February 22, 2020
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Long Wait For Freedom

A first person account of what went on behind the scenes.

Long Wait For Freedom
Downtown Srinagar: Abdul Raheem, a vendor in the grimy bylanes of Habbakadal, barks at Manohar Rana, an mdra field investigator. "Why waste my time? This poll means nothing to us. Can it bring peace? Go away right now or I’ll chase you out," he thunders, as a small crowd gathers. It requires all of Rana’s persuasive powers to convince Raheem and by now, the distrustful crowd, of the truthfulness of his purpose. Only after half-an-hour of coaxing does Raheem agree to answer the questionnaire.

In Batmaloo, called the ‘liberated zone’ during the heyday of militancy, a three-member field survey team, headed by Mahesh, fans out into the crowd. Just as Mahesh starts telling an elderly woman the details of his job at hand, two burly men appear as if from nowhere and whisk him into an adjacent house. Some hard questions follow, but they seem unconvinced. Till a local, recruited by the team, "rescues" Mahesh, and it’s only after his vouchsafement that a frightened Mahesh gets back to work.

The run-ins with the wary, cynical populace continued. From uneasy Khanyar in Srinagar to the hinterland in Anantnag, the researchers realised, that besides being stalked, they worked in peril. Conducting an opinion poll in the Valley is no simple task for an ‘Indian’ outfit. To begin with, the gun-toting security men and fortified bunkers are daunting. Then, to convince a deeply suspicious public of the genuineness of the poll is also exacting. And finally, there’s the fear of running into militants or their sympathisers who think the pollsters have been propped up by intelligence agencies. "Will these findings be published or will they find their way to Gupkar Road (where the IB and raw are housed)?" queried a shopkeeper in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

The problems were doubly compounded for the Outlook-mdra opinion poll—conducted in mid-September—by the census boycott called by several militant outfits. Given that, local staff were loath to help the investigators. The threats to disrupt the census survey, not carried out after 1981, were real. The locals’ reluctance was thus understandable. "You will carry out this poll and fly off to Delhi. We have to live here," said a 20-year-old girl, who after much thought, declined to be part of the survey team.

Yet, despite the many obstacles, some gutsy youngsters agreed to help. It was tough but worth it. Half-way into the poll, the feeling of deja vu was inescapable. Five years back, when Outlook conducted a similar poll, it found that an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris craved for freedom. Now, attitudes, we found, had only hardened. Despite the passage of time, the pursuit for freedom remained firm. "Sure, we want peace. We don’t want bloodshed to continue but peace will be on our terms," said a 40-year-old widow in Maisuma, once a hotbed of militancy. That feeling was omnipresent. A foisted peace process was unacceptable. What was also clear was that the resurgence in custodial killings and the rise in human rights violations had further diminished the residual faith in the Centre and state. Over a decade of death and destruction wrought by insurgency and its repression had touched almost every family in the Kashmir Valley. "There are few families who have not lost a close relative or acquaintance in this conflict," said a lecturer.

In ’95, the poll revealed that Kashmiris were committed to dig their heels for a long haul in their quest for azadi. The sentiment rules. The road to peace is undoubtedly going to be bloody. Alienated from their masters in New Delhi and the self-proclaimed saviours in Pakistan, Kashmiris still live in that twilight zone.

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