New Delhi must not fail to recognise those out on the streets of the Valley.

Getting at the truth in Kashmir is like interpreting the Dance of the Seven Veils. But there are moments that will startle you with their clarity. Like listening to 31-year-old Rafiqa, a housewife, at a protest in Srinagar's Rambagh. Amidst chants of ‘Azaadi', she would say to my surprise, “Yeh masla goli se nahin, boli se hal hoga.” Dialogue, not the bullet, is the way forward.

Like veils, Azaadi takes on several layers of meaning in Kashmir. You can never really tell how many. It's something I first learned more than 15 years ago — going to buy walnut macaroons at the Jan bakery in Srinagar. It was closed and as I asked around, each explanation left me more confused. The first passer-by told me that curfew was on, the second attributed the closure to a hartal called by the Hurriyat, another added the bakery employees were picked up by security forces after firing in the area, and yet another told me that a militant group had issued threats. Eventually, it turned out that the owners were bereaved. I did not get my macaroons, but I took home the simple lesson — the truth has many versions in a conflict zone.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah that even after his government's attempt to throw the book at the man who threw a shoe at him, many now believe it was all a PR exercise concocted by his spin doctors. After all, his own officers had three versions of the truth — that Abdul Ahad Jan was mentally unstable, that he was a disgruntled officer with a poor service record, and that he had disrupted the Independence Day proceedings and aimed his shoe at the behest of Mr. Abdullah's political rivals. Despite the overkill on theories and the very serious charge of sedition against Jan, when Mr. Abdullah decided to meet him and “forgive him,” the buzz on Srinagar's curfew-silenced streets was that Jan was part of a government plot to make the Chief Minister look good. And then Jan resigned and pledged allegiance to the separatists.

But while the Kashmiri reality is understandably clouded by years of violence and fear, New Delhi must not use that excuse to remain blind to the true face of the problem it faces there today. Or fail to recognise the face of the protester out on the streets of the Valley. Or continue to believe that success in Kashmir amounts to law, order, and a controlled death toll. So far, most of the interventions made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Home Minister P. Chidambaram have only indicated how far removed they are from the “hearts and minds” they claim to covet in Srinagar.

To begin with, it was the government's attempts to paint the protests that began this summer as something that was externally motivated. First, it was the Lashkar-e-Taiba that was allegedly coordinating them, then it was the Hurriyat leadership that was purportedly “caught on tape” ordering the deaths of protesters, and finally, the Home Minister's assertion according to “credible intelligence” reports that militants were mingling with the protesters and opening fire on the forces.

Discredit it

Each of those theories played out in the Valley as indicators that the government wants to discredit rather than deal with the protests. The Home Ministry counts 872 “stone pelting incidents” in June and July this year. But anyone out on the streets knows that stone-pelting protests are just a small part of the story. There are easily thousands of others that do not turn violent — a few dozen people at a time who get together around the clock at street corners — through the day, till well past midnight, shouting slogans of Azaadi.

Ironically, the prolific nature of the protests also negates claims made by separatist leaders Masarat Alam Bhat and Aasiya Andrabi that they “control and plan” them. In fact to many youngsters I met, Bhat and Andrabi are the equivalent of MNS and Shri Ram Sene leaders — with a volume higher than impact. The “Hurriyat” calendar of protest has certainly been followed religiously by shopkeepers and business owners, but for Kashmir's GenNext protesters, there has been little by way of coordinated planning. “I just stand on the street and call out for Azaadi,” says Rafiqa at the night procession in Rambagh. “And people join in.” Even at 1 a.m., more women, accompanied by infants, join the march to chant slogans. There's a sorority here, a feeling of empowerment that these women exude — very different from the years of militancy in Kashmir. None of the women I meet wears a stern black burka like Andrabi's; instead they are a colourful mélange of the popular printed Kashmiri “cheent” muslin. The police will tell you women and children are being used as human shields, that they make it difficult for the forces to crack down on mobs. If they are shields, they are voluntary shields — and quite often keep protests from turning more confrontational. Other protesters tell me that they are trying to keep the agitation on simmer, and not let it boil over: sustainability, not spectacle is the key, they say. The next day, at the Bone and Joint Hospital, I met 18-year-old Samreena Jan, who suffered a fracture in the leg, during a protest in Sopore. Would she go back to protest, I ask. Yes, of course, she says with a giggle, but also with resolution that she is in this for a long haul.

Change

If the voices of confident women like Samreena's distinguishes these protests from previous ones in one way, then the other is the lack of regional and religious acrimony between Jammu and Kashmir of the sort witnessed in 2008. Also worth noting is that while thousands of devout protesters were denied permission to pray at big mosques like the curfew-bound Jamia Masjid for six weeks, no protester attacked the passage of lakhs of Amarnath pilgrims who cross the Valley at this time of year. And, despite more than 10 weeks in this round of agitation, the protesters have not been armed with anything other than stones. For a generation born in the early 1990s, which learned “‘A' is for AK-47, ‘B' is bomb” long before going to school, that should be seen as an achievement.

