By Abid Baba:
One sunny morning in the fall of 2012, much to the annoyance of all and sundry, a posse of military personnel welcomed the students of Government Degree College, Kashmir located in the lap of a hillock at Khwajabagh in Baramulla.
It was 10:00 am and the students were already inside the premises of the institute. Scores of troops were strolling in the front park, girls garden, canteen and new building.
Feeling jittery, everyone was enquiring what was wrong on seeing the military. Students were asked to attend their lectures and not to be bothered by them. But anger and disturbance was palpable. The army boss was maybe conversing and sipping tea inside the principal’s chamber, while students kept getting dismayed by his personnel’s presence on campus.
Half an hour later, they left. But an army jeep kept doing rounds around the college throughout the day. The head of our institution spread a word of mouth about the purpose of their arrival.
A seminar entitled “Empowering Kashmiri Youth As Harbingers Of Change” was being organized by GOC 15 corps and they needed students of local schools and colleges for the debate. The venue was ‘Thimaya Hall’ (once an entertaining space for the dwellers of the town, a famous cinema, now a garrison) at Convoy ground Baramulla.
Next morning, our class work was disrupted since two military buses meant for ferrying troops were parked outside the main gate. Within minutes, they were full. With stinky seats, the bus smelled of stench. More than a hundred students, accompanied by few teachers (willingly or unwillingly) were taken to the above-mentioned address.
I was the last student to enter the camp. Surprisingly, we were not frisked. Teachers were pretending to be bosses in front of army men. I remember them ridiculing a few students to simply generate laughter. I don’t know why they were behaving arrogantly, especially on seeing the military.
A ‘journalist’ (who I doubt was revealing his true identity), was pleading to the gatekeeper to let him go inside since he had received a letter from the organizers to cover the event for his ‘esteemed publication’. He was the same person, who did PR exercises for the army to keep them in good humour. He was aided by two others and they could always be seen relishing delicious cuisines in every function organized by the Indian army like Sadbhavna, blood-donation camps and distribution of blankets, radio events etc.
We were lined up; pamphlets were distributed about the day long function. Its front page was full of photographs like two smiling men rowing in the Dal Lake, girls dressed in colourful attire dancing on the stage in some state sponsored function, a couple strolling under the golden and mighty chinars, a musical band performing in one of the ‘World famous’ meadows.
There was no photograph showing an army personnel dragging unarmed youth, beating women, hurling tear gas shells, firing pellets, spreading barbed and concertina wires to seal the civilian movement, smashing doors and windowpanes etc., which is the other side of the story. As expected, only one side of the coin was visible with prominent colours.
The exact date was Nov 24th. When we entered the huge hall, students from other educational institutions were already seated in front rows. We were late by 30 minutes. Hence, we missed the ‘Welcome and Keynote address’. Little were we expecting the kind of debates that we would later be subjected to in the conference.
Special guest Prof. Navnita Chadha, who teaches Political Science in Delhi University, and has been a Professor in the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, could not get the rapt attention she expected as she kept bragging about her medals and awards. Backbenchers were Facebooking, Whatsapp texting and Tweeting. It was clear that they were not interested in the proceedings anymore. Prof. Chadha was speaking on the theme, ‘Kashmir Issue’. As I understood, the army was concerned about this complex issue and a senior academician was invited from Delhi (the capital of India, and unfortunately the place from where many orders come which change the political scenario of Kashmir) to discuss with us this expectation of a ‘long lasting peace’. Those who believe in only one side of the Kashmir debate, try to sell the concept of ‘Kashmiriyat’ to the people, which, in reality, doesn’t exist in their minds. Unfortunately, Prof. Chadha appeared as no different to me. She lashed out at India’s ‘enemy’ Pakistan and held them responsible for our ‘lost Kashmiriyat.’
Miss Chadha said that the real truth about Kashmir is buried under layers of nationalism, separatism, religious and super-imposed violence. None among the audience could understand what point she was exactly trying to make. She was asked to simplify the subject, and she went on to state that the youth was sacrificing their tomorrow and were having an uncertain today due to Pak-sponsored separatist propaganda. Uneasiness grew as she was interrupted by a student. He tossed a question, but her answers could not convince the student and the whispers grew louder.
Dr. Inayat Mir was the next to speak. His field of expertise was medicine, but ironically he was asked to throw light on the topic: “Effect of the security situation on the youth.” He said that the past few years had produced complex ills caused by ‘terrorism’, again referring to the country with which Kashmir has a geographical proximity – Pakistan. He talked in length about the unrest and opined that it has led to ‘isolation’ and consequently unemployment and degeneration of our society. I felt as if every version we were being fed was a concocted version. Dr. Mir seemed equally biased, and the audience lashed out at him with questions which he was unable to answer. Embarrassed, he decided to wind up.
The first phase concluded with his speech, followed by a refreshing tea break. As hungry students literally pounced on hot samosas, I saw two army men who were assigned to photograph us. The whole episode of us eating our food was filmed. Our actions were locked on screen. The families of these jawans might have been cheering in some part of the Indian plains after watching this ‘success of the army’ over terrorism through a seminar on some jingoistic news channel. The thought sent chills through me.
The next session started with the talk, “The young brigade: wider horizons beyond the limits of the state” by Ghazala Wahab. Ghazala is an Indian journalist, who writes on security, terrorism, left-wing and religious extremism. Pertinently, she started FORCE- a monthly magazine which highlights defense and security issues concerning India. For me, Miss Ghazala stooped to a new low by branding the Kashmiri youth as backward, left out and frustrated. She wanted her audience to explore new avenues, widen their outlook to see beyond Kashmir. She felt edgy when she was asked about the harassment, ill-treatment, and arrests of Kashmiri students outside the state.
There was so much noise and chaos on this topic that Brigadier CP Sharma had to intervene and called off her speech. They tried their best to calm us down. Finally, there was pin-drop silence. We are lucky that no one was attacked in an atmosphere of such heightened tension. Ghazala was also supposed to talk “how the security forces can help the youth.” I was thanking God that we didn’t have to listen to that. Because I knew how the security forces had helped us by making many of us orphans, widows, half-widows and had injured many for lifetime – narratives which were completely overlooked in the seminar we were all forced to attend. After that the Brigadier started to talk about the role of forces in engaging the youth! He termed the Army as a “dexterous and multi-dimensional force”. But the next moment he also admitted, “security forces as the face of the Indian state is a part of the problem. The objective, however, should be to project and explain our compulsions and handicap.”
Somebody from the audience frustratedly spoke out “we know it all. Thank you.” GOC 19 infantry division presented the vote of thanks and soon the hall was empty. In a brief press conference later, Prof. Chadha admitted that due to popular sentiments, such shows are a complete failure. Lunch was ready for us at the exit. A small tent was erected for the special guests and we were taken in another building where abundant food was being served to us. Guests were disbursed by the special guards in army jeeps. Students left for their respective destinations, never to return to this camp.
I believe that the Kashmir issue is more complicated than it appears, and simply forcing students to attend a seminar and listen to that part of the argument that doesn’t take into account what the people think is wrong. The seminar didn’t address any concern about the state, rather seemed like an attempt to me by the army to showcase that students were being treated well, and were party to those opinions some people espoused.