Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Kashmiri Chant : “They don’t trust us”

The Kashmiri Chant : “They don’t trust us”
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 15.05.2010

”They do not trust us” Farooq Abdullah is a man of sunny temperament, not given to pointless lamentations. But when he said this to me a fortnight ago in the course of a conversation, he was, in an unguarded moment, giving vent to a sense of alienation which has settled as a national habit in the Kashmir valley.

This alienation is not a new reality one has suddenly noticed. But this is exactly the sort of reality that is crowded out of minds when it lingers long as unnoticed malignancy. I have heard little else this past week in Srinagar: alienation and anger (alternating with rage) against New Delhi.

I must revert to Farooq Abdullah’s lament because without it being placed in context, it can lead to multiple interpretations. The conversation was about the portfolio he had been given: Renewable Energy.

The way the electoral cookie had crumbled in Kashmir during the 2009 General Elections, it was more or less settled that Farooq Abdullah would be Chief Minister. He said as much on TV. But during the night, the decision was set aside and Omar Abdullah was sworn in. In Srinagar every journalist knows that Omar’s elevation became part of an elaborate plan to promote “youth” in the wake of Rahul Gandhi’s promising performance at the polls.

Fair enough, but surely Farooq, nationally known, personable, a good public speaker, could have been given a higher national profile. After all no national leader, who happens to be a Muslim, has the combination of charisma and pedigree which go down well in Indian public life. Ghulam Nabi Azad may be a cleverer politician and better administrator but Farooq is more charismatic.

It was in response to this observation that the former Kashmir Chief Minister and the current Chief Minister’s father, talked of the “trust deficit” between New Delhi and Kashmiris.

In fact this is an observation Vijay Dhar, the late D.P. Dhar’s son, who has helped build a remarkably successful school in Srinagar, also endorses. “Indians have not been able to give Kashmiri Muslims a sense of belonging, a partnership in the Indian enterprise.”

There are two distinct Indian responses to this kind of a statement. There is a sympathetic recognition of Kashmiri alienation since 1953 when their “national hero” Sheikh Abdullah was arrested in Srinagar and whisked away to New Delhi.

Response of others, tired of keeping the historical background in focus, is one of irritation. “Complaining has become a Kashmiri habit”.

Drive from the airport, past Hyderpura where separatist leader, Ali Shah Geelani lives, the streets are strikingly ample and well laid out. In fact, drive in from any direction, (Gulmarg, for instance) and the scale on which the houses are built is quite as impressive as in some of the fancier New Delhi colonies.

A general sense of economic well being is not just an optical illusion. “People have enough to eat and adequate housing”, says Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of the PDP. “What is bruised is Kashmiri self respect”.

There are confusing images strewn around the valley. Just outside Kashmir University, a new restaurant with an unlikely name of Hat Trick was opened last week. It is a wholesome, middle level restaurant and fast food outlet. Quite surprisingly, it is one of a chain of twenty one such facilities in Srinagar.

Then the manager turns up (he describes himself only as an adviser) in white shark skin suite with a matching white tie settled on a blue shirt. He is a short, dark man with a moustache.

It turns out that he is R.K. Mohanty from Orrissa, who came to work for the Oberoi Hotel in Srinagar decades ago and has since helped build up the Hat Trick, chain owned locally.

This is not the only surprise. A large segment of the kitchen staff are also non Kashmiri. Why? Because Kashmiris do not like such jobs. “Government jobs are at a premium”, says Prof. Syeda Afshana, at the University’s media Research Centre. “Government Jobs carry prestige, easy acceptance in the marriage market and a lazy life.”

So, a great deal of the “unemployment” in Kashmir must be read as lack of preferred employment in the public sector.

Meanwhile, in the department of Management Studies, a small number of students do succeed in finding placements outside the valley. The difficultly is the singular absence of big industrial houses on account of the “unsettled” conditions. Last year, the university’s “gold medalists” were invited for a meeting. A single fact stood out in bold relief”: none of “gold medalists” knew what they should do next. Suffocatingly, the collective vision seems to stop at Banihal!

There is no simple formula to end Kashmiri “alienation”. A way to address the issue could well be to place the “problems” of Kashmiris against the backdrop of the underprivileged across the board which results in eruptions like Chattisgarh, Jharkhand or the North East. This has to be a sophisticated, honest, credible method of communication to replace the unimaginative propaganda doled out currently.

Something remarkable happened this year. Four Kashmiri Muslims from the valley and two Hindus from Jammu entered the IAS. What is more, one of the candidates, Shah Faisal, from a village in Lolab Valley (made famous by Allama Iqbal), topped the list.

“Supposing the Prime Minister were to announce internship for him in the PMO, the gesture would be electrifying for Kashmir”, says Vijay Dhar.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah will have to find some way of balancing his family life in New Delhi and his official life in Srinagar. Otherwise a growing epithet of “part-time” Chief Minister, will attach itself to him.

New Delhi would do well to strengthen him by embarking on a credible devolution dialogue.

Above, all New Delhi must realize that an occupying army has never looked pretty to the local population. It is easy to overlook this reality in a debris of intelligence reports, three years relative peace notwithstanding. The current peace is deceptive. The undercurrent is one of anger with New Delhi. “They don’t trust us” is not just Farooq Abdullah’s lament. And just imagine: he is a member of the Union Cabinet.

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