchh baaqi hai… The singer is insistent, repeating the words again and again. Against the background of what is happening, the plaintive cry seems representative, emanating from the heart of Kashmir’s youth, who seem to have made it their mission to tell the world their full story.


Sonia Sarkar listens in to the rage and disenchantment feeding the violent student upsurge across the Valley

  • NOT BOUGHT OVER: Those who read Kafka and Shaw too feel the need to protest, say students
    Photographs by Abid Bhat

Girls dressed in white salwar-kameez and black cardigans march fearlessly on the streets of Lal Chowk in central Srinagar. Faces covered with white dupattas, colourful bunny bags slung tight on their backs, they chase uniformed men with stones in their hands.

Among these girls is Asma Firdaus, a second-year student of English Literature at Srinagar Women’s College. “I read Franz Kafka and George Bernard Shaw, yet I go out to raise azadi slogans and pelt stones,” she says.

A few kilometres away, a middle school boy, wearing an olive green pullover and a pair of white trousers, takes the lead as hundreds of boys and girls follow him. He chants, ” Hum zulm ke khilaf hain, khilaf hain” and “College-o mein ghusna band karo.” Others join him in chorus – ” band karo, band karo“.

These are the new images emerging from Kashmir – compelling and powerful. In uniforms, these school and college students have been facing water cannons, tear gas and pellets fired by the forces. These protests send a strong message to Delhi, students assert. “It is a stern reply to the narrative promoted by Delhi that only the uneducated youth of Kashmir, who could be bought over by separatists, come out on the streets to protest,” says Aala Fazili, a research student at Kashmir University.

Fazili is referring to former defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement that stone pelters could be bought over by separatists for as little as Rs 500. Clearly, his argument has fallen flat as school and college students come out openly to pelt stones at the forces now.

The immediate provocation was the incident that took place at Pulwama Degree College on April 12. On that day, an army vehicle entered the campus to organise a painting exhibition under its ambitious “Sadbhavna Mission”. Students held massive protests and some even pelted stones at the vehicle forcing the men in uniform to leave the premises. Three days later, on April 15, students staged another protest against a checkpost of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers, barely a few metres outside the college gate. Police came into the scene to control the agitating crowd; 55 students were injured in the subsequent tear-gassing.

Students narrate their tale of ordeal from that day. “Some of us fell unconscious after being tear-gassed,” says a first-year student of the college. “When we were struggling to come out of the campus, police officials told us that if we ask the boys hiding in classrooms to come out they will not touch anyone. We trusted the police and did as they requested. But the moment the boys came out, police started beating them up ruthlessly,” she adds.

The enquiry commission set up by the government too reveals police atrocities against students. “Police trespassed into the campus,” state education minister Altaf Bukhari says. “And they also beat up students – both boys and girls.”

But the police denies such allegations. “We went to evacuate the campus on the request of the college principal. No force was used against the students,” Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani, inspector-general of police of Jammu and Kashmir, tells The Telegraph.

However, the student uproar continued. On April 17, the Kashmir University Students Union (Kusu), a banned organisation, called an all-students’ protest across the Valley. Looking at the mass mobilisation of students, the government shut down the higher secondary schools and colleges from April 18 to 21. But sporadic protests continued across districts – Pulwama, Sopore, Anantnag, Bandipora and Srinagar.

In an Anantnag college, sources tell us, the principal too protested with students. Students from various schools and colleges blocked the arterial Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, crying: ” Awaz do, hum ek hain!

“We cannot allow the forces to damage the sanctity of educational institutions,” says Riddah Qazi, a student of journalism at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Pulwama’s Awantipora. She wrote her exams before participating in the protest.

Like successive Kashmiri protests, even this one is being seen a result of pent-up anger of the youth against agencies of the state. The current generation of school and college students have grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and unprovoked killings, political scientists point out. The recent image of a man tied to an army jeep, used as a human shield, only aggravated the anger of the young Kashmiris. People across the Valley – politicians, separatists and political scientists – call these protests “unprecedented”.

“The biggest significance of this protest is that it’s led by students; it’s not a response to any call by separatists. Yet, the scale of mobilisation is huge,” says Gul Mohammad Wani, professor of Political Science at Kashmir University. He adds, “Plus, the women students are in the forefront. Last but not the least, these students have come out in their uniforms, defying any fear of being identified.”

Even separatists are surprised to see such large-scale protests by students. “Delhi must understand that these students have a mind of their own; their rage is uncontrollable now,” says separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Awami Action Committee.

Students have come out in large numbers in south Kashmir, the stronghold of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Clearly, its ambitious personality development programmes for the youth failed. “There is a sense of defeat and alienation among them,” concedes Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, president of the PDP’s youth wing.

Wani says that the anger of students has spilled out onto the streets because there is no other channel to vent their resentment. In 2010, the Kashmir University banned Kusu and demolished its office; the students’ long-standing demand to conduct a free and fair union election was never addressed.

Mainstream political parties such as the PDP, National Conference and People’s Conference had floated their youth or students’ wings in Kashmir University. The separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front too started a more hardline Islamic Students League in 1985. Prior to this, Islami Jamiat-ul Talba was started in 1977 by the religio-political organisation, Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir. But only the banned Kusu is popular among the students.

“Only Kusu has the credibility among the masses. It has been able to garner huge support among students only because the state doesn’t want it to function,” says Fazili.

