Indian army’s violence and atrocities from the 1990s live on

David Devadas, who has covered Kashmir as a journalist for 30 years, and lived there for more than a decade, has written a book on the youth of Kashmir. Titled The Generation of Rage in Kashmir, it is to be launched by Oxford University Press in the next few weeks.

Based on interactions with youth across the length and breadth of the Valley, the book gives insights into factors that have given rise to a new militancy, one that has been accompanied by mass demonstrations and stone-pelting over the past decade. It describes what life has been like for those who have been born and raised in a time of violence, who now comprise more than two-thirds of the Valley’s population. This book includes a survey of 6,000 Kashmiri students and gives fascinating insights into their thinking. It traces differences in the patterns and responses of those born around 1990, who witnessed the terrible violence of the 90s, and millennials born around the turn of the century.

In Devadas’s interviews, militant commander Burhan Wani emerges as the most prominent hero and role model of Kashmir’s youth. On the second anniversary of Wani’s death in an encounter with the forces on 8 July 2016, The Wire presents an excerpt from The Generation of Rage which attempts to explain this phenomenon.

Crackdowns, barricade checks, and bunkers became the invasive shorthand of counterinsurgency. To Kashmiris who grew up during those years, India was the army (the generic term for all counterinsurgency forces). And, in their minds, the army meant the frightening power to enter anywhere, to humiliate and to mete out horrifying punishments and torture. It was also decidedly alien—from a culture that disliked and punished one for wearing a pheran, the traditional Kashmiri dress that most Kashmiris found as comforting as Linus’s blanket, almost like a protective womb. A child might not easily understand that a soldier viewed its enveloping wrap as a perfect cover for guns, bombs, or grenades.

Although such operations had ceased by 2007, the narrative, if not the direct memory, of the ‘crackdown’ was deeply embedded in the minds of Kashmiris who grew up in those years of terrible violence.

On the one hand, young people of this generation had had to get used to violent death and destruction. On the other, they had never experienced life the way children elsewhere did—the joy of going out for an ice cream in the evening, a weekend picnic, a drive in the countryside, or even the fun and frolic of a family wedding. Life was a cage. Parents were often too paranoid to let them go out to play, at least after sunset. During the early and mid-1990s, no child in Kashmir had been out for an after-dinner stroll—or even a pre-dinner walk. They had to be indoors well before it got dark, which meant 4 pm in winter. Even then, their mothers and other family members worried ceaselessly as long as they were out of the house. They were almost never allowed to go far. Picnics, weekend excursions and evening outings were unheard of. For the most part, the only leisure activities for boys were street cricket, or possibly football or volleyball on a rocky patch. Most girls were not allowed outdoors except for school or perhaps religious instruction at a neighbourhood darasgah.

Listless, they spent the long hours at home watching television if there was electricity—until their elders made them turn off the lights, generally quite early. During most of that awful decade, the 1990s, they could not even pass the time during those lonely evenings by chatting with friends over the telephone. Telephone services were so bad during that decade that it generally took several minutes to get through to a number. To be sure, when telephone connectivity became easier towards the end of that decade, young people took to the telephone, whispering to friends for hours in the darkness of the night. Many teenagers kept extension wires at hand, so that they could take the telephone instrument into their bedroom at night, unnoticed by their parents.

Their loneliness was heightened by the ways in which the architecture of Kashmiri houses changed during that time of violence. Families began to move from rural areas to the outskirts of cities. Sprawling suburbs came up on what had been agricultural land, or wetlands, even marshes. Families began to move to these from the inner city too. To own a house in one of these suburbs was the new fashion, a sign of upward social mobility. These houses were generally large and opulent, often a dozen rooms occupied by just three or four members of a household.

Women leave a hospital in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/Files

Women leave a hospital in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Until the 1990s, the typical Kashmiri house was never locked but, during the time of violence, people began to lock themselves indoors for fear of both kinds of men with guns. High walls were built around new houses, until it became the norm by the beginning of the new century to build eight-foot-high walls around new houses, even in villages, by the second decade of the century. Gates too were high and covered with thick iron sheets, so that no one could see across. In upmarket suburbs, those gates were generally bolted shut.

Social cohesion was under huge stress. Largely unnoticed, Kashmiri society had changed unrecognisably during the couple of decades before 2007, and this too caused alienation—disharmony with the social environment. First-generation unitary families had often come to live in huge mansions behind high walls, not coping very well with bringing up children. Bonds in what were once closely knit extended families had strained. Education was in shambles. All this had occurred in tandem with political and geo-political ferment and tremendous, often competitive, pressure to conform to revised religious practices that were projected as pristine, original and exclusively correct.

