Where are Kashmir’s youth leaders?
|April 19, 2012||Posted by Shehla Rashid under Kashmir, Politics|
Where are Kashmir’s young people?
A lot of excitement surrounded Akhilesh Yadav’s rise to power as he became the youngest serving Chief Minister of an Indian state, dispossessing Omar Abdullah who formerly held the distinction. It is ironic that Omar, formerly the youngest serving Chief Minister, hails from a state where youth politics, especially student politics, is virtually non-existent. In an interview to ANI on 28th April, 2011, Omar Abdullah gracefully acknowledged that “You don’t become a Member of Parliament at 28 years on the basis of your other qualities; it’s your surname that helps”. Omar Abdullah had considerable head start in politics and he became the Chief Minister of J&K due, largely, to his family’s monopoly over Kashmir politics. Apart from a few young members in the state Assembly, most Kashmiri youth leaders seem to have disappeared into oblivion. Despite hundreds of leadership programs conducted every year by different organisations, initiative and enterprise among Kashmiri youth seems to be missing. However, if we scratch beneath the surface, it is easy to see that it’s not their capability or incapability to lead that limits them; it is fear.
The “ban” on student politics
Student organizations in Kashmir have, historically, been offshoots of controversial organizations like the Plebiscite Front, Jamaat-e-Islami, etc. When their parent organizations faced ban, these outfits were automatically marginalized.
At the outset of militancy, Kashmir University- the premier seat of learning in Kashmir and to which most colleges are affiliated- banned student groups on its campuses. No such ban was imposed in Jammu University. After sustained efforts, the authorities finally decided to allow Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU) to operate in 2007. In 2010, the office of the KUSU was demolished by the University Authorities.
In a recent development, the newly founded Islamic University of Science & Technology allowed a students’ union to be formed after the alumni “had gone to the high court to get the documented proof that forming a students’ union is not banned in Kashmir” writes Kashmir Life in its issue dated December 12, 2011. Although the development has set precedents, its impact is limited given the size of the University.
In September 2011, Rahul Gandhi visited the Kashmir University to recruit students for Youth Congress- this, in the same University that had, not long ago, in a brazen act of oppression, razed the Students’ Union office on its premises! Also, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), which is an offshoot of the Congress, was allowed to set up base in many colleges of the valley which are affiliated to the University of Kashmir. This move has alienated local student leaders who feel that they have been “denied a level playing field”.
Of course, Rahul Gandhi did not fail to play out his hollow populist act, wherein he becomes anything from a Dalit to a Kashmiri, by saying that he is “a Kashmiri too and can feel the pain of Kashmiris”. His statement came barely one year after the summer of 2010 when no Indian leader (except Asaduddin Owaisi and Mani Shankar Aiyyar) did as much as condemn the excessive force used by the security forces on unarmed youth, even kids.
The need for student politics in Kashmir
The debate around student politics in Kashmir always falls prey to the “morality” argument, the favorite statement of armchair scholars being, “It is not good to have politics on campus”. While arguing that “campus politics is bad”, three ground realities are ignored:
- The prevailing political situation in any place inevitably affects the youth- in terms of its actual impact and its more long-lasting psychological impact. The findings of successive UN World Youth Reports have time and again emphasized the need for greater engagement of the youth in social and developmental issues and the need to seek their opinion; even though it does not take a UN report to emphasize how important the participation of youth in constructive politics is!
- In the absence of a democratic forum to express their political grievances and/or aspirations, youth are taking to streets every day, protesting in ways that invariably trigger exaggerated response from overreactive cops in presence of draconian laws like Sec 144 RPC, AFSPA and PSA. This is anytime worse than a polarized college atmosphere where the youth at least get to have their say. College environment in a conflict zone is anyway polarized but constructive politics is missing, in fact actively discouraged, in Kashmir.
- There is no forum where Kashmiri students can voice their problems related to hostels, library cards, classrooms and lack of infrastructure. The standards of education are allowed to suffer in the absence of any advocacy group until finally all grievances converge into the demand for Azadi (freedom)! The conflict is rightly perceived to be at the core of all issues from human rights to lack of good staff but Azadi is wrongly thought to be the one-stop solution for all of these problems in the absence of democratic alternatives.
Kashmir’s never-ending search for a leader
After the death of Sheikh Abdullah, no popular government has been able to survive and retain power long enough to make a lasting impact. Many young people think of governments as irrelevant. Entry into electoral politics is difficult unless one hails from a political background or has substantial financial resources to fund campaigns and contribute to the party one is seeking a ticket from. The few mainstream political parties that exist rely on their deadwood for winning elections and have miserably failed to induct younger, more deserving people into their ranks. Although People’s Conference is making some headway in this direction, its rise to power remains a long shot.
The “young, dynamic leader” rhetoric generally associated with Omar Abdullah has failed to impress people on the ground. Syed Ali Shah Geelani is consistent and uncompromising but his methods have been unable to achieve much. Others are generally seen as corrupt. Kashmiris still lament the absence of a leader of Sheikh Abdullah’s stature representing an ideology that they could identify with.
Elsewhere, future leaders often emerge from campuses. In Kashmir, however, colleges produce people who are either totally apolitical or are rebellious in their approach- both types of behavior can be attributed to widespread disillusionment with and lack of faith in constructive, mainstream politics.
What do the youth have to say?
Noain Bakhshi who founded the Jammu Kashmir Students’ Union during his college days, which later became an NGO, says, “There is no ban on student politics in J&K and there can’t be any because the law doesn’t allow for such restraints. However, the government, in the interest of law and order, may prohibit functioning of certain organisations. When I joined college in Kashmir, I was told that there was a ban on forming unions in that particular college and I did get along with this notion for some time, only to later realise that these myths are created by college administrations and government at large. The problem in Kashmir is that every union of people ends up in a slogan against India. This is why the government prefers not to encourage students to get involved into any student politics.”
Muzammil Ayub Thakur, whose father Dr. Ayub Thakur was himself a student activist and was arrested and exiled, opines that “the time students spend at college or university is crucial to their development as individuals and that students must be allowed to discuss and debate openly, without fear of repercussion as any other institute does without bias and conditions in a modern developed nation”.
Another student activist, Azad tells me that, “Apparently, there has been a blanket ban on student politics for quite some time. However it seems Indian politics is not included in the ‘politics’ in question here”.
The way out
The security & intelligence apparatus operating in the state are overcautious about the use of the word “Azadi”. I have a first-hand experience of how hard it is to resist discussing Azadi in social gatherings. Any association formed in Kashmir immediately raises hopes of a discussion on Azadi- freedom. But the more their freedom is curbed, greater will be their demand for it. Azadi is the forbidden fruit that Kashmiris are yet to taste and, as a result, perceive as sweeter.
So, if a Students’ Union is formed, will there not be a discussion on Azadi? Honestly, there will be. But that doesn’t necessarily constitute sedition that students in Kashmir are so often charged with. Let them discuss Azadi, define it, weigh its pros & cons, analyse its fallout, discuss, debate, reach a consensus, disagree; let them answer the questions that worry nationalists all the time- “Will Kashmir be able to survive as an independent nation?”, “Will hostile neighbours not attack it?”, etc.- let them analyse these problems for real. Let them taste the fruit of democracy that has long been denied to them. Let’s open up the political space for them so that there is no room for guns and stones. Let’s watch leaders grow and nurture on this soil and not ring-leaders.