In the past too, students’ movements in Kashmir, primarily led by university students, have played an important role. In the 1920s, Muslims Students and Youngman Association raised its voice against the denial of religious and political freedom by the Dogra rulers. In the 1931 mass uprising too, students came out in large numbers to protest against Maharaja Hari Singh. In 1964, students participated in the Holy Relic ( moe-e-muqaddas) movement. Many students joined the radicalised Al-Fatah in 1965. In 1973, Kashmiri students resisted attempts of authorities to change the name of the Government Women’s College Srinagar to Kamala Nehru College. Again in 1974, students took to the streets when the Indira-Sheikh Accord was signed.

After a lull of nearly a decade, young Kashmiris took to the streets at the peak of militancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the recent past, whenever the Valley was on the boil – 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016 – youth have been in the forefront of protests but they seldom came out in their school or college uniforms.

“For us this time it’s a uniform (forces) vs uniform (students) fight,” says Zabirah Fazili, an English graduate from Srinagar Women’s College.

These protests have proved another setback to studies as classes resumed only in March after a six-month closure of schools and colleges in 2016 due to protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

Some teachers, however, feel that students are using the prolonged conflict as an “excuse” to stay away from classes and exams. “Some students want everything on a platter without any hard work. They have started liking this phase of inertia,” says Syeda Afshana, senior assistant professor at the Media and Education Research Centre in Kashmir University.

The other worry of teachers is the growing Islamisation of the students’ movement. The youth, they say, are increasingly showing readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam. During the latest protests too, students have been shouting “Allaha-o-Akbar” and ” hume kya chahiye – Nizam-e-Mustafa (What do we want? The rule of the Prophet in Kashmir)”.

“Very few students even know the history of Kashmir. They need proper understanding of the issue,” Wani cautions. But the separatist Umar Farooq asserts that the “cat is out of the bag” and nothing can stop the students now.


Sonia Sarkar finds JDU’s Sharad Yadav at his quintessential best – angry, easily affronted, defiant, combative, dismissive

  • Illustration Suman Choudhury

Kashmir’s summer of discontent is writ large on Sharad Yadav’s face. His brows are furrowed and he looks disconcertingly grim. But then the man, who has just returned to Delhi after a futile search for peace in the Valley, has been widely – and perhaps unfairly – pilloried for making an effort to meet separatist leaders.

Some have accused him – and a clutch of other members of Parliament – of overstepping bounds. For Yadav, along with a group of Opposition leaders, had tried to reach out to Kashmiri secessionist leaders. Yadav glowers when I bring this up.

“Kashmir is a 70-year-old issue. How do we solve it in two days,” the 69-year-old leader of the Janata Dal (United) fumes.

Yadav and the 27 other politicians in an all-party delegation of parliamentarians led by home minister Rajnath Singh hadn’t really gone to Kashmir last week to settle the Kashmir conflict. Their attempt was to seek ways to resolve the two-month-long crisis that has brought the Valley to a standstill ever since security forces gunned down the 24-year-old commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, on July 8. In an unending cycle of violence, 76 people have been killed by the forces so far. Many hundreds lie injured, some have lost their eyesight.

The JDU leader, along with, among others, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja, broke away from the group and knocked at the door of the chairman of the All India Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani didn’t let them in, and the media was full of images of the stumped parliamentarians standing outside his closed door. Some even labelled him anti-national for breaking ranks with the parliamentary delegation.

“I don’t care who calls me anti-national. Even if Geelani slammed his door on us, we will go again,” Yadav asserts.

Four other separatist leaders – Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shabir Shah and Abdul Gani Bhat – did meet Yadav and his group, but declined to have a dialogue with them on the current crisis. “Their bone of contention was that the central government hadn’t invited them to the talks,” Yadav says. “They promised to meet us in Delhi.”

Yadav holds the state government – an alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – responsible for the ongoing crisis.

“When they formed the government in the state, the BJP-PDP alliance declared that they would talk to all stakeholders, including the Hurriyat. Before our visit, too, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had asked separatists to join the talks. Do you really think she invited them without even consulting the Centre? But the home minister said that it (the Centre) had neither said yes, nor said no to it [the MPs’ initiative].”

The confusion, he holds, demonstrates that the BJP is in a bind. “They want to solve the crisis without involving the Hurriyat but the PDP is keen on their participation. There is no co-ordination between the two,” he grumbles.

Yadav blames the Kashmiri youth for the impasse. “The biggest problem in Kashmir is its leaderless youth,” he asserts.

The former minister has just spoken for a few minutes when he waves his hand to indicate that he has had enough of the interview. ” Bas, ho gaya, chalo, chalo (Enough, I am done, you may go now),” he says.

I quickly change the topic, moving to Bihar, thinking that on this issue he may be more forthcoming. This is the state where his party is in power and has introduced Prohibition, which has been roundly opposed by sections of the people. But, no, Yadav is not going to discuss his colleague, JDU president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. “I will not talk about Bihar,” he maintains.

Not even on the alliance in the state between the Congress and the JDU, once known for its anti-Congress stance? ” Main kah raha hoon ki Bihar ke baare mein baat nahin karna chahta (I have told you I don’t want to talk about Bihar),” he replies sternly.

There is speculation in political circles that all is not well between the Bihar CM and Yadav. Nitish Kumar has been calling the shots in the JDU, which was once Yadav’s domain. As the former convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), he had a cordial relationship with senior BJP leaders such as L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj. But he had no say when Nitish Kumar severed ties with the BJP and pulled the JDU out of the NDA in 2013, rejecting Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.

Does Sharad Yadav have no role to play in the JDU anymore? “It’s up to you to analyse,” he says, scratching his grey stubble.

In 2013, the party constitution was amended to enable Yadav to hold a third term as the chief of the party. But earlier this year, Kumar was installed as the JDU president, replacing Yadav. Many thought it was to underline Nitish’s popularity with the electorate – which would help the party in the 2019 general elections.