Adolescents felt the turbulence of all these changes most intensely. Most of this generation had rejected various sorts of role models. They needed to overcome disappointments and deeply felt betrayals—in the political, familial and other dimensions of their lived realities. Bringing life to a halt, as they collectively did in 2016, was at one level also a way to stop the betrayals and disappointments. Those strutting boys were grappling for empowerment in many senses and at various levels. They needed to physically dominate their environment, their society. Lurking throughout their charged eruptions was hope for a better reality, a more responsive social, economic and political milieu.

Social changes that occurred during the time of violence plugged into this unprecedented inter-generational change. Social hierarchies were reordered chaotically, sometimes violently, in the early years of militancy. Two factors were in play. One, land reforms had already destroyed the Valley’s existing social hierarchies during the 1950s. Two, the social turbulence wrought by militancy and the eviction of Pandits took that process much further during the 1990s. There was a great deal of churning beneath the social surface, as members of the Valley’s highly status-conscious society struggled to establish precedence in a putative new social hierarchy. This too led to a great deal of societal stress and resentment.

As militancy and unaccountability generated a huge black economy, the new houses that came up behind those high walls and gates were often large opulent mansions. These reflected the urgent need to establish social status in the fast-changing milieu. So, within two generations from the time before Kashmir’s land reforms, when it was common for large extended families to sleep together in one or two rooms under a thatched roof, it became common for each child, particularly a boy, to have his own room. Too often, those rooms and those mansions were another sort of cage of isolation.

People look out from a window as they watch a protest in Srinagar on August 5, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The wealth that accompanied social transformation since the 1950s was also beginning to reshape family life, cultural norms and social milieus. Almost unnoticed, families had turned unitary. Grandparents might come to stay for a few weeks or months but, more often than not, returned to their ancestral home or to another child’s house for the next few months. In the past, Kashmiri children had traditionally grown up in the nurturing environs of extended families and neighbourhoods, with several parent figures and role models. It had been normal for children to eat at whichever house they happened to be playing, even sleep over. During the time of violence, many parents had to adjust not only to their traumatising circumstances but also to parenting in a unitary family without additional societal assistance. A very large number of mothers were hardly able to cope without support or role models amid the traumas of the violence around them. As in the past, a number of children grew up in their matamal, maternal grandparents’ home—but lifestyles were under strain there too.

Fathers found the transition particularly difficult. Growing up in large, joint families, their interactions with their own fathers had been limited. The lack of intimate interactions had made them fear, and avoid, their fathers. But with the social transformation to unitary families and the loss of bonds with extended families, their children expected more intimate interactions from them. What these fathers had not experienced from their own fathers while growing up, they found it difficult to provide to their children. Inter-generational conflict increased within homes, particularly between fathers and sons. If these young men were not willing to bow before repression by state forces, they were even less willing to be obsequious at home. Their fathers often found it tough to cope with them.

So, young people adjusted to violence, fear, and uncertainty in the isolation of their private rooms in large houses. In the seclusion of those rooms, boys could indulge themselves in all the things boys try out in order to overcome depression. Drug abuse became commonplace, smoking much more so. In fact, many nine- and ten-year-old boys smoked. Alcohol abuse too was common in the new century—in secret of course, since it was a major religious taboo.

When boys did go out, at least during the 1990s, the cage only changed its dimensions. There were barriers and checkpoints everywhere. Passengers would be forced to get off a bus or other vehicle, to walk in line to a point where they were searched and questioned. To be without an identity card was suicidal. Everyone learnt to address a soldier as ‘sir’, and to remain silent and look respectful even while being abused or roughed up during a check. Paramilitary soldiers routinely slapped and humiliated people at these checkpoints. It was common for Kashmiris to be made to stand on their hands, with their feet propped against a wall, sometimes simply because a soldier did not like the look on their face, or he was having a bad day himself, or was Islamophobic. General M.A. Zaki, who was Corps Commander in 1989–91 and then Advisor (security) to the Governor until 1995, observes that Kashmiris have a refined culture and were not used to the language and abrasive culture of many of the troops from some other states.

* * *

Militancy crippled the education of this generation. Through the first half of the 1990s, most schools were more often closed than open. Even when they were open, teachers and students frequently could not get there. For, roads would be closed after a militant attack or for a cordon-and-search operation, or students and teachers were delayed so long at a checkpoint or by a search that they turned back home. School was missed more often than attended. If a child did reach school, teachers might not—or arson might have reduced the school building to a smouldering wreck.

