Kashmir has long been held hostage to a never-ending cycle of violence. Recent scenes of public anger spilling out on to the streets over the killing of young demonstrators by the security forces is just another episode in a long and tragic history, even as the chasm between Kashmir and the rest of the country continues to widen. In such a scenario marked by conflict, mistrust and despair, four women - each of whom in their different ways are working to make a difference in the region - speak about – non-violent ways to usher in change.
Last year, when the New Delhi-based academic, Uma Chakravarti, travelled to the Kashmir Valley with a small group of women activists, lawyers and a woman editor, it evoked considerable local surprise. Chakravarti and her colleagues were not there to take in the sights like the average tourist. They wanted to understand for themselves the real facts about Shopian, where two young women were alleged to have been raped and murdered. In the months that followed, the group brought out a full fledged report on the Shopian tragedy, which strongly disputed the official version of the events there and held the local police and the CBI guilty of willfully distorting facts.
Says Jammu-based newspaper editor, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, who was part of that team, "The Shopian case demonstrates how far the security forces and the State will go to protect the guilty if they happen to be in uniform. Tragically, despite a totally apolitical and peaceful campaign for justice, the government continues to deny it to the people of Shopian, fuelling great public anger."
Chakravarti is extremely upset at the government's handling of the issue. "The biggest blow for us was the way the CBI has dealt with the case. How can the people of the Valley accept this 'whitewash'? Today, one of the reasons for the anger on the streets is because of a widespread feeling of betrayal."
The British writer and documentary filmmaker, Justine Hardy, who runs a health and counselling centre in Kashmir, believes that outsiders who want to build a bond with Kashmir need to understand the situation. She says, "Outsiders have always fallen in love with Kashmir. Kashmiris, on their part, have been endlessly welcoming guests and invaders over the centuries. It is part of their personality. But they have been told enough how to resolve their problems over the past twenty years by people sitting comfortably outside their situation. Now the time has come for 'doing', not 'telling'."
Hardy sees herself as one of those outsiders enchanted by Kashmir, who has returned time and again to a place that she has known since she was a girl. "After I grew up, I reported as a journalist from there, and then began to work with Kashmiris. It has taught me a great deal more of the human condition than anything else in my life," she says.
Shabnam Hashmi, one of the founders of Anhad, an NGO, also working in Sringar, on issues of democracy, justice and peace, believes it is also time that the government went beyond rhetoric: "Is there no other way to negotiate with unarmed, non-violent citizens, than to unleash brute force? And what, in any case, is the root cause for this civil unrest? Despite repeated assurances by the central and state governments of zero tolerance towards human rights violations, the fact remains that little has been done to punish those responsible for heinous and gross violations. Mere rhetoric is not enough to restore the shattered confidence of the people."
So what is the way ahead? Hashmi believes that it is imperative that the central and state authorities take firm and visible action against those responsible for unleashing this brutish violence. "Any delay will only compound the alienation and anger of the people, and damage irreparably the peace process in the Valley," she says.
Hardy is blunt, "A lot of explanations have been given for the situation in Kashmir. But the one thing that is not written or talked about enough is that violence can only breed more violence. As long as the same methods of 'restraint', 'demonstration control', 'counterinsurgency', and 'insurgency' continue to be used, change is almost impossible. A generation has come of age entirely conditioned by this perennial state of simmering or actual violence. If this is the template, the only reality for young people who have never left the Valley, why would they themselves do something different?"
People cannot be won over or suppressed at gun point, adds Hashmi. "Certainly, the people of Jammu and Kashmir deserve a more rational, humane, visionary and sensitive response from the Indian State. And to begin with, representatives from the Government of India must actually start travelling to the Valley and talking to ordinary people, listening to what they have to say, understanding the exact facts on the ground," she says.
This has been done before - and by women. Chakravarti points out that way back in the 1950s it was the great freedom fighter and social activist Mridula Sarabhai, the aunt of danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, who took up the cause of the ordinary Kashmiri. "She was the first non-Kashmiri Indian woman to dare fight for the democratic rights of Sheikh Abdullah, who had been imprisoned at that stage. She protested so very strongly that she herself was put under house arrest for 14 years by the then establishment," says Chakravarti.
More recently, in the 1990s, when Kashmir was on the boil and violence had broken out across the Valley, three all-women fact-finding groups had travelled to the troubled regions. In fact, Chakravarti was herself part of one such group in 2001, which helped to alert the rest of the country to the trauma of ordinary parents whose young sons - many of who had been apprehended by the security forces for their alleged militancy - had gone 'missing'.
According to Jamwal, "Today's anger stems from the history of several decades that have been full of incidents of human rights abuse and the basic political dispute over the status of Kashmir. Even the slightest of provocation can spark off wide-scale protest, stone pelting, even hand-to-hand combat." She feels the mainstream national media has contributed to widening the perception gap between Kashmiris and the rest of the country, by policing opinion and blacking out perspectives that put either the Central or state government in poor light. "In the process, the actual reality on the ground is lost sight of, and viewers and readers get a very one-sided, ill-informed picture," she adds.
Jamwal believes that the only way to end the conflict is to adopt a two-pronged strategy. At one level, the state should initiate a political process instead of announcing economic packages that are lost in a welter of corruption. At another, it should be earnest about bringing the men in uniform guilty of human rights violations to book, through a fair, transparent and institutionalised process.
Chakravarti agrees that the first task is really to reach out to the people of Kashmir and deliver justice to them. "I remember once, in 2001, I was interacting with some Kashmiri women in the Valley. I asked them when they thought conditions will get better. One woman immediately replied, ‘Jab tum log halaat badlo ge...’ ('When you people change your attitudes'). What she meant was that it is only when the rest of the country stands up and demands that justice be done to the Kashmiris, will the conflict end."