“It’s natural for people to associate the JDU with Nitish Kumar because he is the chief minister,” Yadav says.

There was a time, though, when the Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar was one of the prominent faces of the Janata Dal and its many avatars. He has had a long political innings, too. Active in student politics, Yadav, who topped his batch in the Jabalpur Engineering College in Madhya Pradesh, was the college students’ union president in 1971.

When he was 27, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan asked him to fight a Lok Sabha bypoll from Jabalpur. He won the seat by over one lakh votes. From 1971 to 1974, Yadav, a strong opponent of the ruling Congress, was in and out of jail under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa).

He has been a familiar political face since then – recognisable in his trademark white dhoti and kurta. He is in his usual attire when we meet in his office at his residence in central Delhi. On the walls are photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan.

As a diehard socialist and a follower of Narayan, Yadav surprised many when he joined hands with the BJP as the NDA formed its first coalition government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Yadav was known to have enjoyed friendly relations with Vajpayee. How does he get along with Narendra Modi? “I connected with all the prime ministers in the past but never got a chance to have a one-to-one (relationship) with Modi,” Yadav replies. ” Inse koi samvad nahi ban paya abhi tak.”

How would current developments – Dalit men being flogged by self-styled cow protectors in Gujarat, the Patel agitation seeking reservations in jobs and education in Gujarat, a Muslim man being lynched for storing beef in Dadri – affect the 2019 general elections?

“Their (the BJP’s) pre-poll promises included giving jobs to two crore unemployed people, getting black money back, cleaning the Ganges. They have done nothing of this. They are only talking of gau rakshaks (cow protectors), beef ban, ghar wapsi (re-conversion to Hinduism),” he says. “They have to pay a price for that.”

He waves his hand again – indicating that my time is up. But I can’t leave without a question on his position on women. Recently, he came under fire when he said in Parliament that south Indian women were beautiful, as were their bodies – while his hands moved in a circular motion to explain what he wanted to say. ” Woh nritya jaanti hai (They know dance),” he’d said.

“I was not wrong when I said that women from the South have nice figures because they dance regularly,” he now explains.

On another occasion several years ago, while opposing in Parliament a bill that sought to reserve seats for women in elected bodies, he had referred to urban women dismissively as ” par-kati mahilayein“.

“I admit that I shouldn’t have used the word ‘ par-kati‘,” he states.

By now Yadav has had enough of this particular par-kati mahila. He accuses me of raking up an old issue. “Aapka sanskar kharab hai. Itne din baad aap yeh baat pooch rahin hain. Is baat ka koi waasta nahin hai. (Your values are all wrong. You are bringing this up after all these years when it has no connection to the present),” he says.

Now he is not waving his hand anymore – he is on his feet. The interview has to end, he tells me, for he is waiting for a newspaper editor. ” Ab jaaiye (you may go now),” he says.

I now know how the parliamentarians felt when Geelani showed them the door.


tetevitae

1969-71: Gets involved in student politics while studying engineering at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh
1974: Spotted by Jayaprakash Narayan as a youngster with promise; contests the Lok Sabha by-election from Jabalpur, wins as an Independent candidate
1977: Enters Parliament as a Janata Party member
Re-elected to Lok Sabha many more times — 1989, 1991, 1996, 1999 and 2009; wins Rajya Sabha terms in 1986, 2004 and 2016
1987: Involved in the founding of the Janata Dal (JD) under V.P. Singh’s leadership; wins from Badaun, UP, joins Cabinet
Becomes JD president replacing Lalu Prasad in 1997. Joins the Vajpayee-led NDA coalition, becomes a Cabinet minister
2003: Merges with the Lokshakti Party and the Samata Party to form Janata Dal (United) or JDU, becomes party president
2013: JDU ends alliance with BJP after Modi is named face of the campaign; is defeated in the LS polls in 2014 by Pappu Yadav
2016: Cedes presidentship of the JDU to Nitish; remains head of the JDU parliamentary party.

This was first published in The Telegraph:

https://www.telegraphindia.com/1160911/jsp/7days/story_107475.jsp


Sonia Sarkar reports from Kashmir on efforts by Valley folk to prevent the violent turmoil from derailing children’s education

  • LESSONS FOR LIFE: A community school in Budgam

Winter is closing in on Kashmir. The skies have turned grey, the air ridden with fog, the tall chinars have shed their leaves and stand shivered, the government has moved to Jammu. Winter is a quiet season in these parts. But this year, an unusual hubbub has come to populate the Valley’s indoors. Shut out of schools since summer, children are keeping up with the help of community volunteers — a unique effort to insulate education from disruption.

Hena Bashir is not worried about the ongoing board examinations. “At least I know I won’t fail,” says the 17-year-old Class XII student of a government school in Kashmir.

Bashir was given special lessons in Shopian in a makeshift arrangement locally referred to as a curfew school.

Classes are held in wedding halls, mosques and homes. The tutors are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and fresh graduates. Among the students are children who sometimes travel eight kilometres to take classes.

Regular schools in Kashmir broke for the summer on July 1. They were to have reopened after 15 days, but never did. On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, leading to widespread protests. Curfew was in force for 79 days. Among the worst hit were schools.

  • Security forces guard a school in Padgampora

Schools have become a bone of contention in Kashmir. “The separatists are not letting schools open to register their protest. The government is conducting examinations to show normalcy,” says a government education officer. “It is education versus azadi.”

But Kashmiris, who saw thousands of youngsters dropping out of school and college when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, don’t want another generation to suffer. It is for this that curfew schools have come up.

The first such school was set up in Bandipora in north Kashmir this August. When the unrest showed no signs of abating, more informal schools — they charge no fees — came up.

