What azadi actually means beyond “freedom” is not always clear to everyone, and perhaps this is where an opportunity still remains for building bridges with Kashmir.

In the Rangreth industrial complex on the outskirts of Srinagar, a posh new 40,000 sq ft building is rapidly coming up. A part of it is already functional, and its centrally-heated confines house over 500 Italian-design work stations from where young Kashmiris handle the eastern Uttar Pradesh service operations of a mobile telephone company.

The back office, run by an Indian multinational, has its own round-the-clock security and surveillance systems. Jobs were advertised only by word of mouth. Still, nearly 4,000 youngsters walked in for interview. Over the last few months, 70 of the selected candidates have been trained, including in voice and accent neutralisation, and are already “in operations,” working part-time for four hours a day and earning an average of Rs. 4000 a month. Several pursue educational courses alongside. During the summer unrest by youth in the Kashmir Valley, this was among the few workplaces that functioned without interruption.

In another corner of the city, in the office of an international NGO, Kashif Ahmad, a young Kashmiri with a B.E. degree from Jammu University, is working with colleagues on a project to create 200 entrepreneurs in Kashmir by March 2013, in four sectors — information technology, agriculture, green businesses and food-processing.

The group is already incubating one project, a travel portal called Kashtrip.com, which links all travel and tourism related service providers in Kashmir with related portals all over the world. The NGO's aim is to provide a social and cultural environment for entrepreneurship. That includes finding aspiring young entrepreneurs “angel” investors, connecting them with business development services such as banks, chartered accountants and lawyers and, importantly, a peer network that can provide both inspiration and mentoring.

In the same NGO, Sajjid Iqbal, who studied law at Pune's Symbiosis before going on to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for a master's degree, is working on a pilot project to bring together government, business and young people to jointly work on a local economic recovery plan for Srinagar city. It specifically targets the eradication of youth unemployment through job creation in sectors other than the government.

These are all part of the efforts under way to meet the challenge of what is increasingly being viewed as the Valley's explosive demography. As thousands of stone-pelting youth took to the streets this summer, much of the discussion on Kashmir has revolved around dealing with the rising number of youth in the Valley. In the 2001 census, 64 per cent of the population in the Valley was under the age of 30. The projection for 2011 is 66 per cent, which may mean nearly 700,000 people between the ages of 18 and 30. From policemen to policy wonks and politicians, everyone is talking about Kashmir's problematic “youth bulge.”

As many as 50 per cent in the 18-30 age group of this bulge are unemployed despite having high levels of education. According to one estimate, Kashmir has 6,000 unemployed doctors and 2,000 unemployed bio-technologists. Over 78,000 people in the 18-25 age group have some kind of computer education but most of them have no jobs. Underemployment is common.

Despite the antipathy towards India, government jobs remain the only kind that the Kashmiri youth want, simply because they promise a paycheque at the end of the month, come what may. Even in a village like Palhalan in Baramulla district, infamous in the 1990s as a militant stronghold and a hub of this summer's azadi protests, people complain that they are still being punished by being “banned” from government jobs.

The Indian Army was deployed here in recent months to quell protests. Even now, soldiers stand guard at the entry point from the National Highway, fanning into the village regularly on foot patrols. After one such patrol, sullen groups of men hung around while most of the village appeared to have retreated behind locked doors. One old villager said he had spent all his money on his son's MBBS education in Sopore, but no government hospital would employ the boy. It is the biggest village in the district, another pointed out, but gets bypassed when police hold recruitment parades.

Yet, as the Centre and the State government discovered earlier this year, there is no easy or simple correlation between jobs and resolving the demand for azadi that resounded in the Valley this summer.

At the height of the agitation, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced an “employment package” that would give 50,000 young people jobs. Aware that the government simply does not have so many jobs to absorb young people, the Centre is now desperate to create jobs in the near-term, and has appointed the former Reserve Bank of India Governor, C. Rangarajan, to head a committee tasked with finding ways to generate jobs. The moves were greeted with derision.

Young Kashmiris in their 20s¸ who grew up in the violent years of militancy and are more politically educated than their counterparts elsewhere in India, bristle with resentment that number-crunching policy wallahs have so neatly reduced their anger to unemployment.

“Did you hear anyone raising slogans on the streets that they want jobs? Our aspirations are entirely political, it is not an economic issue or a social issue,” said Tawqeer Hussain, a post-graduate journalism student at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Avantipora, 25 km outside Srinagar.

Azadi is what youngsters want to talk about, not jobs. “India wants to own us,” said Saeed Sarmad, a 21-year-old B. Tech student at the same university, “but the problem is we don't want to be part of it, we have never been a part of it. We want recognition of our own identity. We want azadi”.

The small built and delicate-looking computer science student was not a stone-thrower. “I am a coward; I can't go out and face bullets,” he said when I met him and his friends at the scenic hillside campus of the university. He was not lacking in confidence, though. He told me Kashmir would win its azadi as early as “next year.”

Another student, Anees Zargad, was pinning his hopes on the planned American pullout from Afghanistan next year. “As everyone knows, the route to Afghanistan lies through Kashmir,” he repeated the line fashionable with thinktankistas, as we sat talking about azadi in a cold classroom. “Maybe it will trigger developments that will help us achieve our goals.”

In Palhalan, notwithstanding its craving for government jobs, the group of villagers I spoke to said “the real issue is azadi.” One young man, who had a post-graduate degree, simply said: “Azadi”, before pedalling away on his bicycle.

Recently, the three-member panel of interlocutors appointed by the Centre to restart a dialogue process in Kashmir suggested there was room for creative interpretation of the term azadi as it meant different things to different people.

To most young Kashmiris, however, azadi has no meaning other than freedom — from India, and from Pakistan too. Pakistan does not have the resonance for Kashmiris that it had just a few years ago. The alarming levels of terrorism-induced instability in Pakistan combined with the painful memories of militancy in Kashmir — for which Kashmiris blame Pakistan — have served to make Pakistan a “non-option” for the Kashmiri Gen X. Say Pakistan and one common reaction is: “From the frying pan to the fire?”

But what azadi actually means beyond “freedom” is not always clear to everyone, and perhaps this is where an opportunity still remains for building bridges with Kashmir. A start, said IUST Vice-Chancellor Siddiq Wahid, can be made by approaching the idea differently.

“Rather than ask what azadi is, ask what azadi is not. Young Kashmiris understand better what the absence of azadi means,” said Dr. Wahid.

For Kashmiri youth, their lack of freedom hangs heavy in leading their lives in the shadow of a heavy military presence. “All my life, I have known only guns, bullets, curfews, checkposts. Mine is the fourth generation of Kashmiris living in this uncertainty. I don't want to pass this on to the fifth,” said Tawqueer.

To think that a jobs package can resolve the issues raised by this summer's azadi agitation is “avoiding” the issue, he said. Even the neat young people at the telecom back office in Rangreth, hired after a discreet screening of their political views during the final interview stage, comfortable in their brand new office and excited about their jobs with a big Indian company, say this.

“Giving people jobs is a step,” said one of them, “but it cannot be a solution.”

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