As I spoke to the crowd that night, I realised the other big mistake both the Central and State governments are making in their efforts. By constantly referring to job creation as a solution, leaders are wrongly identifying the protests with unemployed frustration. Of Jammu and Kashmir's 65 per cent literate population, nearly 10 per cent is out of work, and for a State so dependent on seasonal tourism, unemployment and underemployment are always a worry. But that isn't what is bringing people out on the streets. In any case, a large number of those out since June are students. Of the rest: I met doctors, journalists, government workers, and lawyers (all the top functionaries of the Kashmir Bar Association are in jail at present), otherwise well-settled professionals.

Human rights

Twenty-eight-year-old business consultant and online protester Sanaa has an unusual question for me. “We always hear that Kashmir is an integral part of India. If it was so integral, we wouldn't be on these streets alone. Where are the non-Kashmiri activists? Why aren't human rights groups in other parts of the country asking for enquiries into the deaths so far?”

The alienation of the Kashmiri protesters from other protestors around the country is perhaps something our leadership is not looking at even remotely.

The alienation of thought became even more apparent after the flash floods in Leh this month. While the Chief Minister, the Prime Minister, and the Congress' “youth icon” Rahul Gandhi's visit to the affected in Choglumsar was heart warming in its immediacy, it also contrasted starkly with the lack of such gestures to families and friends who lost boys and girls in the Valley protests. But it is these very faces of protest that the leaders must learn to engage with — not some maniacal mob cornering policemen inside their bunkers, but educated, rational thinking youngsters who shout for Azaadi and yearn for justice and recognition of their very real grievances.

So, while the Chief Minister's announcement of 50,000 jobs and the Prime Minister creating a panel to study the creation of more jobs are worthy efforts, they cut no ice on Srinagar and Sopore streets. In any case, those streets are already paved with broken promises the Centre makes every time the situation turns violent, and are shelved when “normalcy” returns. But here are some promises the government would do well to keep, and they were made only this month — the decision to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), announced by Mr. Chidambaram in Parliament, would perhaps be the one with the most immediate impact. Now, the Act applies even to areas that do not have an Army presence, and, certainly, there must be substantial parts of the Valley where it can be dispensed with.

The next is the promise made by the Prime Minister at the all-party meeting: to look again at the National Conference's autonomy report. If the government is prepared to accept Mr. Abdullah's Independence Day contention that the people of Kashmir await not an economic package but a political one from New Delhi, then that package must at least consider the report.

Finally, it is the promise of dialogue with separatist leaders that must pick up speed. New Delhi has always interspersed talks with leaders like the Mirwaiz, Sajjad and Bilal Lone and Yasin Mallik with long spells of silence. It is that silence that scuttles all that is achieved in the talks. It is time for a new envoy to be appointed to continue the dialogue uninterruptedly, and with some degree of flexibility to engage others who reject talks like Mr. Geelani as well. It was, after all, the call for calm from Geelani that gave Kashmir its first day of peace in eight weeks on August 6.

What is that flexibility? Given that the government is clear that ‘Azaadi' or a separate Kashmir, is not an option, it must be prepared to work with maximum leeway within that red line. This is no new thought — and Dr. Singh's predecessors have had their own red-line formulation — from P.V. Narasimha Rao's promise of “sky is the limit” within the Constitution to A.B. Vajpayee's “insaniyat ke dayre mein” humanitarian approach. Dr. Singh's ideas like “making borders irrelevant” on the LoC and making the Siachen glacier a “mountain of peace” are indicators of the kind of creativity that will give dialogue with the separatists a chance too.

To those in the opposition who oppose such talks, let's remember that it was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that sent its Home Secretary to talk with the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, one of the deadliest militant groups, a decade ago on August 3, 2000. Also, pro-Pakistan leaders like Geelani are seen as unapproachable, but were once part of the Indian legislative process. Many of the stated positions that today seem intractable may in the future find similar fluidity.

The one message the protesters on the streets send out without any flexibility though is that status quo is not acceptable to them.

Hearing the virulence some of the anti-India slogans at the Eidgah cemetery during a protester's funeral, my 65-year-old taxi driver took me aside. “Tell me,” he asked. “Do you think these are the worst protests you've seen so far?” “Well,” I said, “Things seemed to be much worse during the years of militancy.” His reply was a revelation, like the lifting of several veils all at once: “Each time things get better,” he said, “The mind forgets how bad they can get.”

The government at the Centre and Indians as a nation just don't have the luxury of that kind of amnesia.

(Suhasini Haidar is the Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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