“We had to support the resistance movement but we also wanted to help our students. The entire community pitched in. Even a former militant opened his house for a curfew school for more than 300 kids,” says Arafat Basheer, a civil engineer from Tral, the south Kashmir home to Burhanuddin Wani and militancy hotbed, who taught in one such school.

  • A game of cricket at the Idgah in Tral
    Photographs by Sonia Sarkar

To begin with, not many parents were enthusiastic about these classes. But with private tuition centres shut, they realised this was the only way out. “Parents took the risk of sending their children to our school because they wanted them to study,” stresses Idrees Fazili, a computer science expert who taught in a school in Budgam, south of Srinagar.

Classes were, on an average, held for four hours every day. Some of the schools opened at 6am to ensure that there was no police interference. Still, it was not easy.

“I was stopped by the police once. They were not convinced that I was going to a school to teach. They let me go only after one of my students, who was passing by, told the police I taught them,” says Engineer Arshad, a civil engineer who taught mathematics in a curfew school in Shopian, also in south Kashmir.

Kashmir’s education minister Naeem Akhtar, however, believes that these schools cannot be a substitute for formal education. “This is only a stop-gap arrangement,” he says. “People must understand that discipline comes only through formal schooling. One cannot miss it for long.”

The curfew schools are shut for now, but are likely to start again. Right now, there is a lull, for the government has announced that all government students from Classes I to IX and XI will be automatically promoted. Most private schools have followed suit.

Board examinations for Class X and XII have also begun. The syllabi have been relaxed to help students clear the exams, a move some youngsters describe as a “super sale”.

  • ANOTHER TEST: File photo of students heading for an exam centre

But the people of Kashmir stress that the classes were not just about helping children cope with studies. Often, the teachers discussed issues that went beyond school syllabi.

“When we were teaching a chapter on Gandhi, some students wanted to know why they were being taught India’s history, why not Kashmir’s history,” says Mohammad Saquib, a curfew school teacher in Anantnag.

The journalism graduate adds that intense political discussions often took place. “Articles on Burhan Wani and a copy of the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir were distributed among the students. We also showed them documentaries on identity and colonialism,” Saquib says.

For many of the students, education is important — as is the cause of independence. So, while the informal classes carried on, so did the protests. Some of the curfew school students admit that as soon as the classes got over, they were out on the streets, chucking stones at security forces.

“I used to cover my face with a handkerchief and wear a pair of sunglasses to join the protests,” says a 16-year-old Shopian student.

But some children are also missing regular school. Thirteen-year-old Ikra Jaan, playing cricket at the Tral Idgah with her best friend, Qurat ul Ain, is among them. Jaan has a message for separatists: “Humare liye jaldi se school khol do. Hamara future kharab ho raha hai — please get our schools to open; our future is in danger,” she says.

Some elderly Kashmiris, who have entered the grounds, shut her up. “What would they achieve even after they study? They won’t get a job even if they become toppers. As Kashmiris, their life won’t change, will it?” asks Zafar Mushtaq, 60. As if on cue, a group of small children — all in the 6-8 age group — begin an “Azadi! Azadi!!” chant.

The closure of schools underlines the divide in Kashmir over how long the protests should continue. Burhan Wani’s father, Muzaffar Wani, principal of a government school in Tral, stresses the need for qurbani (sacrifice). “Some children have lost their eyesight after being shot with pellet guns. Some have lost their legs. So some students might lose a year. Qurbani toh deni padhegi Kashmir ke cause ke liye,” he says.

The curfew schools also point to a development that has had the people worried — the burning down of school buildings. In these five months, at least 31 schools in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian have been burnt down. Security forces blame supporters of separatists for the arson, holding that they want to ensure the protests carry on. But people in the Valley believe security forces burned the buildings to malign separatists.

More than 25 people have been arrested in this connection. Control rooms have been set up by the government to prevent more cases. Teachers have been assigned to guard schools.

In parts of Kashmir, some people are questioning the impasse between the government and the protestors. “Since the government is not responding to the bloodshed, it’s time separatists revised their strategy. Let’s de-link education from protests and allow students to attend school,” says Hameedah Nayeem, a professor and chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-freedom parties, doesn’t agree. “It’s the people’s decision to continue with the strike,” he says. “How else do you register protest? It’s not that we are not worried about the future of our children, but the strike will continue.”

For Kashmir’s students, crisis has always been a way of life. Bashir has faced academic hurdles almost every year. When she was in the sixth standard in 2008, schools closed for months because of an agitation surrounding the Amarnath land row. In 2009, there was an uprising when two women from her district were allegedly raped and killed by security forces. In 2010, more than 110 protesting children were killed by security forces. Two years ago, schools were shut because of floods.

This time, though, a curfew school came to her rescue. Just for the present, Bashir has no worries. And this quiet winter, there’ll be enough time to sit close to hearth fires and burrow into books.

Published in The Telegraph. November 27, 2016.

