Changing Young Minds in Kashmir: Youth Rage and the Prospects for Peace
From the 17th-century Mughal emperor who declared the Kashmir Valley paradise on earth to the 19th-century Irish poet who wrote about it without ever having visited, the valley has for centuries been a place imagined independently of the people who lived in it. That pattern continued after the Kashmir Valley — and the larger former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to which it belonged — became the focus of a dispute between India and Pakistan in 1947. A Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency against Indian rule erupted in the Kashmir Valley in the late 1980s and deteriorated into an ugly proxy war between the intelligence services of India and Pakistan. Neither country showed much regard for the people caught in the middle. A civilian population meant to be either “protected” by Indian security forces or “liberated” by Pakistan-backed militants ended up facing extortion and brutality from both. Meanwhile, in the eyes of the outside world, the image of Kashmir went from the poetically imagined place of previous centuries to a potential nuclear flashpoint between India and Pakistan, which tested nuclear weapons in 1998. In the words of President Bill Clinton nearly two decades ago – though the assertion feels outdated today — Kashmir was “the most dangerous place in the world.”
Against this backdrop, a new book, “The Generation of Rage in Kashmir,” by David Devadas, is all the more welcome for its attempt to understand Kashmir by focusing on the perspectives of the people who live in it. Specifically, Devadas, an Indian journalist who has spent years covering Kashmir, grapples with the views of its younger generation. Two-thirds of Kashmir’s population were born after the separatist insurgency began in the late 1980s. As the book’s title suggests, many of these young people are angry and frustrated with their lot — leading some to join protests and throw stones at Indian security forces, and others to take up arms in what has become a new wave of militancy. The book is unusual, however, in that it eschews the oversimplification that is found far too often in portraits of Kashmir and which, depending on your perspective, either casts all young Kashmiris as victims of Indian brutality or dismisses the protests as the work of a dangerous Pakistan-backed minority. Instead, it portrays the younger generation’s views as ambivalent, nebulous, and in a constant state of flux as each new cohort of teenagers succeeds the preceding one.
Like other younger generations around the world, Kashmiri youth are influenced by the hyper-connectedness brought about by social media. They share some of the same anger and frustrations of youth elsewhere, including in India. But they have grown up in a society where civil and political life have been hollowed out by conflict. They have less recourse to political processes that might address their grievances. Having largely rejected the idea of joining Pakistan as an alternative to Indian rule, some are turning to a violent strain of Islamism and rejecting politics, democracy, and the nation-state altogether.
Devadas’ book relies on years of on-the-ground research including extensive interviews and questionnaires to explain how such attitudes have evolved to the point where Kashmir risks sliding into a new cycle of violence. Descriptive rather than prescriptive, it does not lay out a plan for bringing peace to Kashmir. What it does is sketch out the process of change in youth attitudes — a rare insight in a conflict whose protagonists tend to be seen in more static terms. Only by understanding this evolution, Devadas argues, can the situation be addressed.
There is much debate about the right combination of politics, economics, diplomacy, and good governance needed in Kashmir. Devadas highlights how these factors must accommodate a constant process of generational change. But his book also offers useful pointers about the nature of such change in other long-running conflicts — all the more relevant given that youth in those conflicts, like the ones in Kashmir, are growing up in the same hyper-connected, globalized environment.
An Ever-Changing Conflict
By way of background, the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was torn apart by India and Pakistan in their first war in 1947-1948. India holds the Kashmir Valley, the most populous part, along with the regions of Jammu and Ladakh. Pakistan controls a portion it calls “Azad Kashmir” (Free Kashmir) and Gilgit-Baltistan. The separatist rebellion in the Kashmir Valley that erupted in the late 1980s killed tens of thousands of people. Among these were more than 20,000 civilians, according to one estimate given by an Indian official. The armed insurgency petered out by the early years of the 21st century, in part due to conflict weariness among the civilian population, in part thanks to an India-Pakistan peace process that got underway in earnest in 2003. As I explain in my book, Defeat is an Orphan, How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War, that peace process included behind-the-scenes talks on a settlement for all of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. It began to lose momentum by 2007 and has never been able to recover from the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, when gunmen sent from Pakistan killed 166 people.
