'Those who threw stones yesterday in Kashmir are willing to pick up guns today'

Srinagar, June 20 (ANI): The slogan 'Khoon ka badla June mey' (the murders of 2010 shall be avenged in the summer of 2011) had instilled fear in the hearts of all those who wished well for Kashmir.

In all honesty, this is what brought me to Srinagar this June. I wanted to see for myself that the people who least wanted that slogan to be put into effect were the Kashmiris themselves, especially, the people of Srinagar who bore the maximum brunt of protests and police action last summer, over 130 dead and double the number injured; millions lost in revenue and children forced to miss almost two semesters of schooling.

But in June 2011, the story is diametrically opposite. There are no outstation journalists; just outstation tourists here. The airport is unable to handle the heavy influx of tourists from all over India. Hotels are running at 100 percent occupancy.

Authorities fight shy of giving numbers, as they are scared of attracting bad luck or the attention of militants or India's good neigbour, who might find this an ideal time to up the ante and "cause an incident"

The Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, quickly knocked on his intricately carved wooden table, for good luck, when I congratulated him over the successful culmination of Panchayat (village local body) elections and the massive influx of tourists.

He said his next big challenge was to ensure that the Amarnath pilgrimage passes off peacefully. Over a quarter million Hindu pilgrims are expected to arrive in Kashmir to visit the holy ice stalagmite in the Amarnath Cave, which is opened only for about one month in a year.

About six kilometers from the chief minister's classy and well-appointed residence, is another residential area, which stands out simply because of the lack of any state security. Yet, the houses here have 10 feet high walls and then razor wires above those walls. There are no private security guards either, no cars parked outside the gates, not much traffic on the narrow roads.

I have an appointment with a person who goes by many identities. Some say he is a leader of stone throwers, others say he is a youth leader, and many others claim that he has dubious connections with militants or former militants.

I wait at the imposing gates hoping to be let in. There is a camera to which my interlocutor speaks in Kashmiri trying to convince the person that I genuinely do have an appointment with Asif (name changed). The thick gates (I am sure it can withstand a minor explosion) open. Parked in the driveway are two cars with darkened windows; rose bushes growing wild, and several satellite dishes dot the landscape. There is an eerie stillness, no noise of children or traffic, or of music from the neighbouring houses.

Stern looking young men usher me in reluctantly to the narrow staircase leading to a sitting room where there are toys and electronic gadgets strewn around. It looks lived in, but I can't see the presence of any wife or children. There are no photographs around and there is no smell of any food being cooked. Tea and biscuits are brought in by male staff that looks annoyed by my presence.

Asif is positively gregarious. He does not try to hide his past. Here is an excerpt of what he told me.

"I am not going to say to you that the stone pelters did wrong. They were misguided. They had energy, they were angry and didn't know how to say No, when money was offered for a seemingly non-dangerous assignment."

"This discontentment was channeled by the separatists for their ends. For example if the separatist got 500,000 rupees from Pakistan or the other Muslim countries, which fund the separatist movement, they distributed 100,000 to each leader. They in turn paid each young boy 5000 rupees to throw stones. Those young 16-18 year old boys who were sitting at home because of schools being closed due to bandh calls by separatists, and who have little job prospects, with nothing to do and fed on azadi slogans, picked up stones without realizing that they were being used as pawns. We all did it."

"Now, those boys are either dead or in jail for the past several months under the PSA Act (Public Safety Act). But those who sent them to throw the stones are still getting money from both the Government of India and the Government of Pakistan. They still travel abroad whenever they want, they attend international conferences, the interlocutors meet them, and their children are studying in Delhi. Yes, I am talking about all the Hurriyat leaders. What fools they have made of you Indians and Pakistanis."

"All that the Indian government needs to do is to give these boys jobs, once they have work to do, they will not pick up a stone. But today, there is so much anger; they will pick a gun, not a stone. Yes, those who picked up stones yesterday are ready to pick up guns. And there is no dearth of guns.

They are still coming in the same way as they used to. That has not decreased. Go up north and you will see the separatist movement is very strong there. They are just waiting, as right now the time is not right. People want to make some money here from tourism, and once that is done, they will again recruit people to be foot soldiers. They don't die. They just use us youth. Some of us have realized it and seen through their game."

Asif then told me that he had come to Delhi and met with one of the senior-most leaders of the Congress party and told him that people had a lot of hope in Omar Abdullah but the chief minister had to do things differently from the earlier administrations if he has to win back the trust of the youth. He also says that separatists will engineer a blast or two in the next few weeks just to make it apparent that they are still a force to contend with.

What Asif says is disturbing. Sringar is bustling with tourists. Even at midnight the Boulevard is packed with people walking unafraid, despite or perhaps due to the presence of armed security personnel everywhere. At the Hazrat Bal mosque, the Kheer Bhavani temple, which is so dear to Kashmiri Pandits, the ancient Shankaracharya temple atop a hill, the Mughal Nishat Bagh, and the Chashma Shahi, springs; everywhere I went there were thousands of tourists from different parts of India.

They said that last year was an aberration and this year nothing would prevent them from going further to Pahalgam and Gulmarg. In Sonamarg, the shops that were shut for several months are stocking up for the Amarnath pilgrim rush that begins next week. Paramilitary forces have pitched in the tents along the route. I drove and walked a part of the route. The porters and 'ponywalas' have started arriving.

Teary-eyed Ghulam Nabi who has a feeble looking horse tells me on camera, "Madam aap yahan sey koi galat report mat keejiye, hum chahte hain ki Amarnath ke liye yatri aayen. Hum gareeb hain, bus is ek maheene mey jo kamaate hain (about Rs.3000 a day) us sey hamarey 6 maheeney ka guzara ho jaata hai" (Madam, please don't do a negative report from here, we want the pilgrims to come here. We are poor; what we make in one month sees us through the next six months.)

hether it was Gulam Nabi, the porter, or Mohammad Zargar the shopkeeper who hoped for the return for peace, almost everybody who was poor said that Azadi was a slogan raised by "people with full stomachs" for "zaati mufaat" (personal profit). Mohammad Ashraf, a shopkeeper, unhesitatingly says, "Pakistan ka kya aitbaar karna, usney to Sheikh ko bhi pakadva diya." (How can one trust Pakistan, they even betrayed the Sheikh-Osama bin Laden).

In downtown Srinagar, kids play cricket matches in almost every open space available. Plans are afoot to set up more football grounds, archery-training centers, encourage water sports and polo. The Centre has approved a sanction of nearly Rs.350 crores for development of 35 tourism-related projects.

Putting these plans into action at an urgent pace will help in keeping the youth busy in the short term and their amalgamation into the national mainstream in the long run.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told an industrial delegation "my aim is to ensure maximum jobs to youth in the private sector as government is not in a position to absorb everyone."

And yet plans are afoot to absorb almost 15,000 youth in government jobs this year alone. Private sector participation is being encouraged and major players like Infosys, TATAs and Godrej have evinced interest

Putting these plans into action at an urgent pace will help in keeping the youth busy in the short term and their amalgamation into the national mainstream in the long run.

Keeping the youth engaged in productive activities and not allowing them to be pawns in the hands of separatists will go a long way in restoring peace and increasing chances of normalcy in the Kashmir valley....something that the administration needs to do quickly before urban local body elections are held later this year. By Smita Prakash (ANI)