Just what does ‘azaadi’ mean to Kashmiri youth?

by Diksha Dwivedi

In October 1954, the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, issued an order granting special rights and privileges to the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir.

This order, very famously, has been contested by Jammu & Kashmir Study Centre that claims that the President of India does not have legislative powers to do so and thus, he cannot amend the Constitution. They also claim that this article violates Article 14 of the Constitution stating ‘Equality before the Law’, where no citizen or non-citizen can have any special rights and privileges.

If the above is not contradictory enough for you, I want to state here that this word ‘azaadi’ and the fight over it in Kashmir is not only fatal, it’s contagious. I say it because I felt it.

Let me give you some context here.

I was in Srinagar recently. As we moved from Leh to Kargil to Dras to, finally, Srinagar, I could not help but notice the sudden shift in the vibe. Ladakh is an Indian-army loving zone and Srinagar, the opposite I noticed this time. But I also realised why this is no surprise — nobody likes to live in a state that’s terror-stricken 24*7. We protest over things in more peaceful states in this country every day. Visiting Kashmir makes you cry for help on the locals’ behalf. In other words, that place is frustrating. Frustrating enough to not think rationally. Frustrating enough to act in the most aggressive manner.

Just two steps into Srinagar from Sonmarg and I saw walls painted with slogans that made me cringe. The kind you see on television in Syria. ‘Go back, Indian Army’, ‘Dogs, go back’, ‘Al-Qaeda recruiting soon’, ‘We want freedom’, and similar stuff. Is this the India or, more specifically, the state that my father fought for? I guess, yes.

That road trip made me feel more ‘azaad’ in my regular life than I’d felt for a while. I swear.

With CRPF jawans at every turn and armed soldiers everywhere, Srinagar and its outskirts felt like a place that truly needs help.

Once upon a time, this used to be a place thriving with tourists. I spent many of my summer vacations their since my father was posted in Kheru in 1998-99.

What went wrong in so many years of technological advancement in India? Why is Kashmir left so far behind? — I couldn’t help but wonder.

As curious as a cat that I am, I started picking conversations with young Kashmiris as did my co-traveler friend. He was as surprised as I was, probably more. After all, this was the first time he was visiting this place, often called ‘jannat’ (paradise).

We were quick to decide not to spend a night in Srinagar as planned, but this didn’t mean we didn’t want to know more. We did and we asked the most difficult questions of every Kashmiri we got a chance to spend time with on our trip from Awantipur to Gulmarg, and back to Srinagar: from our cab driver to a school teacher to our tour guide to a co-passenger on the flight. They all quoted the word ‘azaadi’ as casually as we say the ‘F’ word these days.

Some laughed about it, some spoke like outright separatists.

With such a long history of chaos and numerous political groups working on ground, it seemed as if the word ‘azaadi’ changes its meaning even for the locals based on their respective agendas. The one emotion I found to be common among all the people I spoke with was a sense of their ‘right’ to self-determination and complete demand for autonomy over the region. Therefore, removing Section 370 is a no-go for them even though I think it may help in the economic development of the state.

They said, “The Indian government should take responsibility and deliver justice.” But more often than not when the Indian army was mentioned, human rights violation was brought up but against civilians and not against the Indian soldiers themselves.

When I brought up this point once, our tour guide said, “Taali do haath se bajti hai ma’am.” And in that moment, I realised we’re all blinded in this world. We see what we want to see.

While the young tour guide tried to justify why domestic militants are being born every day in Kashmir because of lack of education and job opportunities (which I fully agree with), he did not try to justify why Indian soldiers sometimes had to inspect homes of the innocent in the middle of the night and carry out investigations.

They all knew militancy is not the solution but they also justified why it’s happening. The lack of opportunities to earn their bread and butter. While their apples are left to rot in their backyards because of no ways to export them anymore, they are left with empty minds to pass their time, which then turned to arms and soon ammunitions.

It is not easy and neither is it fair to fight the world’s second largest army with sticks and stones but it’s also not easy to live like that, they say. They wish to establish a dialogue and seek a political solution to the crisis but they need politicians who’ll listen. “Congress was way better,” they said.

I don’t know if there were more contradictions than facts in their arguments; I really don’t know, but it made my stomach churn with emotions sometimes.

With rising militancy, especially after the Burhan Wani incident in 2016, the Indian Army has had to resort to much stricter regulations. Chief of Army Staff Gen Bipin Rawat has stated on record that ‘azaadi’ is not an option and the Kashmiri youth must understand why. But how do you explain such a complex situation to a 13-year-old who’s very much a part of the so-called democracy called India? Definitely not by saying ‘freedom is not an option’ I guess.

Truth is it’s mind-numbing to think about what to believe and more than that, what to feel about the Kashmir issue.

Political groups like ‘All Parties Hurriyat Conference’ uphold the cause of Kashmiri separatism, it has massive support from the youth on the ground and it has declared itself the sole representative of the Kashmiri people. APHC opposes the claim of the Indian government over the state of Jammu and Kashmir and, thus, it is ideologically supported by Pakistan.

I heard this phrase many times, “Until the politicians leave, we can’t have any freedom; this will go on”. And all I could do in that moment was think how this was both ironic and unfortunate that despite being one of the most beautiful places on earth, Kashmir has witnessed some of the ugliest political and regional disputes of all times.

Kashmiri youth, who are pro-azaadi, assert that this condemnation of Article 35A is founded on ‘communal-minded majoritarianism’. They further quote that several amendments to the Constitution provide special status to residents of many states and Article 35A protects the demographic status of the Jammu and Kashmir state in its prescribed constitutional form.

Each generation has seen blood and gore from the moment they have opened their eyes. Every child can narrate stories of horror inflicted on at least one of their family members. In a village, I was told that, amidst curfew times, they are not allowed to even organize funerals of their deceased and, hence, many households have small graveyards in their backyards.

Truly, seeing those people discussing these morbid events with such ease as if they are discussing weather makes the situation there all the more chilling.

These questions will keep me awake for many nights.

On my way back from Srinagar, I was thinking that Kashmir is a place of amazing contradictions and their definition of ‘azaadi’ is beyond all of us. Sitting at a place where we fight for freedom of speech, it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to fight for your identity everyday but what’s also difficult is to curb militancy in a place where that’s the most well paid or the only paid alternative for the youth.

Maybe ‘azaadi’ in Kashmir means the freedom to study and earn a living in a peaceful state after all? Or maybe it means just the freedom to be. Whatever it is, I hope they get it one day, someday, because independence in this country is as much theirs as it’s mine.