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Healing in Kashmir

BINA SARKAR ELLIAS talks to Mehbooba Mufti Muhammad, President, People's Democratic Party, on the slow return of peace in the strife-torn State.

TWO days prior to the attack on Mufti Muhammad Sayeed's residence, I was standing at the gate waiting to be ushered in by security guards for my meeting with Mehbooba Mufti Muhammad. My first reaction was, were it they who were snuffed out so needlessly? Life, we are reminded endlessly, is so utterly dispensable, so utterly cheap. And nobody is accountable.

We are told it is the Fidayeen that has claimed responsibility for the attack. It may be so, the Lashkar-e-Toiba directly involved, or any of the amorphous mushrooming militants who belong to dubious groups, yet nobody really is accountable. India blames Pakistan, Pakistan blames India, some perceive both as marionettes dancing to an American tune, and caught between the brutal game of charades are the unfortunate people of Kashmir. Life had ceased to be normal in the last 13 years of turmoil.

Yet, there has been an upswing in recent months. Earlier, with the call of the muezzin, offices and commercial areas would shut down at six pm, Today they are open until long after the sun has set and the dim lights of Srinagar's streets peer through the dark. Markets are bustling, children playing in the parks and students wander at ease with the refreshing breather of safety. In Srinagar, at least, Kashmir seems to be crawling back to the near normal.

Inside the Chief Minister's residence, all is calm. Mehbooba Mufti Muhammad, President of the People's Democratic Party is more diminutive than I'd thought, charming in a gamine sort of way. Distanced from the battlefield of vote-mongering and politicking, she is composed, despite the pressure of the opposition hanging pennants outside, calling thousands to invite Faroukh Abdullah back to his seat.

"Unfortunately, it is the electronic media," she says, "that contributes to a dark view of Kashmir. All you see on TV are dead bodies and violence. The focus always is on how unstable the land is. This is not to say that violence is not there, but there is violence elsewhere too, in India. The Gujarat riots, and the recent bomb blasts in Mumbai are as devastating. The three instances of rape in the city-centre of Delhi are shocking and reflective of a State that provides no security for its people right in the capital.

"The reason for targeting Kashmir, especially when it is making efforts towards peace is a deliberate act to keep it in flux. We are being denied the right to peace. Pakistan is as much to blame for this, as is India. The Centre has deployed troops here, to protect the borders, and they work under tremendous pressure but the occasional BSF's behaviour with the local people hasn't always been exemplary. That has exacerbated the peace process. "What the Centre needs to do is revive faith in our people. Not alienate them from mainstream India." Did she personally feel the same alienation, I asked. To which she replied, "Never! I was raised with a consciousness of the Nehru family, and Indira Gandhi was an icon when I was a little girl. I felt always very much a citizen of India. The ordinary person in Kashmir did not feel the alienation either, until 1989 when the trouble really started."

What is the reason for the present relatively more congenial situation in Kashmir? Has the long spate of militancy and terrorism abated? Mehbooba believes that the effort for peace has stemmed from within the valley; from its own people. "People are weary of war. They want peace and are willing to make all efforts towards it. It is they who are shaping the move towards peace. They realise that they are made pawns at the hands of politicians; that a healing process must begin.

"Our government is here to facilitate this process. We need the Centre to back us now more than ever. We need industrialists like the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis to invest in factories and information technology. Our youth need, not to run away from Kashmir for the lack of a meaningful future but to be employed right here, in the land of their birth.

"Once the rest of the country supports Kashmir the way it should — as an intrinsic part of the nation, when tourists once again visit the valley like before, when industrialists heave their strength behind us, only then will we be able to rise from the ashes of the last 13 years."

And what is the healing process? Mehbooba talked of "Umeed" (Hope), a trust that has been formed for orphans and children of missing parents. She says, "These children will have a future they can look forward to, with education and healthcare. It gives me joy to bring back a smile on the face of a child whose life has been scarred by trauma." These small steps, she hopes, will make a healthy state.

Meanwhile, there will be attacks and efforts by retrograde forces to disrupt their work, but she believes that there is strength in the present government and the people of Kashmir to overcome these elements, if India supports them unequivocally.

Mehbooba's earnest longing for a peaceful State reflects the desire of the people, the many ordinary Kashmiris who shared their views in our conversations. Artists, professors, bureaucrats, housewives, writers, schoolteachers and students — all had one refrain: We want to get on with our lives. We want peace.

The streets outside are humming. Of the 700,000 men in uniform stationed in Kashmir, those who are visible punctuate the streets, armed for combat. These very streets used to be infested by bunkers at one time, and they have reduced, considerably, as have the number of BSF men. I am assured the few who are there are around as attacks by the militancy are anticipated pre-Ramazan, the holy month when even terrorists would want a respite.

The only tourists one sees are the intrepid Bengalis, out to savour puja holidays in Shrinogor. As I watch the Bhand's (a local folk theatre group) perform on the fields of the Agricultural Institute with the serene backdrop of mountains, I wonder at the serendipity of Sufism felt in the air, and the possibility of restoring it back to its people in the truest sense.

The writer is the Editor, Gallerie. E-mail:

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