(http://www.telegraphindia.com/1161127/jsp/7days/story_121498.jsp)

 

IMG_1799 (1).PNGWe We are in another season of tumult in Kashmir. Violence has been spiralling in the Valley ever since the 22-year-old Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HM) commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed on July 8. More than 40 people have been killed in sporadic clashes with security forces. Miles away from the scene of action, across a forever tense Line of Control, sits Syed Salahuddin, fount of the HM, Kashmir’s only homegrown militant outfit – for most, a shadowy figure that drifts between Muzaffarabad, Lahore and Islamabad and looms over Kashmir. Some believe that the seed of the turmoil in Kashmir was planted when Salahuddin – then known as Mohammed Yusuf Shah – fought an election in the state as a candidate of the Muslim United Front from Srinagar’s Amirakadal constituency in 1987. His supporters hold that he was winning by a wide margin, but widespread electoral rigging led to his unexpected defeat. The seat was won by Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the National Conference. Two years later, he had crossed the border into Pakistan, and launched an armed struggle for the freedom of Kashmir. Salahuddin, who is on the NIA’s ‘most wanted’ list, warns that there’s more trouble on the way, if security forces do not stop killing ‘unarmed’ civilians. And it won’t be restricted to Kashmir alone: ‘We will hit everywhere and anywhere we like.’ Pertinently, at one point the militant also offered himself as a peace mediator between India and Pakistan. Sonia Sarkar spoke to him for an hour over Skype, imo and telephone. Excerpts:
Q. Did you know Burhan Muzaffar Wani?
A. I did not meet him but he was inspired by me. There are thousands of mujahideen in Kashmir whom I have not met, but who follow me and my path.
Q. How do you see the recent spurt in violence after the killing of Burhan Wani?A. Burhan Muzaffar Wani was not just any man killed by security forces. He is the sentiment of the Kashmir Valley. Every person in the Valley – man, woman and child – all of them are attached to this sentiment. There is a Burhan in every corner of the Kashmir Valley. This sentiment will not go away with the killing of Burhan Wani. 

Q. Media reports said that the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, Hafiz Saeed, and you organised a prayer meeting for Wani in Muzaffarabad. Also, in Lahore, Saeed said that there would be more trouble for Kashmir. What exactly did he mean?

A. I organised the prayer meeting for Wani. I did not invite Hafiz Saeed to come, but he offered to come on his own.

I agree with Hafiz Saeed. More trouble means that when the security forces of India are killing unarmed Kashmiris, we will intensify and escalate our attacks not just in Kashmir but elsewhere. There is no alternative left for us.

We want to stress that it is for the good of the Indian government to understand that the people of Kashmir are asking for their right to self-determination. If they don’t, we have to start target-oriented attacks.

Q. But the Indian government blames militant leaders like you for encouraging people to come out in protest to the streets, leading to civilian deaths…

A. It is government propaganda that we are pushing the people of Kashmir to come out on streets and protest. Children, doctors, government servants, old men, mothers – they are not coming out on the streets because I asked them to do so. They are committed to their cause.

Q. Aren’t you using the bodybags to fuel your movement? How is the Hurriyat helping you?

A. Hurriyat leaders are with us, shoulder to shoulder in the ongoing freedom struggle. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Shabir Shah – all of them are with us on the same page. They are in touch with us on a regular basis. But I have been cautious and have not spoken with any top separatist leader in the past one week. They are also supporting it (the protest) because themujahideen and the children, who are getting killed, are their children as well.

Q. Many youngsters are dying in these protests. Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to stop these children from going out on the streets so that this cycle of death comes to an end?

A. What we are seeing on the streets of Kashmir is a spontaneous public reaction to the killing of Wani. Also, there is pent up anger against the security forces because every day, somebody or the other is being targeted. You must understand that the youths of Kashmir, who are protesting on the streets, are a part of the generation which was born during the armed struggle. They have grown up witnessing unrest, killings and crackdowns. You need to understand their desperation to be freed from India on the basis of the fact that they are attacking heavily armed security forces with stones. It means they have no fear for life and they are not ready to compromise their right to self-determination.

Q. What is your plan of action in Kashmir now?

A. Our armed struggle and political struggle will carry on simultaneously. So far, our effort was to limit our activities to Jammu and Kashmir. If the Narendra Modi government continues to oppress the Kashmiris and if the security forces increase their assault on Kashmiris, I promise that we will hit everywhere and anywhere we like. We will go to any extent. You will see it, we will intensify our attacks.

Q. Several of your family members including your four sons are government employees. What’s their part in all this? Did you ever ask your sons to join the militancy movement?

A. I have not asked a single man to join militancy. It is the choice of the person to join it. It could be possible that my sons don’t think I am doing the right thing. You should understand that people joining us feel it strongly from within. They think this is the most befitting reply to oppression.

Q. How are you using the social media to recruit young men into militancy?

A. We don’t recruit people. Young boys are coming to us on their own because they have been facing assault by the Indian government. If we don’t recruit them, then they will pick up stones and protest on the streets. Also, the social media revolution is everywhere in the world. The young and educated Kashmiris do not need to learn from me how to use the social media. They know how to make the best use of it.

Q. Don’t you think, your movement has failed because it’s been 26 years since the struggle began – and there has been no real outcome? Also, according to security agencies, militancy has decreased in the Valley. Have you lost the war?

A. What has India got in these 26 years, tell me? Have they got Kashmiris with them? Let me tell you, in a freedom movement, a struggle of 26 years is nothing. India’s freedom movement went on for 90 years, so how do you even say that 26 years is enough? If there is no militancy and if we have lost the war, where is the need for such heavy deployment of security forces in Kashmir? Let me tell you, everyone in Kashmir is into the freedom movement now.

Q. Why is the Kashmir movement getting Islamised?

A. The Kashmiri movement was Islamised from day one. Why do you think an educated young man, who has a bright future otherwise, is willing to die? Is he mad? Azaadi is not his objective. What will he do with azaadi if he dies during the struggle?

He is into militancy because he knows that if he dies for a noble cause, he would become a martyr, as per Islam. We tell him that he would get into the “real life” after this death and he would get peace. Khuda usse raazi hoga.

Q. Is the ISIS with you?

A. There is no ISIS at all [in Kashmir]. This is fabricated propaganda by the Indian government. There is no support for ISIS, Al Qaeda and Taliban in Kashmir.

Q. Has there been any step by the Indian government to reach out to you? Do you think it would be difficult for you to operate in Kashmir because the BJP government under Narendra Modi has a more hardline approach?

