How do you expect a Kashmiri youngster to raise the Indian flag, asks Shujaat Bukhari

This interview first appeared on DNA Online on 15 August 2015.

One of the few peaceful districts in Jammu and Kashmir, Udhampur was recently besieged by two successive terrorist attacks, bringing the region back into the headlines. Whether it was the release of Masrat Alam, the proposal to resettle Kashmiri Pandits back in the valley, the new alliance, or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), several controversies continue to linger.

Shujaat Bukhari, veteran journalist, writer and social activist, currently the editor-in-chief of the Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir, in his interview with Parth MN, talks about the reasons behind the discontent on the ground, the possible solutions and the role of the Indian state and media.

Udhampur has been a relatively peaceful district in the last decade. What do the two recent terrorist attacks indicate?

I think it is the absence of a political process that gives space to such incidents and the militants find a fertile ground for their activities. Yes, there is an increase in militant activities. The more worrying factor is that local educated Kashmiri youth are joining the ranks.

If the captured terrorist has been roaming in India for the last two months as he claims, doesn’t it point to a major security lapse?

That is a pertinent question. When the Army maintains zero tolerance on infiltration in Kashmir, but the captured militant says he was in the Valley for 45 days, it merits an answer as to where he was and how he got here.

We have also seen repeated instances of flags of ISIS and Lashkar being hoisted in the state. Do you think terrorist groups are exploiting the discontent?

The absence of political engagement on both tracks viz New Delhi and Islamabad and New Delhi and Srinagar leads to frustration, as the aspiration for resolving the Kashmir issue is a reality. Obviously, the youth give vent to their feelings by associating themselves with ideas that are quite distant to the ethos of Kashmir or for that matter, Islam. But the fact is that windows to other ideologies may open in case the political problem of Jammu and Kashmir is not addressed in right earnest.

What changes have you seen in Kashmir after the new government assumed power?

It is very difficult to judge a government so quickly. But the initial impression is they are not following the expected track. People voted Omar Abdullah out of power because they were frustrated. If this government follows the same path, the situation will worsen. People are cynical because they have seen the good period that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had during 2002-05. But now, from day one, he has not been allowed to do anything political. When Masrat Alam was released there was a hue and cry, there was a controversy over Geelani’s passport as well.

The BJP and PDP seem to be at loggerheads with each other on these issues and in such a short time, their conflicts have come to the fore.

Both parties are poles apart, but they had no option, it was a tactical alliance. When PDP entered into agreement with BJP for government formation, one reason they cited was of liberal funding from the Centre. Where is that?

PM Modi visited Kashmir in mid-July where he announced a relief package. Have the flood victims been duly compensated?

It’s been a year since the floods last year, but nothing has been done to rehabilitate the lakhs of flood victims. The state seems to be choking and there is despondency all over.

Does it raise the question of the alliance breaking up?

I am not sure how long the coalition will last. But they have a compulsion to work it out, especially the BJP. They are in power for the first time in the state so they would want to make it work. But if they continue in this way, they will not be able to deliver anything tangible on the ground. Politics is the pivotal component behind the situation in the state.

One of the rare issues that the two partners are in consonance with each other is the proposed resettling of Kashmiri Pandits back in the valley. How do you look at it?

As far as the return of Kashmiri Pandits is concerned, nobody is against it. But there are two-three issues involved. If they return, where would they go? In a few rural areas, Pandits have their lands, orchards intact. But as far as the urban centres are concerned, most of the Pandits have sold their properties. So they will not be able to come back to where they originally resided.

The government has mooted the idea of building townships for them.

There is no point in creating ghettos, as they already exist in Anantnag, Sheikhpura etc. These clusters were created two-three years back, when the government announced a special job package for about 4,000 Pandits. But the long-term rehabilitation, or I would say, re-assimilation of Pandits, is a challenging task and cannot be seen in isolation. Building townships will not send a right message. The counter-argument to this would be “then they would not come back at all”. While it is a pertinent argument, as a Kashmiri, I would say the government needs to take the civil society of the existing Kashmir and the genuine representatives of the Pandits on board.

What do you mean by “genuine representatives”?

Not the usual suspects who have been thriving on the politics of division on both sides. It’s not to say that those groups are to be rejected completely, but it is important to have a comprehensive mechanism of consultation between Pandits and Muslims. They should be taken on board for arriving at a consensus on how this issue is to be dealt with.

There is massive mistrust between the two communities. How do you expect Pandits to trust their old neighbours after what happened in 1990?

We, as a society, are for their return. Whatever happened in 1990 was the darkest chapter in Kashmir’s history. Who is responsible and who is not is a different debate. There are many theories and perceptions. But is it wise to address this issue in isolation? There is mistrust between the two communities, but there are also good examples of bonhomie as well. When I go to Jammu and meet my old neighbour, classmate, or father’s friend, we are cordial and comfortable with each other. But largely, yes there is a gap. Because there has not been any effort to bring them to the table for discussion.

Do you think the idea defeats the purpose of integration?

Thrusting townships on Kashmiris will further aggravate the situation and divide the society. It defies the idea of integration, it defies every logic for that matter. Through townships, Pandits will return to Kashmir, not to their homes. Pandits are well-settled outside Kashmir. If you want to give them summer houses, it is fine. But do not call it integration. If you are serious about their re-assimilation into the society, there has to be a comprehensive strategy and consultation of the civil society on both sides.

Are the Pandits falling in the trap of the Sangh agenda?

Maybe they are. The resettlement plan is politically motivated. It has been BJP’s slogan and they have always been on the side of right-wing Pandits who have been talking about a separate homeland and all that.

Interestingly, the younger generation that did not experience the exodus, does not seem too keen to come back.

