The Thin Edge

Death and freedom: For peace in the land of Kashmir, we must have genuine empathy with its people

If we pride ourselves on our diversity, we need to accept that there are some who question the idea of our nation.

Maut is an Urdu word of Arabic origin meaning death. But the moment I enunciate it with the little acoustic twirl around the "au", I can feel myself in a state of limbo, imagining my own demise, wondering whether it will be peaceful or violent? What will those around say? How will I be remembered? Within a few seconds, my past and prospective future flashes by. In the thought of death I have lived a life.

Azadi on the other hand, a Persian word meaning freedom, is an aphrodisiac that lets us glide with the wind taking in the fragrance of life. Azadi is always an aspiration because even in the most democratic state where freedoms are not trampled upon, I feel constricted and limited. There is no limit to one’s own need for Azadi though we may restrict others. We die as we live and in death there is a life.

As I sit silently in front of my computer and ruminate on these words I am witnessing violent expressions, gesticulations and screaming from the far northern end of my country – Kashmir. What I hear is not decipherable and the high decibel has muddled my receptors, I have become numb. Numb to hardship, pain, struggle and torment, all those feelings of maut.

Everyone participating in this discussion ensures that I remain confused and insensitive, yet I have to react. People want me to take sides and follow George HW Bush’s dictum, “ You are either with us or against us." And I have to quickly define the "us" for myself. I can be a liberal with no understanding of national security, a rabid nationalist, a Pakistan sympathiser, a Muslim hater, or a votary for the rights of the Kashmiri Pandits – but I just have to choose one or certain combinations that nullify the existence of the others.

A just cause

Amidst all this noise people are dying and I say people, not terrorists, militants, bystanders and army personal, just human beings. However dear the call of qurbani or duty, deep within everyone wants to live in happiness, be it the militant or army jawan. Yet both sides make heroes of the dead, use corpses as bait to induce many more to lay down their lives in the name of patriotism or freedom struggle. From where I stand there is nothing that can justify killing another person. But this is a war and in war the first casualty is humanism and it is indeed ironic that everyone at war kills in the name of a "just cause".

I will not succumb to that temptation of sympathising with or vilifying the slain militant Burhan Wani; both are positions of hate. I will not discuss his actions or that of the army because both are brutal. I feel a deep sense of sorrow for all that has happened and for every individual who has been hurt as a consequence, this includes the gun-totting army jawan. They all live in fear and die not knowing why, while we continue to debate the correctness of various actions.

There is nothing new about Wani’s story, there have been many Burhans and considering how we have handled the present situation, there will be many more. How can we, the world’s largest democracy not hear in Wani’s voice the truth of many young people? These are not individuals who have been led astray. They have been brutalised, traumatised and are angry. When is the Indian state going to realise that the terrorists did not radicalise Burhan Wani, we did it and then they orchestrated all that followed.

Politicians in Parliament and outside always proclaim that Kashmir is an integral part of India. What do they mean? That the land that lies within the squiggled political line belongs to us? What about the people, whom do they belong to, you, them, us or nobody? They are people with diverse tones and in disagreement amongst themselves, but they are all Kashmiris. We proclaim that we are a nation of diversity, then let us accept that within the voices there will be some who even question the idea of the nation. This too is a voice and we have to listen to it because democracy is a spirit not a constitutional condition.

Virtual combatants

Kashmiris are an unknown quantity unless they fall in line, follow curfews, yet come out on Election Day and vote. But whenever we refer to the struggles of the people living in Kashmir it is with the attitude that we (India) have done so much for them (Kashmiris) yet they are ungrateful. Do we really care about the people, or is it as the analysts say, only of strategic importance?

What about us, the citizens of India? We have turned into virtual army combatants. Can we not differentiate between the soldier and the organisation that owns him? The death of a jawan is not an excuse for the institution to sanction the injuring or killing of people. Pellets are non-lethal we are told, and we nod our heads in approval. The citizens of India and of Pakistan are complicit in the dance of death in the Valley, because we have watched it like frenzied fans viewing an action film – first day first show. When are we going to stay stop, stop to all sides?

“Speak to everyone involved, find a solution." We have all heard these meaningless platitudes too often to believe them anymore. How can we find a solution to a problem, when we are yet to give legitimacy to the problem? All we do is blame Pakistan for the situation. We actually empower our neighbour with this rhetoric; handing over the power to improve the situation to them, further weakening ourselves. Cross-border terrorism is a serious threat, we have to protect our borders no doubt, but there is great fragility within. We need to accept this with humility. We are an imperfect nation and hence have made and will still make many more mistakes. The more we distance ourselves from the reality that many fighting the state are from within, the further we strengthen Pakistan’s hand.

Kashmir is a complex political problem, but it is at its core about concern, care and empathy for Kashmiris, not governments, terrorist organisations or armies. Integration has to come from the heart of that which is integrating, not the mind of the integrator. For any movement in the region, the focus must shift from the crown of India to the people of the Valley. Unfortunately until then the people inhabiting the Valley will live in a flux between the reality of maut and the hope of azadi.

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