Children pass a security forces personnel on their way to school in Kashmir. Credit: PTI Files

Even when they functioned, schools were no safe havens. Paramilitary forces searched educational institutions too. In the early years of the insurgency, even the vice-chancellor was forced to line up on the university grounds for identification during a cordon-and-search ‘crackdown.’ And soldiers sometimes set up camp in a part of a school or a college. What this meant was that barbed wire fences, bunkers, rude searches and mines surrounded the children near the outside perimeter. Forces only stopped using schools as camps in 2007, after a brave young student-journalist from Delhi6 wrote about it and then personally pressed the Defence Minister to ban the use of schools and colleges to billet soldiers.

In the mid-1990s, Kashmiris spoke of middle-aged, sometimes grey- bearded, men walking into examination halls, placing a pistol on the desk and writing the examination on behalf of a student. Nobody dared question the man’s identity. After things returned to a semblance of normalcy in 1997, the examination system began to be subverted in other ways. In the new century, parents and teachers sometimes collaborated to assist cheating so that their wards would pass examinations.

By the time the government pushed hard to revive and expand the education system, a large number of young teachers had been educated during the time the system had been crippled. The government needed an army of teachers for the new colleges and schools it opened in the early years of the new century, but even the education minister of the time acknowledged that the quality of teachers was a problem. Some colleges and universities were devalued into mass production degree factories. The liberal arts, which could have shaped thinkers who could rebuild society and lead its cultural and political life, were devalued the most.

The pressure of parents and society resulted in students generally pushing hard to get admission to medicine, engineering, management, media, or computer science courses—in more or less that order of preference— before finally opting for the arts, if they could not get admission to any of those other courses. Insightful analysis, rigorous research and critical questioning were casualties of the times. For, to cover up their insecurities, many teachers shouted down students’ questions, punished curious students with bad marks, or resorted to corporal punishment.

A generation left those educational institutions with degrees and with training against independent thinking … The hollowing of the education system meant that armies of men and women roamed the state with degrees. Many of them were barely employable but expected that the government owed them a job. A few months after that summer of stone-pelting in the Valley in 2010, an older man in a village observed that his school teacher had been ‘fifth pass’, but taught far better than contemporary PhDs … Despite all these infirmities, the ironic fact is that educational institutions were about the only places where students could socialise and learn to be members of society. Opportunities for entertainment were largely limited to television and, later, to phones and computers. For, militants had destroyed all of Kashmir’s cinemas, clubs, and bars in 1990. There were few restaurants in the entire Valley except on a tiny strip in Srinagar. After 1995, that strip expanded a few kilometres up to Dalgate but, until the beginning of the new century, that was more or less all.

Kashmiri weddings had traditionally involved multi-course wazwan feasts in the late evening, after which the groom’s family would take the bride home at night. During the 1990s, weddings became hurried daytime events attended by not only guests but also fear. The wazwan was served as a late lunch instead of an evening feast, and every effort was made that the bride should reach the groom’s house before dusk.

Hardly anyone was on the streets after dusk. Getting to a doctor or hospital after dark could be like running a gauntlet of cajoling, pleading, convincing and racing. For many years, Kashmiris got used to driving their vehicles right off a road or highway if they saw an army vehicle approaching from the other side. If the driver and others on the army vehicle thought the civilian vehicle had not given their vehicle enough space to pass smoothly, they would most likely stop to assault the vehicle and its passengers. For a few years, they just wielded long staffs to assault the vehicle as the army vehicle passed. One had to be very wary of tossing anything out of a car window, for a soldier might mistake it for a grenade and respond with a bullet.

For some years, Kashmiris were forced to keep the windows of their vehicles rolled up. It seemed like a thing of yesterday to Mohsin Haider Ali of Srinagar, who could recall even many years later the horror of warm blood gushing from his head after the long baton of an army man crashed on his head through the open window of the bus in which he was sitting. He was a little boy then, on a school excursion. It was the period during the second half of the 1990s when some schools were tentatively trying to revive such excursions. The child had just been for his first picnic and was delightedly feeling the breeze in his hair on the return journey when the baton blow landed. It was not meant specifically for Mohsin; it had been aimed at whoever was behind that open window. However hot it might be, open windows were not acceptable to the armed forces in that phase. They feared that a militant might shoot, or hurl a grenade, at them from a passing vehicle.

The Wire