Kashmiris Lament the Loss of Their Youth
While much of India opened up to the world after the country’s 1991 reforms, Kashmir instead became the world’s most militarized zone. A generation of young people have suffered.
In the early days of August 2019, Kashmiris knew that something strange was afoot: TV channels went off the air, the internet was cut off, tourists were asked to leave, and a strict curfew was imposed. Then, on Aug. 5, New Delhi announced it was revoking the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, bringing it under the central government’s direct control.
At the time, in a speech announcing the move, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi explained that the decision would better integrate Kashmir into the national market and improve its economy. But one year later, there are few signs of progress. According to a report published last month by a civil rights group, the region has incurred nearly $5.3 billion in economic losses since New Delhi’s move to downgrade its status.
While much of the country has struggled under pandemic-induced lockdowns, Kashmiris have in effect lived with those conditions for a full year. But for most Kashmiris, the stripping of their political autonomy is not a real shock. It is frustrating but not surprising. And that is because most of them were born in a land where young men commonly picked up guns to fight for independence from the Indian state, and they grew up in a region where curfews, military operations, and extrajudicial killings were the order of the day.
About 69 percent of the around 12 million people living in Jammu and Kashmir are under the age of 35. For them, the state has been in quasi-lockdown for most of their lives. A Kashmiri politician once joked to me that local children learned the word azaadi, or freedom, before they learned to call out their mother’s name.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir used to include the Hindu-majority Jammu, the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, and the largely Buddhist Ladakh. While no region was spared the unrest, it is the Kashmir Valley that has suffered the most in economic terms.
After a rigged election in 1987, Kashmiri resentment toward India increased exponentially. And with the help of Pakistan, there was a full-blown insurgency in the Kashmir Valley in 1989, which pushed separatist leaders toward militancy. Many Kashmiri Hindus were expelled from the state. The region never recovered from that conflict.
Since 2016, when I first started reporting from Kashmir, I have met many Kashmiris who were born after 1989 and for whom the very definition of a normal life is different than that of most Indians. Truck and bus drivers overwork when they can, because they might be grounded anytime due to curfews. Doctors are used to looking at bullet wounds. Mental health professionals deal with post-traumatic stress disorder patients like doctors elsewhere treat the flu. Lawyers regularly defend young boys charged with sedition or terrorist activities.
The state is the biggest employer in Kashmir, and private sector investment is negligible due to the constant violence between security forces and militants. As a result, young Kashmiris see state government jobs as their route to stability. But a small subset of Kashmiri youth who were educated in larger Indian cities and in countries abroad harbor dreams of entrepreneurship even amid the turmoil.
Consider the story of Mir Saqib, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who is considering filing for bankruptcy. Most of Saqib’s primary education in Srinagar took place at home, because schools remained shut for about eight months a year in the 1990s. Every time there was militant-related violence, educational institutions were closed.
Around the time Saqib should have been in school, his peers in other Indian cities were having a very different experience. In 1991, in the face of an economic crisis, New Delhi took the difficult medicine of opening up its economy to the world, putting in place fiscal reforms that would set it on the path to rapid growth for the next two decades. While young Indians began to dream of lives on par with those of their global peers, Kashmiri youth would often harbor hopes of joining their region’s separatist movement.
Kashmiris expected the economy to bounce back in 1996 when a local party, the National Conference, was elected to the state government and New Delhi promised increased autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir.
Things turned out differently. In 1999, after the Kargil War between India and Pakistan, militant attacks on Indian paramilitary forces stationed in Kashmir sharply increased. These suicide attacks ushered in further militarization to the valley. Today, there is one armed personnel for every seven civilians in the region.
In 2007, when Saqib enrolled in an engineering college, little did he know that the valley would come to a complete standstill the following year. In 2008, the Indian National Congress-led government in New Delhi decided to transfer 99 acres of forest land to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, a trust that governs the famous Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath temple. More than 500,000 Kashmiris marched in protest, rejecting what they felt was an Indian takeover of Kashmiri land. Kashmir remained shut for most of that year.
While Saqib’s national peers were dreaming of packing their bags for coveted jobs in Silicon Valley, Kashmiri students were struggling to get to class.
In 2010, Saqib’s studies were disrupted once again when Kashmiris took to the streets to protest extrajudicial killings of Kashmiri youth. The protests left around 120 people dead.
Finally, in 2011, Saqib graduated as an engineer from Kashmir University. He decided to set up a bottled water plant and called his product Kolahai, which is the name of the glacier where the Jhelum, Kashmir’s major river, originates. His business began to pick up when he started receiving contracts to supply water at weddings across the valley. Saqib expanded his business by introducing bottled juices and teas.
A new twist emerged in 2014. A pro-Hindu government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi was elected in New Delhi. The party joined hands with a Kashmiri group called the Peoples Democratic Party and formed a government in the state. Since their visions for the state were different, the government was unstable and insecure.
The arrival of smartphones and high-speed internet further shook the region’s tenuous social contract. Messages from separatist leaders reached the phones of Kashmiris directly, without censorship. People hungrily consumed video messages from young militants such as Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a charismatic commander of the militant organization Hizbul Mujahideen, making the case for Kashmiri independence.
In 2016, when Wani was killed by Indian forces, tens of thousands of Kashmiris attended his funeral. The state essentially ground to a halt for almost five months. And the authorities, realizing the revolutionary power of social media and the internet, began to respond for the first time by shutting down certain apps and restricting internet speeds in the region.
Unlike the previous generation, which had access to arms, the Kashmiris who came of age in the 2000s had to resort to stones as their weapons of choice. Every Friday, after the afternoon prayers at Srinagar’s main mosque, young men flooded the streets to throw stones at the security forces. Over a period of time this type of protest became merely symbolic.
Saqib shuttered his factory for long periods in 2016. There aren’t many weddings in a society that grieves the loss of its freedom, so demand for his product dried up.
Saqib had borrowed money from banks, which he somehow managed to repay by the end of 2018. Hoping the economy would look up in 2019, Saqib began to once again dream of restoring his business to its former glory.
But then, exactly one year ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party fulfilled its campaign promise and downgraded the status of Kashmir to a union territory, bringing it under New Delhi’s control. And it did so while once again imposing strict curfews and shutting down the internet for the longest period in history for a democracy. This time, Saqib would finally give up dreaming: “Now, I know nothing will ever go back to how it was again,” he said.
In the past 12 months, New Delhi has passed successive laws that Kashmiris fear will open up their lands and ecology for exploitation, while stripping them of their unique identity. For instance, New Delhi can now decide who gets to live in Kashmir, a legal change that could end up transforming the region’s demographics.
Every time I talk to a young Kashmiri, I sense fatigue and a sense of hopelessness about their future. However, most conversations end with them suggesting that they will fight to reclaim their freedom. The Indian government seems to understand this sentiment well, which perhaps explains why it continues to curtail the speed of the internet there. When the internet comes back, the possibility of large protests is ever-present. But without the internet, real investment and growth in the region is impossible to imagine.
Jammu and Kashmir had a monthly average unemployment rate of 15 percent between January 2016 and July 2019, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. This is more than double the national average of 6.4 percent during the same period.
But Saqib says his generation doesn’t see unemployment as its greatest burden. “We have lost our youth, our dreams, and our future,” he said. “That is what we’d want back.”