In the summer of 1995, the United States' super-secret Defence Intelligence Agency concluded a study on the growth of water hyacinths in Lake Victoria. It might seem like an odd occupation for spies to engage in — but it wasn't. Lake Victoria provides more than 1,20,000 tonnes of fish to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, a resource which would not survive the proliferation of hyacinth.

“This in turn,” scholar Colin Kahl pointed out “could lead to widespread famine and political instability, possibly creating a situation in which the United States would be called on to intervene”.

Lake Victoria's hyacinths and their strategic import hold out a lesson for Indian policymaking in Jammu and Kashmir — that causes of conflicts aren't often what they appear to be, and neither are their solutions.

Early in August, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of the need to reach out to Kashmir's young street protesters to “give them the sense of purpose, hope and direction they need to make use of the many opportunities that our economy provides.” Dr. Singh was attacked by critics who argued that his remarks demeaned the political causes driving the protests: among them, anger against human rights violations and the demand for independence. Insensitive and ill-timed as the Prime Minister's suggestions might have appeared, the fact is that they rested on sound policy foundations.

Large-scale deaths stalked Kashmir in the first decades of the last century. Epidemics of cholera broke out three times between 1901 and 1911; three floods and eight earthquakes claimed thousands of lives. In the following decade, there were epidemics of influenza, cholera and smallpox; the decade between 1921 and 1931, too, was punctuated by famine and disease.

Post-independence successes in combating deprivation, paradoxically enough, laid the foundation for a new set of challenges. From 1971, Jammu and Kashmir began to record growth rates far in excess of the national average. From the time of the 1971 census, decadal population growth in the State hovered around 30 per cent, significantly higher than the national average. In the build-up to the insurgency, the 1981 census found, over 40 per cent of the Kashmir region's population was made up of children under 14. Put simply, the economic gains of the first decades of independence had run up against a demographic wall.

In a 1987 study of Kashmir's demographics, Kanan Kusum Sadhu found that despite their relative affluence “the Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims of Srinagar and Sopore are under more economic stress than the population of India as a whole.” Sadhu's findings were based on what demographers called the dependency ratio — that part of society dependent on economically-productive individuals aged between 15 and 59. The populations Sadhu sampled in Sopore and Srinagar had dependency ratios ranging between 91.5 to 94.9. The all-India ratio was 78.

Kashmir's jihadist movement emerged from urban centres like these: homes of artisans and small traders who had constituted the region's traditional middle-class but had lost both political power and economic muscle because of the economic policies adopted after independence. There was, as scholar Thomas Marks has argued: “a demographic tidal wave of unabsorbed youthful males appearing in the late 1980s, especially in Kashmir, just as political issues … called into question the legitimacy of the existing order.”

The 2001 census showed a fall in Kashmir's dependency ratio, as the children reached the working age. Few investors were willing to sink capital in Kashmir's battle-scarred economy; there was no public sector to speak of; and much infrastructure spending ended up in the hands of a small élite who sank their profits into purchasing land, not making productive investment. Moreover, traditional artisanal occupations were in decline. Kashmir's agricultural economy, with no forward links to local industry, also offered few opportunities.

Today, over 70 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir's population is estimated to be under 35. Reliable figures are hard to come by but there is evidence of chronic unemployment and under-employment. Earlier this year, the State government invited young people to register with an entrepreneurship project targeting the unemployed; more than 6,00,000 have so far signed up. The available data suggest that the best part of three-quarters of a million people will have joined the ranks of working-age people seeking jobs between 2001 and 2011. Jammu and Kashmir's population is expected to increase from 10,069,917 in 2001 to 13,809,601 in 2025. Historians have long known this: too many young people with too little to do mean trouble. Jack Goldstone has shown that this demographic phenomenon underpinned crises from the English civil wars of 1642-1651 to the European revolutions of 1848. In a review of European history 1700 to 1900, Mary K. Mattossian and William Schafer found links between political violence and an “increase in the number of young adult males in proportion to the total male population.”

Demographer Herbert Moller has shown that the high proportion of young adults in Germany helped lay the foundations for the rise of fascism. Germany, he argued in a path-breaking 1968 essay, saw the emergence of children born between 1900 and 1914 on the job market — “a cohort,” he noted, “more numerous than any earlier ones.” Even as the Great Depression crippled Germany in 1933, 41.5 per cent of its residents were aged between 20 and 45. Moller wrote that “the economic depression hit Germany at the worst possible time: employment was shrinking precisely at a time when the employable population reached its post-war peak.”

Historian Paul Madden, in a 1983 study of the early membership of the Nazi party, found that it “was a young, overwhelmingly masculine movement which drew a disproportionately large percentage of its membership from the lower middle class and from the Mittelstand [small businesses].”

Kahl, in his study of the ethnic violence which tore Kenya apart from 1991-1993, placed material conditions at its core. “The ability of the economy to absorb a rapidly growing labour force,” he observed, “declined as the private sector slumped and the number of jobs in the public sector, Kenya's largest source of employment, stopped growing. As a result, population growth in excess of job creation resulted in a substantial increase in un- and under-employment.”

Further, Ted Gurr has pointed out in a 1981 study, cities with high youth populations will have crime rates “higher than in times and places where the population is older.” “The coming of age of the post-war generation of youths,” he noted “is closely related to the onset of major increases in personal and property crime in the United States and Britain.” Historians have even suggested that the high homicide rates in medieval England may have been linked to the relatively youthful population of its cities.

In an exhaustive 2006 review of the evidence, social scientist Henrik Urdal concluded that “relatively large youth cohorts are associated with a significantly increased risk of domestic armed conflict, terrorism and riots/violent demonstrations.”

It is fashionable to assert, as commentator after commentator has done in recent weeks, that the ongoing protests have little to do with issues like jobs or the economy, and are instead rooted in textual questions: in competing narratives, as it is sometimes put, of nationhood. But the material conditions from which the protests have derived their ideological character have been largely ignored. The articulate English-speaking élites who have been speaking for the protesters on national television represent a social class very distinct from the protesters themselves: in the main, members of disenfranchised young people from decaying urban areas without prospects or a political voice.

It is no one's case that the demographic tides are the sole force driving Kashmir's discontent: this crisis, like all others, has no single cause. There is little doubt though that Kashmir's youth bulge has provided the firmament for the crisis to flourish. Political engagement, a dialogue on autonomy and better policing, will all do not a little to help end the bloodshed. They are, however, palliatives, not prescriptions that will ensure an abiding peace.

India's ability to transform the youth crisis it faces in Kashmir could prove a testing ground for how it will face the challenges that lie ahead for the country as a whole. In the next two decades, India's working-age population will increase by a staggering 240 million people — in stark contrast to China, where the working-age population will begin to decline from 2015, or Russia, where it will have shrunk by 20 million. It is far from clear if India will be able to create opportunities for these enormous numbers of people; to educate and equip them to deal with the kinds of skills needed to capitalise on new economic opportunities.

Political democratisation becomes meaningful only when the material foundations for social and economic modernity exist. India must summon the resources needed for a transformative project that will give real meaning to its promises of democracy and development.

The Prime Minister might not have found the words so many hoped his August address would contain. But history isn't like a Hindi film: even the finest speech would have done little to stem the tide of blood on Kashmir's streets. The foundations of an abiding peace will be laid not by words but sickles and hammers; in farms and factories; by concrete and steel.

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