"I’ve been unemployed despite a first class post-graduate degree in science," said Muhammad Hanief as he lined up at a polling station in central Badgam district. "There are no local industries that can absorb people like me. At least electing the right person might help." For the first time, youth wings have emerged both in the ruling People’s Democratic Party and rival National Conference. Other parties too have focussed on the youth.
Yes, the youth want the Kashmir dispute to be resolved, but they also want a better life. The anger is writ large on Sajad Ahmad’s face. He is a burden to his aging father even several years after earning an engineering degree. Ahmad is just one of the thousands who are looking for odd jobs to keep the wolf away. "Even a supervisor’s job is fine," he says.
"What are the separatist politicians doing for me? None of their children are unemployed. They have plum jobs in the government or businesses abroad," says Abdul Majid, who insisted his name be mentioned with the quote. Says a senior bureaucrat: "It’s appaling that the local police department has been getting thousands of applications for a constable’s post from post-graduates and engineers."
Years of violence has ravaged the educational system and infrastructure. Says an educationist: "In the last 15 years, just one Kashmiri has made it through the civil service exams. We’re totally left out."
In 1998, the then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral had said: "We have to increase the stakes of the Kashmiri youth in the Indian political system. Unless they have a sense of participation and a legitimate share in the country’s progress, Kashmir will continue to boil in spite of all our security drills." Whether or not there has been any concerted effort in this direction, six years later, lakhs of Kashmiri youth have damned threats and voted favourites, using the democratic system to get a life less dark. They cannot be let down again.
Cindy Akang studies English Literature, is ‘not politically inclined,’ has visited Amnesia, the new discotheque in town, and is generally happy at the prevailing peace in Nagaland. But this 20-year-old from Kohima is aware of the power of her vote. "I shall vote on May 5. I want an MP from Nagaland who can help remove misconceptions outside by telling my fellow countrymen that Nagas are a peace-loving people not just indulging in militancy," says Cindy.
The youth in the region’s eight states (Sikkim, the latest entry into the Northeast bracket) are a bitter lot. They’re angry with politicians for not fulfiling election promises. And it is this rage that the many separatist armies capitalise on to drive home their argument that ‘colonial India’ is squeezing their resources.
"The key factor sustaining insurgency is the lack of jobs and economic opportunities," says Jyoti Prakash Buragohain, an 18-year-old Kendriya Vidyalaya student in the eastern Assam town of Jorhat. "So political parties and politicians have a far greater responsibility in fulfiling the promises they make to the people in a troubled region like ours." Assam alone has 1.8 million registered educated unemployed youth.
The politics in the region is often murky and highly complex due to the existence of a plethora of ethnic groups with diverse cultures and radical student and militant groups seeking to represent these communities. Sub-national aspirations are high and issues ranging from autonomy for individual communities to right to self-determination and in extreme cases, secession tops the political agenda.Says Sammy Myrthong who runs a computer institute in Shillong: "Many of these insurgencies are actually political problems. But the way parties and politicians harp on the issue of militancy to derive political capital is harmful to the region." Sammy has voted. He doesn’t want to forfeit his right to choose his representative in Parliament.
"The voice of this region is not heard loud enough in Delhi, and even if it is, its often distorted," says Guwahati law student Dikam Bhattacharya, four days after exercising his franchise. "For this to change, we need to send the right people to the Parliament and here lies the power of our votes." Says Pranam Bora, preparing for his medical entrance test: "Since we come from a region wracked by insurgency, people outside tend to look at us differently, at times even with suspicion."
A significant feature of polls in the Northeast is a fairly high voter turnout despite boycott calls from insurgent groups and stepped-up violence. Manipur has been an exception but other than that, people have usually defied rebel diktat.
With no jobs in the government or private sector, the youth are angry, but they also take the elections seriously. "We need to change the system and give a chance to younger leaders, people with at least an academic degree, to lead us as our law makers," says Chugal Bhutia, 24. "People losing faith in the democratic system can be dangerous for the Northeast." That faith can be restored only by the men and women the people elect.
By Zafar Meraj in Srinagar Wasbir Hussain in Guwahati