The decline in violence during the years of the peace process brought real change to the Kashmir Valley, including a marked reduction in the visible Indian military presence and an influx of tourists. But the absence of a breakthrough in the India-Pakistan talks left the future of Kashmir unsettled. Moreover, large elements of the Indian military apparatus, including special powers given to Indian security forces to counter the insurgency, remained in place.
It was in this environment that youth protests began in the summer of 2008. Unlike the gunmen in the separatist insurgency, these youths were unarmed and instead used stones and rocks to target Indian security forces. The youth protests continued sporadically over the following years. As new teenagers joined the protests and others grew up and dropped out, the causes of their anger changed, though all were informed by a mix of similar underlying grievances. Among these were resentment at the ongoing presence of Indian security forces, distrust in police forces that they believed acted with impunity, corruption, the humiliation of regular security checks, and a lack of economic and social opportunities. But as Devadas notes, different events triggered the protests in different years. In 2008, the protests were over land transfers and a perceived threat to Kashmiri identity. In 2010, they were about the killing by security forces of youths believed to be innocent.
Over the past few years, the stone-throwing protests have begun to fuse with revived armed militancy as locals try to prevent Indian security forces from chasing down militants. Unlike the separatism of old, the newest incarnation of the unrest in Kashmir is far more nihilistic and frequently leaderless. Moreover, while earlier iterations of the conflict stressed Kashmiri ethnic identity and tended to meld religious, political, and economic grievances, the current conflict reflects a far sharper communal divide. Influenced by internet connectivity, its participants are more likely to identify with global Islamist thinking and see the conflict in Hindu versus Muslim terms. That has been exacerbated by the rise of Hindu right-wing hardliners in India.
For Devadas, these variations over time are important, not least because they bear on the prospects for change: “The tragic fact, however, is that it suits a range of analysts on various sides to view the agitations of this decade as repetitive events — with the same cause, representing the same aspiration and calling for the same response,” he writes. A hyper-nationalist Indian media, for example, tends to blame Pakistan for problems in the Kashmir Valley and dismisses those pleading for nuance as unpatriotic. Pakistan, in turn, has long appropriated the language of human rights to press its claim on Kashmir, while ignoring its own role in bringing violence to the valley. International news reports focus on the very real tragedy of youths caught up in the protests — hundreds have been blinded by pellet guns used by Indian security forces. But they rarely look at changes over time. Nor do most journalists have the space or time to examine the underbelly of these protests, including multiple reports that some youths are paid to instigate protests, or to consider the consequences for ordinary people, especially the poor, who would prefer to live their lives in peace.
It is here that Devadas’ book provides useful nuance. It treats the younger generation in Kashmir as active players, constantly forming opinions in relation to their environment rather than merely being victims of it. It also points to levels of ambivalence and flux in attitudes that, if understood properly, offer scope for change for the better.
Devadas argues that India missed an opportunity in 2007 by failing to unwind the security measures set up to counter the armed insurgency. It is impossible to know for sure whether doing so would have brought lasting peace to Kashmir. But even after protests erupted the following year, he believes India could still have assuaged youth dissatisfaction had it acted quickly enough. Many stone-throwers in 2008 were ready to settle down given both the right economic opportunities and the elimination of security measures they saw as oppressive and humiliating. As new cohorts of teenagers succeeded them, however, new grievances — including over the killings by Indian security forces of men believed to be innocent — piled on top of earlier ones.
