It took eight years for P. Chidambaram to say: I regret. These eight years are not just a length of time, they mark a shift in the times. The mass uprising of 2010 brought Kashmir into focus within India, and beyond. The glacier of silence began melting at the edges. A number of people across India spoke out plainly, overcoming the fear of being branded unpatriotic. Eight years later reeds can’t whisper; even the most upright are frozen in fear.
In these eight years, India has experienced a metamorphosis. It’s a different creature now. In Kashmir, we get to see it, hear it, and taste it. We can hear the war cry, see the marauding columns come closer, feel the daggers cut through the flesh. A vibrant conversation which had barely begun in 2010 has given way to dreadful convulsions.
What happened at Pulwama the other day is an exhibition of the convulsions that could have been avoided if only Chidambaram had heard the people of the state patiently, and acted honestly. Eight short years away, Kashmiris gathered in hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands, almost every day, to convey the message. In ones, twos and dozens, Kashmiris died every day to make their point. But New Delhi listened not even with half an ear. A three-member team of interlocutors was flown to Kashmir, perhaps as an act of charity. This team went far and wide, gathered sounds, made sense of them, and in the limitations already set, drafted a report. I too was part of the small groups that met one of the interlocutors. None of us had any big hopes for even some small changes, but then the talking was plain and straight. That was a change in itself. The confidence to say, and the practice to listen was picking up. But then the dancing dust around the files finally settled down and the whole exercise ended up with an unceremonious burial.
After eight years, the expression of regret is like a mild breeze from continents away on a dusty grave. The interlocutors’ report! It wouldn’t stir even a particle today. This small sound of remorse cannot break the frightening stillness of Pulwama, where almost a dozen boys, all members of an extended neighbourhood, fell dead.
The distinction between civilian and militant is non-existent in Kashmir. This categorisation is not just false, and misleading; it is inhuman. The boys – in their teens and twenties – are seen as sons, brothers, friends, cousins, students, and finally ordinary boys-next-door. Their death is as tragic as of civilians, if not more. During these eight years, Kashmir has descended further into violence, and the Indian state is like an ocean of militarism at a high tide.
This expression of regret is too late, and is far too little. But it doesn’t mean it was not needed. Contrarily, we need it, and we need to build on it. The only difference then and now is that of the magnitude of difficulty. We need ears pressed harder to ground to re-capture long-silenced sounds. We want the pitch of the sounds-of-regret to be higher, to travel wider.
There are certain losses we can never recover, though. We cannot bring back the dead. A wrong policy on Kashmir has inflicted permanent scars. A deep sense of regret, accompanied by a compelling desire to resolve the issue is what we owe to the dead, to the living too.
Chidambaram’s regret was followed by another Congressman, Jairam Ramesh, tweeting his pain. Responding to the Pulwama incident, he expressed his deep anguish over the loss of life. Can this feeling grow and deepen? And if it does, slowly and gradually, would it yield a better policy on Kashmir? A policy guided by truth-telling rather than obfuscation, a policy based on respect for human life than murderous militarism?
As the new militarism of the Indian state percolates down to the rest of society, Kashmir is contributing to the deterioration of the Indian polity, and the degeneration of Indian society. Thanks to new politics in India, and the consequent remake of the Indian media, Kashmir is responding to the changes in the rest of India in its own way. After 2010, Kashmir underwent a shift, silent and steady. Finally, it exploded in 2016. But unlike 2010, 2016 was followed by a steep descent into new forms of violence. We are yet to fathom its impact. New Delhi’s response was, and is, blind and brute.
Kashmir suffered, and it will take time to recover. New graveyards of young boys have shattered the calm and things will remain disturbed for many years to come. However, the Centre has gained nothing. The people of Kashmir, whom this new policy of kill-all was intended to subdue, remain unchanged. The assault through constitutional changes, the offensive on economic and administrative institutions, the dismantling of not just dissenting political structures but the targeting of even unionist political parties like the National Conference and PDP – the past few years have seen an all-out war on Kashmir. But what good has it brought to India? On the contrary, it has damaged India.
Edward Said once said about ‘orientalist’ scholarship on the Middle East that it has “sacrificed understanding and compassion totally”. In Kashmir, India is sacrificing the same things. And that is a loss the prescient never miss. This loss will gradually appear in tangible forms. It has already started. India is on a dangerous course, and Kashmir has contributed to it.
In a country of over a billion people, it must be a small number that thrives on darkness; the rest are victims, like Kashmiris. If Kashmiris have reasons to fight this darkness, Indians elsewhere too have reasons to welcome light. An ordinary soul living in Kashmir can only pray that the regret expressed by Chidambaram, and the anguish felt by Jairam Ramesh, turn into intense beams that rupture this darkness. What happened to our young boys in Pulwama doesn’t frighten us as much as the darkness in India.
Mehmood ur Rashid is Opinion Editor of the Greater Kashmir, published from Srinagar. He writes a regular column for the same newspaper.