The cry from one section of a group of Kashmiri youth we invited for a dialogue in New Delhi last week was: “We want azadi. India represents guns and repression.” However, there was another section from Srinagar, also Muslim like the first, that said, “These azadi-seekers do not represent the Valley. We represent the 61 per cent who voted in the last polls and want to live with India.”
There were Hindu Kashmiri youths from Delhi too, who asked what azadi was about, for its proponents only spoke with stones, and why so-called Kashmiri concerns never included the aspirations of the Ladakh and Jammu regions, and of the Sikhs, Hindus, Shias and Bakarwals of the state.
There were students from the colleges of Srinagar, with a large group from the Islamic University of Science & Technology, led by two professors. Shehla Masood, president of the Progressive Muslim Women’s Association, helped in coordinating the interactions, which centred on the following reasoning. We allowed two generations in the Valley to grow up on the Nehruvian prescription of two flags and two constitutions; and most dangerously, we alienated Kashmiris from a real sense of the state’s history by focusing on the communal divide. How, then, can we hope that the youth will consider themselves Indians? Rather than grants or autonomy, Kashmiri society—in which one section, pushed on by Pakistan, sees its history beginning in 1947, deleting thousands of years of the making of Kashmiri culture—need a reorientation towards its history. Hence the dialogue.
A major milestone was observing the martyrdom day of Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in Srinagar on June 23—with support from Kashmiri Muslims. This was a first, never having been done since Mookerjee’s mysterious death in jail in 1953; as is well known, he was jailed in connection with his demand for the full merger of Jammu & Kashmir with India.
We met bright young Kashmiri youth who were eager to talk. This is something Nitin Gadkari, the president of the BJP, supported, and on the platform of the Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, Gadkari led the dialogue, listened patiently, and said, “Look, you are us. Think of a happy, prosperous future with India, a path shown by Shah Faisal, who topped the ias exam recently. Join the mainstream to fight for your rights under a constitution that guarantees space to all. India can’t even be imagined without Kashmir.” Sushma Swaraj, another senior BJP leader, asked what azadi was, and could only get confused views. She responded with, “Why not rule over all of India, instead of just a pocket that no one has a clear idea about? The way is to hold peace: stop pelting stones and respect the soldier performing his duty.” We also went to meet Union home minister P. Chidambaram, who told participants, “Become part of the greater Indian story; everything will follow. If a mob tries to lynch a soldier, do you expect him not to open fire?”
Some participants presented separatist views; some others stood up for India. Yatindrajit Singh, whose family belongs to Kashmir, said, “To me, the burning of the tricolour is as hurting as the burning of the Quran.” Ram Madhav of the rss, Smriti Irani, president of the women’s wing of BJP, Balbir Punj, a BJP MP, and some senior journalists exchanged views with cool patience. Shehla Masood asked, “Why don’t you fight instead for Muslim women’s empowerment, unshackling them from mullahdom? That’s a far more desirable azadi.”
There was a thrilling interaction with young MPs. Harsimrat Kaur Badal (Akali Dal) narrated the harrowing experiences of Sikh youth during the years of Khalistani terror, of their brutalisation by the security forces, of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and of how terrorism robbed Punjab of its youth, pushing thousands into the black hole of drug addiction, alcoholism, a future without hope. “Even then,” she said, “we never thought of separating from our India. We will fight for our rights as part of our motherland. And remember, while I share with you the same pain and agony you describe, and can fight for you, we will never part with Kashmir.” Priya Dutt and Madhu Gouda Yaskhi of the Congress, Anurag Thakur and Virender Kashyap of the BJP, Neeraj Shekhar of the Samajwadi Party and Jayant Chaudhary of the RLD took part in a high-voltage session. Sheena Handu described with tears in her eyes the story of her family’s exodus from the Valley, and Sinead Kachroo mourned the innocent lives lost in the Valley. All the MPs, regardless of party affiliations, asked Kashmiri youth to shun violence and fight for their rights under the Indian constitution. Priya and Thakur explained why the MPs had come together: “To convince you there’s no greater freedom and opportunity for growth than under the Indian tricolour.”
The Islamic University of Science & Technology has invited us to continue the dialogue in Srinagar. Amen.