Even then, youth attitudes remained ambivalent and nebulous, subject to trends and countertrends. According to a qualitative survey Devadas conducted in 2011, using questionnaires filled out anonymously in schools, colleges, and universities, the younger generation had little interest in joining Pakistan. Once an attractive idea to some in older generations at a time when Pakistan was more prosperous than India (Indian GDP per capita outstripped that of Pakistan only in 2009), it has lost support given Pakistan’s long years of instability. But many were ambivalent about what they meant when, in protests against Indian rule, they demanded “azadi,” or freedom. For years a standard rallying cry in Kashmir, “azadi” is often taken to mean simply independence from Indian rule. But it can also mean rights, security, and dignity, which in turn could be obtained with or without independence. “The range of meanings that students assigned to the term ‘azadi’, as reflected in the survey responses, was baffling,” Devadas writes. Generally, respondents framed their answers in terms of rights, benefits, and security. When asked what Kashmir’s biggest problem was, the single most common answer was “independence.” Yet only just over a fifth of respondents gave this answer. Others cited the related factors of Indian rule or military rule as the main problem, bringing the total in this general category to just over a third. But a fifth of respondents cited unemployment as the biggest problem, while others named poverty and corruption. This fracturing of opinion is not uncommon in Kashmir.
Devadas’ results show that contrary to many portrayals in the media, youth are far from unified in their grievances and aspirations. Indeed, in his 2011 survey, a narrow majority actually disapproved of stone-pelting, though this attitude may have changed since. The desire for peace and economic opportunities was stronger among respondents from poorer families and from more rural areas, which bore the brunt of militancy in the 1990s. Lastly, Devadas found that women were more keen on peace than men.
The Legacy of the 1990s
It’s also worth noting that youth perspectives in Kashmir formed in a society hollowed out by years of militancy. As Devadas highlights, the separatist insurgency that dominated Kashmir in the 1990s produced a huge black-market economy as the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan poured in money to buy loyalty or to fund insurgents and counter-insurgents. Extortion and corruption became endemic. This environment produced responses from the youth that were often contradictory. Some wanted not just a job, but the kind of employment that would give them the same access to patronage and money they had seen their elders exploit. Others sought refuge in the imagined purity of an Islamic caliphate.
The years of militancy also eroded traditional social hierarchies and badly weakened educational standards. Lack of trust in the police and deep skepticism about official versions of events — itself another legacy of the 1990s — turned people against each other. Policemen, often young Kashmiris themselves, have been increasingly targeted by militants, and in the last few weeks even their families have come under threat.
Complicating matters further, regular elections for the state assembly in Jammu and Kashmir have been unable to produce the kind of politics that would allow for the channeling and resolution of grievances. Mainstream Kashmiri political parties, facing accusations of corruption and mismanagement, and long struggling against interference by the government in Delhi, have proved unable to improve governance. The result, according to Devadas, is that for the younger generation democracy has become a byword for corruption, “an organised bazaar of patronage.” The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is now being ruled by a governor after an unpopular coalition between a Kashmiri party and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party broke down earlier this year. Separatist leaders, including those from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference political umbrella group, have also been sidelined to the point that the younger generation of protesters has become leaderless.
It is in this political vacuum that some teenagers have recently become fired up by the idea of a caliphate and the implementation of sharia. Turning their backs on Kashmir’s more syncretic form of Islam — a strain of Sufism that developed over the centuries when Hindus and Muslims lived side by side — these young Kashmiris, according to Devadas, have become more orthodox. The rise of social media has also encouraged a view of Muslims as victims of local, national, and international conspiracies worldwide.
Even as they actively form opinions of their own, the young are also easily manipulated. On top of genuine anger, instigators are often paid to begin a stone-throwing protest, disappearing once a mob has formed. Young men, many from poor families, are then left to bear the brunt of the reaction from Indian security forces. According to Devadas, Pakistan — having been largely sidelined during the earlier protests in 2008 — is now playing a more significant role. While the exact details of Pakistan’s role are contested, this likely includes propaganda to whip up youth anger, and paying or coordinating instigators of protests.
Changing Minds is Possible
It is hard to come away from this book without a deep sense of unease about the prospects for Kashmir, particularly its younger generations. Kashmir may be headed for a new and ever-deepening cycle of violence. Yet if there is a glimmer of hope in the book, it is in the fact that attitudes have shifted so frequently over the years, and in the ambivalence and variety of views both within and between generations. If minds can be changed once, they can be changed again. The seemingly inevitable descent into violence can be reversed.