Youngsters would also like to come back to their roots, provided they get avenues. There is a serious unemployment crisis here. Why would they want to come back when there are better opportunities elsewhere in the country?

Apart from a dialogue between the two estranged parties, what is a comprehensive strategy to ensure a secure atmosphere in Kashmir?

Security can only be ensured when the civil society is robust and mingles with each other. But the fact is that security is still a concern. Do you think I am safe here? Nobody is. To ensure safety, one needs to do broader work. One has to create an atmosphere of peace and normality here. This can only happen if India engages with Pakistan. When the peace process existed from 2003 to 2008, there was visible change on the ground. When you talk to Pakistan and the people of Jammu and Kashmir, there is a favourable atmosphere. But on one hand, you do not engage with Pakistan because they are “rogue” and you also refuse to talk to any alienated section in Kashmir, including Hurriyat, because they too are “rogue and Pakistani agents”. Without engaging with them, the state will continue to be hostile.

You mention the peace process existed from 2003 to 2008, and that there was visible change on the ground. What changed after 2008?

I think first the ouster of Pervez Musharraf and then the Mumbai attacks changed everything. Till today, no serious effort is being made to pick up the thread from where it was. How long will you live with the hangover of Mumbai and Samjhauta Express? You need to overcome that and move forward. War is no solution.

As far as talks are concerned, is it not important for Pakistan to be as cooperative? On the one hand, Pakistan released our fishermen, on the other, there are instances like Udhampur and Gurdaspur where reports indicate Pakistan’s involvement. Should the talks take place on August 23-24?

I think both the countries have to be responsible. If Pakistan is lacking in controlling such elements, it is bad and they need to show that they are taking practical steps. But India also needs to show sincerity. I think calling off the Foreign Secretary level talks last year was a bad decision and put a break on the process.

What is it about the attitude of India towards Kashmir that worries you?

An individual like Masrat Alam is released and he is called a terrorist. There is uproar over a leader who wants to travel on a passport. On the one hand, you create all the fuss and on the other, you moot the idea of resettling Pandits, pretending things in Kashmir are normal. The fact is, you are not willing to concede the smallest space for dissent in Kashmir. It is imperative for India to engage with Pakistan and the discontented sections of Kashmir for any resident to lead a peaceful life here. Unless that process of reconciliation, peace and dialogue is initiated for the permanent resolution of Kashmir, you cannot have a peaceful atmosphere here. Today there is complete deadlock. As of now, the Indian government is showing contempt towards the people of Jammu and Kashmir who have problems with India. It is virtually disregarding them by ignoring their opinions. It is important to recognise the political disconnect and dissent on the ground in Kashmir, which the Indian state refuses to do.

The issues of Masrat and Geelani were taken up by the media. Is the media also culpable?

The jingoistic and ultra-nationalist Indian media has been misinforming the public at large in India. They are not doing any service to the country by giving much hype to petty issues. If they are calling Mufti “pro-Pak”, then who is Indian in Kashmir for them? It is a question they need to answer.

Were the two issues blown out of proportion? Also, is it not expected for any Indian to express disillusionment if Pakistan flags are raised in Kashmir?

It was blown out of proportion. Flags of Pakistan have been raised from the last 67 years. Has anything changed on the ground? Media has every right to raise issues and concerns of the public, but it has no right to dictate.

Do you think Masrat deserved to be out?

When Afzal Guru was hanged, you said the Supreme Court has given the verdict. Despite the fact that he was 27th on the list. Now when the same Supreme Court says Masrat’s detention is unjust, you refuse to accept it. You cannot cherry-pick. It is the same Supreme Court of India, not Pakistan.

You mentioned the fact that there is discontent towards India among Kashmiris in the valley. Do you think it has anything to do with unemployment? Or is it completely political?

I do not think stone pelting by Kashmiri youth has anything to do with unemployment. There is a huge political discontent on the ground and a Kashmiri youth does not reconcile with being an Indian. That is the reality on the ground. The youth are alienated from India. Unemployment could be a factor but we cannot mix the two issues. The dominant reason is the discontent, especially that the educated Kashmiri youth has towards the Indian state. Even if you give jobs, the political problem will remain as it is. You have to first accept that it is a political problem. And it has to be addressed through political means.

Does the discontent stem from the manner in which the Indian army treats civilians?

AFSPA is a black law and it has been unnecessarily thrust upon the people of Kashmir. There is no reason why it should not be withdrawn. It defies logic. Tripura has done it recently and J&K should follow suit. It gives unbridled powers and immunity to the Army and paramilitary forces to kill anybody and not be held accountable. You cannot solve the Kashmir issue through the barrel of the gun.

During the election campaign, parties promised many things. One of the most important was the release of people languishing in jail. What has happened on that front?

They released one individual (Masrat Alam) and you have seen the hullaballoo (laughs). But they must adhere to their promises and consider releasing youngsters who are languishing in jail and have been undertrials for a long time. Especially those boys who are booked under the Public Safety Act, which was also declared as a ‘lawless law’ by the Amnesty International.

The atrocities by the Army, or the Public Safety Act that allows authorities to put anyone jail, seem to be at the core of resentment of Kashmiris, especially youngsters.

Apart from the two reasons you mentioned, there are examples of Kashmiris being discriminated in various parts of India as well. Whether being denied a flat, hotel room, persecuted after a cricket match; these are all offshoots of the larger discrimination. There are examples of Kashmiris languishing in jails in various parts of India without any trial. Someone told me about a Kashmiri who has been implicated in a fabricated case in Gujarat. He has not been allowed access to his lawyer. In this context, how do you expect a Kashmiri youngster to raise an Indian flag in Kashmir?

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