As 2014 was drawing to an end, I found myself onboard another flight to Kashmir.
It was my third trip to the Valley that year within a period of less than five months.
Even the sky, the clouds and the ground below seemed strikingly familiar.
What was different this time was that I consciously decided to travel more, meet more people, discuss, debate, even argue more, while avoiding hotheads — not in small numbers.
Behind the walls: I went to Kashmir to see more, meet more people and talk more with them. (Photo: Reuters)
It somehow helped that if one is not just a 'tourist from India' on vacation and is there for longish stays, Kashmir can be a challenging place to live in. Shops generally do not remain open beyond 8 PM, there are no theatres or multiplexes. Night life comes to a screeching halt there, just as it is beginning to gather pace in Delhi, Jaipur or Mumbai.
My early mornings or nights were mostly spent jogging alongside the banks of the Jhelum or scouting for decent vegetarian restaurants. That apart, during lean days, I tried meeting people, who helped me gain insights into Kashmir, its history and issues. I consciously looked beyond just embedded Kashmiri journalistic circles, some of whom were clearly in favour of one ideology or the other and which had quite a few with regimented mindsets.
One extremely amenable person I met happened to be a faculty member at the Media Education Research Centre at the University of Kashmir, located close to the Hazratbal Shrine.
She and I got acquainted well and happened to meet a few times at the University over kahwa, snacks and some good old Kashmiri hospitality. On one such occasion, she suggested to me that I should take a couple of guest lectures with journalism students. I gladly agreed. With little apprehension, not knowing what to expect, I entered their classroom. I was introduced by the Associate Professor to a batch of around 50 to 60 Mass Communication students. Almost half of them were girls. A session which was supposed to initially end in 50 minutes went on for more than one and a half hours.
After they introduced themselves, I decided to make the session mainly anecdotal, drawing from my experiences in Rajasthan, Kashmir, etc. Thereafter, questions covering a wide range of issues began coming my way, ranging from accusatory ones like asking why is the India Army not taken to task for excesses, to social ones, like why is the demand for separation frowned upon by Indians.
One of them also asked whether Indian journalists ever try to understand the psyche of stone-pelters or readily believe everything that the government tells them. Some other questions related to the field of journalism followed: how we are able to get exclusive interviews and whether Kashmiri students can also get jobs in mainstream Indian news channels.
Why do they do it? It's important to know. (Photo: Reuters)
By the end of it, I was able to answer some of the vexed questions, while for some others, I convinced most of them that we can agree to disagree.
When the session got over, what amazed me was the range of questions those young students had, how genuinely inquisitive they were and how a little more exposure can do a world of good to them.
After I came out of the classroom, I told the faculty member that she should ensure more such lectures with a wide variety of people — that could only help these budding talents.
Now, to the point I am trying to make. Even as I feel that there can be no soft pedalling with terrorism, I also feel there is a need to engage the Kashmiris. Many of the young people, in their early twenties and open to reason, can go either way.
And with them effectively lies the fate of Kashmir.
Can we end the pain and talk with each other? (Photo: Reuters)
In that classroom of 2014, a few wanted to become anchors, sports, even entertainment journalists. You can either engage with them and hundreds and thousands like them, listen to their viewpoints — or abandon them, distancing them even further. But, believe me, there can be no alternative to effective communication. There has never been. If you do not communicate with them, the sense of injustice, of alienation, lacking the feeling of belonging to a place, a state or even a country will not go away.
Engage with them.
I tried engaging a Kashmiri when, over a heated discussion, I, with a smile, told her, Kashmir is ours and we are not letting go of it.
The result was instantaneous. She said, “Oh! I also consider India as mine. I sure do.”
The solution to the heated Kashmir cauldron may not be as simple but you need to engage with at least the calmer and more interested people there — lest they too begin to get alienated.
Also read: Because this is about you, not us: A Kashmiri Pandit’s open letter to Muslims in the Valley after Article 370 goes