Will Kashmir Be Safer, Happier Without Army?

14 June 2009
The Times of India

Srinagar: Kashmir's young will not remember it but once upon a time, the Valley was green and peaceful and not so fragile that anything - a stone, a bullet or a barb - could make it boil with rage. Beating The Retreat: Hype, hope and horror | 'Men in uniform are Kashmir's problem, not solution' | It's a war, keep the Army | The Evolution Of The 'Azadi' Manifesto The Valley became one of fear and fury only in the late-80s. The militancy started after rumours that the elections of 1987 were rigged. That was when the Indian forces - army and paramilitary - arrived in large numbers. Could that phase of militarization be ending, now that Home Minister P Chidambaram spoke on Thursday about the possibility of reducing the number of Indian army and CRPF troops in the state? Will young Kashmir, the generation born in 1989, ever see a Valley that is not angry and on edge? It is a generation that sees violence, even in its dreams. Afsana Bashir, 20, speaks for many: 'My own childhood in Kashmir was turbulent with a lot of memories of deaths and screams in the background.I grew up hearing gunshots. I can still recall the killing of two brothers in my locality at the Court Road in Srinagar. It was 5 in the evening, when two bodies draped in white shrouds were taken down from an ambulance. All hell broke loose as the entire neighbourhood began wailing and crying.' Afsana was just three at the time but says 'those traumatic memories are still fresh in my mind'. It turns out she is describing the deaths of two young men who ran a bicycle repair shop. They died when the CRPF fired on pedestrians near Magharmal Bagh. Strikingly, Kashmir's young seem to have almost no happy memories. Tabinda Hilal describes the small pleasures of a life she knows only at second-hand: 'I have heard from my mother about taking long strolls along the scenic boulevards in her early life; eating ice cream in the evenings...I have heard from my elders that there used to cinema halls in Srinagar. It's difficult to believe.' Tabinda's incredulity is understandable. The Valley currently has just one functioning cinema hall. In 1990, JKLF militants shut down about a dozen theatres in a bid to 'cleanse society of the waywardness'. No movies. No music. No games. That is the life Afsana, Tabinda and anyone young has ever known in Kashmir. Fayaz Ahmad Wani, 20, recounts that even 'the playground where I used to play cricket has been added to a nearby graveyard'. Life in the Valley of his childhood was 'pretty horrible. It was even unsafe to walk on the roads. As firing broke out very often, the pedestrians had to take shelter inside the shops or any other safe place.' Kashmir's young have a kinship of memories. Like Fayaz, Sharifa Jan of Nowhatta in Srinagar remembers bloody gun-battles in every town square. 'The alleyways were filled with young boys wielding guns, and the Indian army was ready for combat. Soldiers huddled in bunkers that were pushed shoulder-to-shoulder against unlucky houses at the end of the lanes,' says the 20-year-old girl. But the trauma of the young is not limited to the Valley. Irshad Nabi, 20, belongs to Baramulla. He still trembles with fear when he remembers how militants harassed his family one night and Army interrogators badgered them next day. Irshad says his life has been impossible ever since. 'I was denied a passport by the authorities because of my cousin's affiliation with some militant outfit'. The young are united in another way. All of them want the Indian troops to go ‘home'. They believe the army's presence in civilian areas has created an army-civilian conflict rather than staving off the militancy. Samina Bashir of Nishat in Srinagar says the men in uniform are prone to harassing Kashmiri girls. 'The local police too are involved in crime against women. The laws empowering the security forces to conduct house-to-house searches need to be reviewed.'