A. [Atal Bihari] Vaj- payee was broad-minded. There is no com- parison of Modi with Vajpayee.

We still believe in peace but subject to one condition – let the Modi government give up dilly-dallying with the Kashmir issue. He should first accept that Kashmir is a disputed territory.

Q. You had earlier accepted that you were fighting Pakistan’s war in Kashmir. This time, how is Pakistan helping you to fuel the tension in Kashmir?

A. Let India agree to come to the table for our right to self-determination – it is my personal obligation [that I will get] Pakistan to the “peace” table.

The story was published in The Telegraph, July 17. Link :https://www.telegraphindia.com/7-days/39-there-39-s-a-desperation-for-freedom-nbsp-in-kashmir-you-need-to-understand-that-39/cid/1314924


Karan Singh is out with a novel — a new version of an old work. But writing is just one of his passions. He tells Sonia Sarkar that he was Shakespeare’s Olivia in a school play, loves the Dire Straits and sings Dogri songs

Karan Singh sits ramrod straight on a sofa. His black labrador, Kaalu, walks up to the senior Congressman, breathing heavily into a plate that holds two cocktail samosas.

The former minister and governor picks one up and delicately bites into it. “I eat light,” he says.

But eating light is just one of the reasons why the octogenarian is so fit. “For two hours every morning I worship all the gods – Surya, Shiva and Ganesha. I also do rajyoga, the breathing exercise. This gives me energy and positivity,” he says, fiddling with a copper bracelet that has the words “Om Namah Shivaya” inscribed on it.

Singh is a Shiva devotee. His novel, Mountain of Shiva, an updated version of a previous work, has just been brought out by a new publishing house, Palimpsest. Ashok, the protagonist, follows a guru to Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas to fulfil his spiritual quest.

“In the previous edition, the quest was unfulfilled. But then I thought I must write what happened thereafter,” he explains.

The need to write the novel (his only novel so far), which he first penned 30 years ago, came from his own search for spiritual understanding. “If I were not born a yuvraj (prince), maybe I would have been Ashok,” says the son of the last ruler of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh.

A conversation with Singh is incomplete without talk of troubled Kashmir. Singh tries to stay away from the subject, ducking questions with his stock reply – “I was mostly abroad when the conflict erupted”. You can, however, take a man out of Kashmir, but not Kashmir out of the man. When he opens up, there is no stopping him.

The recent controversy when Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students clashed at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar troubles him. The clash – allegedly sparked by some anti-India slogans shouted by a section of students after India lost a cricket match in the World T20 series – led to some non-Kashmiri students leaving the campus.

“If non-Kashmiri students start leaving the campus, Kashmiri students might be targeted in other parts of the country. Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students mean Muslim and non-Muslim students,” he says. “We must not allow a repeat of the post-Kokrajhar riots,” he says – referring to the exodus of Northeasterners from Bangalore after Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam’s Kokrajhar in 2012.

Singh blames the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party state government and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti for the crisis in NIT. “It’s the responsibility of the state government to give students adequate security. This issue blew up after she took over, which is not a good sign.”

Singh, clearly, doesn’t think very highly of Mehbooba, though he respected her father, the former chief minister of the state, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “Mufti Saab was a senior man. He had his own stature. Mehbooba was to Mufti Saab what Amit Shah is to (Narendra) Modi. She used to organise the cadre and meetings. Now tell me, what is Amit Shah without Modi,” he asks.

Does his criticism of the PDP go down well in the family? His son, Vikramaditya, after all is in the PDP.

“No, there is no jhagra over political differences,” he replies.

In fact, there is celebration in the family. Vikramaditya’s daughter, Mriganka, is going to be married to the grandson of former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh. The engagement has just taken place.

Singh fishes out a glossy magazine which featured his grandchildren, Mriganka and Martand, on its cover. “She looks exactly like my wife,” he says.

Singh was 19 – and the regent in Jammu and Kashmir – when he was married to Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, the granddaughter of the last Rana Prime Minister of Nepal, Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana. Marriages in the family have mostly taken place with erstwhile royals. Vikramaditya is married to Chitrangada Raje Scindia, daughter of Madhavrao Scindia, who was the titular Maharaja of Gwalior. Amarinder Singh is the head of the erstwhile royal family of Patiala.

Why do the former rajahs continue to use their title, long after the abolition of princely states, I ask. “I have renounced my title. After my father died, I announced that I would never use the title of Maharaja,” he says.

I point out that when I had called his office for an appointment, a staffer had instructed me to address him as His Highness in my email. (I didn’t.)

Singh looks embarrassed. “Oh, I am going to blast these guys,” he says.The former minister is 85, but his use of words – along with his carriage and looks – makes him appear decades younger. Singh, in his trademark dark grey suit and Nehru cap, puts his palms on his face like a beauty queen just awarded the crown in a pageant. “Can you imagine I turned 85 in March,” he exclaims.

We are sitting in his office in his central Delhi residence. The books lined up in the shelves include a collection of Tagore, some classical poetry and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’sKrishna Charitra. These days, he adds, he is reading U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Hindutva or Hind Swaraj.

So I ask him about the debate on Hinduism and nationalism. “The biggest problem is that there aren’t any Hindu intellectuals. The Right wingers say that Left intellectuals have dominated so far, now it’s their turn. But the Right wingers don’t have anyone of the stature of Left scholars such as Romila Thapar or the late Bipan Chandra. The Right wing suffers from an intellectual void,” he says.

Singh’s association with the Congress goes back to the Sixties. He was close to former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He was the health minister when Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975 and Sanjay Gandhi started his nasbandicampaign, forcibly sterilising people.