But it will be a long haul. A quote Devadas attributes to a former separatist leader sums up the conflict’s intractability: “The Kashmir issue,” the former separatist leader said, “was such a complex knot that it needed to be gently, patiently massaged between light fingers until it loosened sufficiently to be untangled.”
As has long been the case, such gentle massaging is likely to need an element of regional cooperation between India and Pakistan, both to reduce the potential that Pakistan will stoke unrest and to give people in the Kashmir Valley a reason to believe in nonviolent means of improving their lot. The Pakistani military, which controls the country’s foreign and security policy, has indicated it is keen to resume peace talks with India. Such talks are unlikely to make much progress before Indian elections next year. Moreover, Pakistan has never really grappled with its own role in ending the previous peace process with the Mumbai attacks. Without some kind of domestic re-evaluation inside Pakistan, it is hard to envision any substantial progress in peace talks. That said, even a limited easing of tensions would allow some fresh air into Kashmir — as happened during the previous thaw between 2003 and 2007.
Within the Kashmir Valley, India faces multiple challenges in improving governance and economic opportunities, unwinding a conflict economy awash in corruption, and maintaining security without human rights abuses or excessive use of force. It is a Gordian knot that will be all the harder to untangle without an accompanying revival and improvement in state electoral politics — mainstream Kashmiri parties are currently boycotting local elections in a standoff with the government in Delhi.
There also has to be political space for younger generations to articulate better and explore what they mean by “azadi,” rather merely shouting it like some kind of magic incantation. At a practical level, independence is impossible under the current circumstances. Neither India nor Pakistan has shown any willingness to give up territory, which would be required if all of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir were to be restored to its pre-1947 independent status. And the Kashmir Valley alone is far too small to survive economically as an independent state, even in a less hostile regional environment. Yet rather than allowing these constraints to be debated openly, India (and Pakistan too on its side of the Line of Control) has effectively suppressed open discussion of independence. Mainstream political parties, for instance, are required to pledge their loyalty to India.
As a result, more than 70 years after Partition, “azadi” has been allowed to pass without definition. It is no surprise that Devadas found a “baffling” range of meanings ascribed to the word. Nor is it a surprise that some youngsters would be seduced by the simplistic appeals of violent Islamists, or by propaganda emanating from Pakistan, or by those who choose to encourage youth protests by promising them “azadi.” As Devadas argues, this is a generation that has come of age disoriented by conflict. But these youth are also capable of articulating views that differ both across age groups and within them. Quite how they can be given the political space to speak for themselves is a subject those interested in peace in Kashmir will have to wrestle with. But one thing is clear. Writing young Kashmiris off as either helpless victims or dangerous secessionists driven by dreams of jihad does them no service.
Finally, perhaps the biggest takeaway from Devadas’ book is that the unrest in Kashmir is complex, messy, and in a constant state of flux. He offers no easy answers that can be fitted into standard templates of India versus Pakistan or, for that matter, Muslims versus non-Muslims. His reminder of the importance of generational changes in attitudes is an essential one for studies of conflicts around the world. As others have noted, in a global environment defined by the September 11, 2001, attacks, it can be easy to forget how much has changed since then, or indeed that the younger generation now on the front lines of conflict were children then and do not share the same perspective as those of us who experienced the attacks as adults. But most importantly, Devadas looks at the conflict from the inside out, by trying to examine how each new group of teenagers interacts with local, international, and historical influences in order to understand Kashmir from the perspective of those who live in it.
It is an imperfect start given the challenges of marshalling such difficult material in a conflict environment. A simpler account would have made for easier reading at the expense of nuance, while a more definitive account would have required the kind of extensive polling research that, though common in secure environments, is impossible in Kashmir. But it is nonetheless a start. It deserves to be followed up by hard work, nuanced research, and, above all, engagement with younger generations who will determine what happens in Kashmir.
Myra MacDonald is a specialist on South Asian politics and security and author of two books on India and Pakistan. Her second book, Defeat is an Orphan, How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War, was published last year. She is now working on a book linked to the history of Kashmir. She can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.
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