THE latest challenge the government is facing in Kashmir has come from the student community whose rage has been in the headlines for quite some time. Some of the colleges and higher secondary schools have been intermittently shut by the authorities for about two weeks. Though the intensity has subsided, the spark remains, demonstrating how they have embraced the cause of Kashmir’s political resolution. The widespread protests by colleges and secondary school students against the state is being slated as a reaction to the increasing level of despondency.
It all started with the arrival of an Army major in Government Degree College, Pulwama, on April 15. He had gone there with a proposal to hold a painting competition. He was traveling in a mine-resistant ambush-protected Casspir vehicle, which has been known for the impact it has made in conflict areas. This irritated the students, who pelted it with stones. That escalated into an hour of shelling by the police on the campus, which left scores injured.
This was enough to feed anger across the Valley, with students coming out of their colleges and schools in large numbers. Even girls and young women staged protests and for the first time were seen throwing stones at the police. Images of a girl student hitting a police vehicle with one hand while carrying a basketball in the other went viral on social media. Colleges and higher secondary schools were closed for 10 days and in many areas they were shut to prevent protests, which have become a routine in educational institutions. The Kashmir University Students Union initially called for protests but later asked students to return to their classrooms. The police claimed that in some institutions a militant organisation was sustaining the protests through its “strong” network. But on the face of it, the rage seems spontaneous, and considering the way in which boys and girls have associated it with the political conflict, the coming days may not see this sentiment abate.
Kashmir’s violent politics has had major contributions from strong student movements. In the early 1960s, Al Fatah, an armed group of mainly students, challenged the Indian state. The Young Man’s League, too, followed the same path. Though both fizzled out against the might of the state, organizations such as the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, provided an ideological framework for the resistance movement. Those who raised the first banner of revolt under the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in 1988 by embracing the gun as a means to get “independence from India” were mostly members of the Islamic Students League, which was responsible for opposing two international cricket matches played between India and Australia and India and the West Indies in the mid-1980s.
As of now, there seems to be no organized structure in the youth protests in Kashmir, but it is difficult to say which direction this will turn. Young people constitute more than 65 percent of Kashmir’s population, and form a segment on which the political conflict has had a deep impact. With the Joint Hurriyat Conference – led by the trio of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik – finding it difficult to take control, there is no real leadership to take charge of the anarchic situation that is unfolding rapidly.
“Which way are our youths going?” asked a teacher at Kashmir University. “It is a dangerous trend and we need to see who is responsible for this.”
The violence and its impact on the minds of the youth over the last two decades have contributed to a belief that there is no room to change anything. This belief has played an important role in the thinking that they cannot be agents of change in society. A study on Kashmiri youth by Oxfam in 2003 claimed that 90.38 percent of the respondents were angry and the families of 63.44 percent of the respondents were affected directly by the violence. “Students demonstrated grave impacts of the violence, which were portrayed in their painting, writing and conversation,” the study revealed. “The only collective activity possible in Kashmir is participation in weddings or attending parties at mosques.”
Similarly, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), in a study, found a huge toll on the mental well-being of communities. It revealed that the suicide rate had increased 400 percent owing to the violence and “58.69 percent of the youth had experienced traumatic events, most commonly gunfire and explosions”. While the influence of religion has increased significantly in the past 20 years, it has failed to change the liberal outlook of society. A 2010 study by the Sociology Department of Kashmir University showed that 72 percent of the respondents in the age group of 15 to 18 believed in religious tolerance and coexistence of religions.
A feeling of living under siege in their own homeland, coupled with economic deprivation and denial of participation in the democratic process, has led to dejection. This has ultimately forced these young people to get together to take on the police and other security forces on a large scale. Just one incident of a fake encounter in the remote Machil area in 2010, in which the Army killed three youth, allegedly to get rewards and promotions, triggered a long cycle of violent unrest in the Valley, which finally ended with the killing of 120 civilians. Thirty-four of these mostly young men were between 11 and 20 years of age, and 44 were between the ages of 21 and 30. A smaller number, 16, were above 31 years of age and three were between five and 10 years of age. The highest number, 39, was of students and the rest were skilled or unskilled labourers and businessmen.
In 2008 and 2009, too, youth had actively participated in the protests in the Amarnath land row and alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian, widely believed to have been done by the state forces. However, an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation gave a clean chit to the forces and maintained that the women had died of drowning. The participation of youth in these protests has been described by many as Kashmir’s transition from violence to non-violence against the backdrop of an armed rebellion of 20 years.
A study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation against the backdrop of the 2010 agitation makes the interesting observation that most of the youths had no political affiliation. “An interesting observation is the response of the victims’ families to the question on political affiliations. When families were asked if they, or those who were killed, professed any political affiliations, an overwhelming 78 percent cited a complete lack of political affiliation. There have been a number of claims of who led and how the protests were sponsored or channelled, but insofar as the victims of the protests are concerned, neither they nor their families claim to belong to any one political faction” (CDR, Kashmir Unrest, 2010).
What is turning out to be an alarming reality is that the young people do not listen to even their parents. And the social sanctity attached to anything one does against the state is making it more difficult for even the elders who would like to counsel them against taking this path. “Whosoever pelts the police with stones is seen as a warrior and those who get killed in the retaliatory action are martyrs. So the social sanction to any such action makes it amply clear how the situation has unfolded,” said a senior teacher in a college that was at the centre of protests recently. It is actually the political context that is providing legitimacy to any such action.
[Writer is Chief Editor Daily Risising Kashmir Srinagar]