“We had our own targets for nasbandi, which we would have achieved in normal circumstances. But Sanjay Gandhi came in and forced it upon the people. I kept writing to the chief ministers of various states, saying that I was getting reports of coercion, please look into it,” he recalls. “But yes,” he admits, “I never objected to what he was doing.”

Singh, however, adds that he once wrote to Indira Gandhi, urging her to resign. “We never thought that the Emergency would go this way,” he rues.

The former governor of Jammu and Kashmir also feels that successive governments have failed Kashmir. “There is always a trust deficit among Kashmiris. I would say that whoever has come to power in Delhi has failed the Kashmiris. To put it mildly, the issue has to be handled with great courage and statesmanship.”

He believes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi – whom he calls Narendra bhai – has done “some healing” with Pakistan by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony, visiting Sharif in Lahore and also allowing the Pakistani investigating team to Pathankot to look into the terror attack there. “But he has not done any healing with the Kashmiris,” he says.

While we are on Kashmir, I ask him a question that is often posed by the people of the Valley. Why did Hari Singh sign the instrument of accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India? Generations of Kashmiris have held this act as the cause of the conflict in the region.

For the first time, I see a furrow on Singh’s forehead. The smile, too, has gone.

“My father signed it to save Kashmir. If he had not agreed to it, then Kashmiris would have all been killed by the invaders,” he replies.

Singh has seen the changing face of Kashmir – and of Indian politics. He talks about the increasing role of muscle and money power in today’s politics. “There is a change in the texture of politics,” he holds.

Politics, the Rajya Sabha member adds, is also more broad-based today. “Earlier, it was more about bhadraloks. Now…,” he says, his voice petering off. “I don’t want to put any label to it.”

Singh, who once chaired the ethics committee of the Rajya Sabha, sees more disruptions in Parliament than before. “These weaken the structure of democracy because the idea of Parliament is to debate. Previously, we had such amazing parliamentarians as A.K. Gopalan and Somnath Chatterjee, who used to haul the government over the coals through debates. But what people do now – such as disrupting proceedings and going to the well of the House – is a negation of democracy.”

But his own party members have been stalling Parliament repeatedly, I point out. Doesn’t he tell them to mend their ways? “I,” he asks incredulously, and laughs. Clearly, there is nothing much that he can say any more to party members.

Instead, he would rather focus his energies on music. Singh – who studied in Doon School and earned his doctorate in political science from Delhi University – is a great fan of the band, Dire Straits. And he loves to sing Dogri songs. He has even brought out an album of songs in Dogri, the language of the people of Jammu. Every Friday evening, he does riyaaz – practise music.

He loves the stage, too. “You will be amazed to know that my debut performance was when I played Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in school,” he laughs.

On Monday, he was back on the dais, but this time for the launch of a book on Indira Gandhi. And, as always, he sat straight. Clearly, 85 is just a number.

(The story was originally published in http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160529/jsp/7days/story_88194.jsp on May 29, 2016)

IMG_1269IMG_1277Kashmir’s young are no longer just shouting slogans on the streets. Their smartphones are their new battlefield – as well as their ammunition, finds Sonia Sarkar

Like millions of other young teens, Usman Hussain spends considerable time on Facebook and YouTube. But the 13-year-old student of a Srinagar public school surfs for information that is not likely to interest his peers elsewhere in the country. He spends almost seven hours a day on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and related issues.”I want to know what the world has to say on conflict and Islam. It helps me to understand my identity and role as a Muslim,” Hussain says.Nazir Masood, 22, is glued to the social media, too. But the student of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) doesn’t waste time poking friends or sharing the latest musical hits. He uses the platform to voice his protest against government moves and policies.”This is our platform for resistance. We resist, so we exist. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to us,” he says.In Srinagar, the stage for resistance has moved from the streets to the Internet. The youth, the police say, is being “radicalised” by the Internet, and expressing their views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Masood’s Facebook page, for instance, is flooded with photographs, videos and articles against the deployment of security forces on the NIT campus after two groups of students – Kashmiris and those from outside Kashmir – got into a fight over a recent cricket match where India was defeated.

“ISIS is the most searched word on the Internet in Kashmir,” a senior police officer says. “The radicalisation of the youth on the social media is a cause for concern in Kashmir,” adds another senior police official. An eight-member cyber team was set up by the police last year to keep a close check on the social media. So far, the team has only been monitoring the sites.

According to a 2015 report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 35 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir use the Net, and the state has 97 lakh mobile phones. An internal survey by the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) reveals that even in villages in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where electricity is available for only two hours a day on an average, a large number of people own smartphones with 2G connections.

Indeed, almost every young Kashmiri has a smartphone in hand. The phones – once used by the youth to assure their parents that they were safe – help them gather and share information, and voice dissent.

“Our children have been caged for years in Kashmir. Social media sites give them the wings to reach out to the outside world,” says Masood’s father, a Srinagar businessman. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would create trouble for them and us.”

But the police have been sniffing trouble – though they seek to stress that there is little danger of Kashmiri youth moving to outfits such as the ISIS. Some of the popular Facebook pages in Kashmir are Pulwama Live, Islamic Jamiat Talba and Tral – the Land of Martyrs, and Burhan the Fighter. Burhan is a reference to Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 21-year-old commander of the militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The pages have 3,500 to 12,000 followers, and carry photographs and videos of militants posing with Kalashnikovs, funerals of militants and videos of militants calling for violence.

Among the popular hashtags on Twitter, frequently retweeted by Kashmiris, are GoIndiaGoBack, Indianoppressedkashmir, Kashmirbleeds, IamBurhan and FreeKashmir.

