Freedom is never free
~An old European maxim
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
Kashmir stands at a very strange crossroad in its chequered history. These are confusing times. We are, I must admit, slightly tipsy, unsure of which thoroughfare to take. For well over 62 years there have been green ghosts haunting us. Hard as we have tried to, we haven’t been able to exorcise them. Ever. Ours is a uniquely inscrutable nation. At various moments in the past six decades we have dared to aspire, fight elections, sloganeer like crazy, flirt with that Utopian idea of freedom and fought a low-intensity battle with a nuclear power. We have been variously bruised, humiliated, punched at, reviled, threatened, pampered and bought over.
Yet we continue to dream.
Cut to 2009. The calculus is as weird as it always has been. Omar Abdullah rules the kingdom. His loyalties lie with India. Most Kashmiris, especially the young like him. For once he sounds totally sincere and bright. I personally feel he is a refreshing break. Syed Ali Geelani is an ailing old man who rules the dissenting space in the same fiefdom. His loyalty is not to India. A vast chunk of people like him too. He too sounds utterly convincing and captures popular imagination more than Omar. He wants an end to India’s rule in Kashmir.
Those for Omar want to bury Kashmir’s acrimonious past and there is a growing number who speak about the futility of rebellion. Against strikes and mass protests. They quote statistics to drive home the point that our economy is battered because of this bedlam. Tourists flee like hunted deer and the poor labourers go jobless. World has changed, the argument goes and bricks are no answer. With time wounds must heal.The opposing camp has a diametrically opposite ideological argument. And they too speak in a guileless tenor.
A hundred thousand people did not get certainly slaughtered in Kashmir for nothing. Our parents’ were kicked around and our women dragged out of their kitchens not because we would settle down in the end to sit with a third generation Abdullah who didn’t even know Kashmiri till a few years back. The wounds, the feeling goes, go dark and deep. Big enough to keep dolphins in.
After years of bloodshed, after a long, drawn battle people sat to reflect and introspect by a river in which much of their crimson blood has mixed. Much has been lost – brothers, friends, sons, children and honor. Some are still unreported from the dark dens they were schelepped to. Just when our transitional phase seemed to start, someone waved to us across the river. A nice boy with a plow on his back talked development and joy. And tulips. And truth. People liked the sound of his chatter. They forgot old wounds and clapped. Hard.
Just then the plow boy’s dark knights come swooping from behind. They lunge at the crowd randomly. The order is abruptly broken. Claps give way to shrieks. People protest. The state wants to take away the luxury of innocence! It tramples upon human rights with impunity. Slogans rent the terrified June air. Will our sorrows never be sad enough? Will our lives never be important enough? There are no answers. Only tear-gas shells, occasionally falling on passers by.
Kashmir has some real soul-searching to do. Are we for shut-downs, as Geelani would like us to or do we stay mute? What if tomorrow it is our turn to be picked up in a bottle-green color SOG gypsy only to be thrown out dead? Another corpse, another numeric, another commission. But wait, does a strike also not mean zero-income to the poor vendor, to the artisan who lives off tourism or to the boatman in his waiting shikara? The middle-class and the elite [that includes all of Hurriyet and perhaps the likes of us] are sure insulated [when are they not?], but aren’t we being insensitive to the plight of the less-privileged?
What do the strikes give us? What do we want to prove? Who takes note of it anyway? I reckon, a shutdown may not mean anything per se but it sure symbolizes something. It is like declaring outloud – look here, you bully – whatever it is – freedom, frenzy, nuttiness, romanticism – is clearly not over yet. Woodrow Wilson, the Nobel prize winning 28th US president and a leading intellectual of the Progressive Era once remarked, ‘The history of liberty is a history of resistance’.
As long as Omar Abdullah does not rein-in his piratical troopers there will be people leaving work and coming out of their homes – spontaneously – and protest. As long as brutal laws, meant to doctor the dreams of people, are not done away with, there shall be strikes. Agreed it is a conflict in our souls: do we allow our economy to be destroyed or do we let our collective dignity go, like a tent on a stormy night? Do we listen to our head or our heart? History is testament that as a nation, Kashmiris have mostly gone by the sentiment.