The Kashmir police have blocked 186 pages which portrayed militants as heroes and propagated anti-India sentiments in the last one year. Among them were FB pages such as India ki Mout, Rahii Mir, Mujahideen-e-Islam and Tral Tigers Tigers.

Social scientists fear that young Kashmiris, who have always been on the forefront of the movement for secession, are now looking at Islamic movements across the globe and showing a readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam.

“Kashmir’s youth are looking for a global Islamic identity,” stresses sociologist Farah Qayoom of Kashmir University. “More and more young men and women are turning towards [the ultra conservative] Salafism. And they are using the social media for a selective interpretation of Islam.”

What attracts the young to the social media are parallels that they see across the world – of struggles for nationhood, police and army action against the youth and uprisings. “Social networking for Kashmiris is all about telling their story of alienation in India and also connecting to those who have similar stories to tell,” points out Srinagar-based psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoub.

Indeed, when a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who had been jailed by Israel was released recently, the news was widely shared by Kashmiri youngsters on Facebook. “We relate to it because children have been picked up by the police and kept in custody for months in Kashmir,” Kashmir University student Nadeem Muhammad says.

There are several other reasons why social media sites are becoming more and more popular in Kashmir. For one, Kashmiris tend not to trust mainstream media, especially television, and look at Internet as a source for news.

There was a time when Kashmiris had few channels for expressing their anger. Those days, people would write their grievances in sealed envelopes and leave them at the UN observers’ office in Srinagar, recalls artist Masood Hussain. “While dropping the envelopes, people used to chant, ‘azaadi‘.” The situation changed with the advent of the world press corps. The Kashmiri’s angry voice was carried abroad by representatives of international news groups who reported extensively from Kashmir.

Now social media sites have replaced the world press. “The mainstream media censor our grievances, so we share our stories on social media with the world,” says Zaraq Jahan, an undergraduate student at Kashmir University. “My mother often says, I’ve heard such-and-such thing has happened. Just check it out on the Internet,” adds another student.

Continuing police and army action against Kashmiris has fanned the simmering anger among the young, politicians stress. Waheed Rehman Parra, the youth wing president of the PDP, believes that the killing of children by security forces in 2010, the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament) in 2013 and other such incidents have “exacerbated the simmering anger and hatred” against the Centre. “What we see on social media is the manifestation of this anger and hatred,” he says.

Qayoom adds, “This generation of Kashmiris has grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and killings. So resistance on social media seems an obvious way for them to express their anger.”

Attacks on Muslims in other parts of the country, such as the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, have also added to the Kashmiri’s sense of alienation, a police officer admits. Kashmiri students have been attacked, too – in Rajasthan, Meerut, Mohali and Greater Noida in recent times.

“Even after witnessing such incidents against Kashmiris, if we don’t become radical now, then when,” asks Mushin Khan, a student of Kashmir University.

It’s not just angry posts that flood the sites. Black humour also crops up often. Mir Suhail, a 26-year-old cartoonist, has been taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one cartoon, he shows the PM standing behind his wax statue, recently unveiled by Madame Tussauds, watching a man hanging from a tree. “This man represents anyone who is oppressed in India – cattle traders, Dalits or farmers,” Suhail says.

One of Suhail’s cartoons, criticising the hanging of Guru, was pulled down by Facebook in February this year.

The government, too, has on occasion banned Internet in the Valley. When the news of a Handwara girl who had allegedly been molested by security forces spread last month, Internet was disconnected for three days. Last year, too, Internet lines were severed for three days when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to impose an economic blockade on Kashmir if cows were slaughtered for Eid.

There is concern in political quarters about the trend. “The Kashmir conflict was always political. But now many young Kashmiris are trying to give it a religious colour after being influenced by the conflict in West Asia,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Awami Action Committee. “It has influenced them so much that they don’t listen to us when we try to dissuade them from moving towards this ideology.”

The police say they are now planning to use the social media to foil the radicals. “But we have just taken baby steps,” a senior police officer admits. “And whatever we do, the youth will be much ahead of us when it comes to using social media sites.”

The use of the social media has so far hampered the administration only in one way. Word spreads fast about police raids or search operations, and the youth reach the spot almost at once. “Sometimes we’ve had to abandon our operations because of the crowds,” the police official says.

There have been sporadic incidents of masked men waving ISIS flags in the Valley in recent times. A 23-year-old man from Ganderbal in Kashmir, who was in Dubai, was arrested in January this year by the National Investigation Agency for alleged links with the ISIS. But the police stress that they are not worried about radicalism leading to a rise in militancy in Kashmir.

“Not all those who have been radicalised on social media are joining militancy,” says the inspector-general of police, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani. “It is easier to be a Facebook jihadi than to fight on the ground.”

But for young Kashmiris, the arena for the battle is indeed shifting. And people like Suhail are not going to give up their campaign on the social media. The cartoonist says his friends often warn him that the security forces may target him for his “radical” art.

“But the security forces don’t understand that what is radical for them is the reality for us,” he says.

Facebook pages blocked by police

186 pages blocked since 2015. Some of them are:

  • India ki Mout
  • Qaidai Azamm
  • Tral The Land of Martyrs
  • AK Burhan
  • Malik malik [burhan bhai]
  • Mujahideen-e-islam
  • Tral Tigers Tigers
  • Tral The Beauty Land

Popular hashtags on Twitter

#GoIndiaGoBack, #Indianoppressedkashmir,  #Kashmirbleeds,  #IamBurhan, #IamKashmir,  #RagdaRagda,  #AndOccupation,  #FreeKashmir,  #BlackDay  #Illegaloccupation

( Some names have been changed to protect identities)

A longer version of the story is published in The Telegraph on May 8, 2015




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