I met Eibhlin over a year ago in Belfast. When she unfolded the knot of memories of the years of Irish conflict, she had only bone chilling stories of horror, torture, violence and prison days to narrate, recounting how even inside the notorious prisons, special torture chambers were reserved for the Republicans like her. She broke down while talking and her colleague Michael Culbert clammed up when we introduced ourselves as a group visiting on a British Commonwealth fellowship. More than two and a half decades after violence came to a standstill and the peace process on Ireland began, a scarred memory continues to inspire suspicion, if not hatred and torment. Both Eibhlin and Culbert punctured the popular narrative of a rosy picture of conflict resolution, even though both are now working with an organization called Coiste that aims to promote peace process and help political ex-prisoners get in a better situation with themselves, their families, and their communities that they can be a better agent for social change. Their impressive body of work, which betrays no hint or tinge of bitterness, includes their networking with a former British soldier Lee Lavis, whose own memory of the war years induces a lament that he now wishes to undo with the positive energy he brings in to the reconciliation work. The Irish model is touted as one of the best peace models in the world that led to the transition of Northern Ireland from the bloody decades of 70s and 80s to a period of calm and economic reconstruction. The tormenting memories of some, however, are a sign of the fragility of this calm.
If memories, collective and individual, from a conflict region on road to visible peace are so unshakeable, it is not difficult to imagine the horrifying impact of memory in a region where the conflict remains intractable with no signs of being resolved. Famous novelist Haruki Murakami wrote, “No matter how much suffering you went through, you never wanted to let go of those memories.” Kashmir today remains a vulnerable mess due to an unresolved conflict and manner in which echoes of tormented memories resonate in the minds of the people living there, ready to erupt at the slightest of trigger and allowing the Valley to descend into utter chaos, characterized by a vicious cycle of violence.
Last Sunday was no different as 13 militants were gunned down during an encounter in Kashmir. The other 7 dead included 3 army personnel and 4 civilians, who had been shot at by security forces during encounters. Besides, hundred others were injured by bullets and pellets. The civilian casualties happened at the encounter sites when crowds swelled there to pelt stones at the army and other security forces both as an expression of anger and as an attempt to complicate the task of those involved in the counter insurgency operation, as has been the trend during last one year. The security forces responded with brutal action, obliterating the difference between militants and civilians. Many civilians hold young boys picking up arms to fight the mighty security apparatus of the Indian state in high esteem, not because they have turned into over ground workers for militants but because they identify with the ideology that the militants espouse. Irrespective of the ideological differences of the various militant organizations, what endears them to public is the bitterness of the past and a deepening anger against the institutions of the State that stems from a tormenting memory of human rights abuse and the ease with which a huge security apparatus stamps out the difference between a gun wielding insurgent and a civilian – all viewed as equal enemies.
Religious radicalization and mentoring from across the borders are convenient theories peddled by the government agencies and politicians to explain every incident in Kashmir. The factor of motivation and push to religious extremism, which has been more pronounced in the last year or so, cannot be denied. But it would be a case of missing the woods for the trees if we were to ignore the vital questions of what provokes this public outrage that has become a norm in Kashmir, of why gun came to be re-glamourised by the very people who shunned it while reposing faith in dialogue and peace process less than two decades ago, of why they would be ready to stand unarmed or dare to fight the battle equipped security forces with bare stones. What is the burden of tormenting memories that fuels this cycle of violence? Where lays the genetic seed of this desperation that brings people on roads or pushes young boys to pick up arms, even as militants begin falling like sitting ducks in encounters? The more they are killed, the more the numbers swell. What is it that inspires young boys and men, many of them qualified professionals and hailing from well off homes, to wage a battle even though it is a losing one. The life span of a militant today is often less than a year, sometimes just a few weeks. The more they are killed, the deadlier and venomous, even brutal, becomes the battle strategy and ideological convictions are peppered by toxic levels of extremist idea of religion.
Kashmir needs to be re-assessed not only in terms of turn of political landscape, the highs and lows of insurgency, the events and chronology of history but also by factoring in the way human memory evolves with the chronology of events. It is time to look at the sufferings of Kashmir from a different prism. Kashmir has had a post 1947 history that has shaped present day politics and has also impacted collective and individual lives. It began with ugly tales of political control, manipulations, deceit and election rigging; and post militancy the haunting shadow of human rights abuse has permanently scarred human psyche. For many cases of fake encounters, torture, disappearances and rapes, there has been no justice and no closure for the survivors and families. A new generation has grown up under the shadows of military jackboots, constant humiliation, curfews and restrictions. This reality coupled with the heirloom of memories they have inherited from their elders or derived from a sense of history as well as different political aspirations is enough a stimulant to keep them immersed into a perpetual state of bitterness and anger. If Kashmir is to be resolved, there should be sensitivity in understanding its people, their sentiments and their hurt psyche.
A re-assessment of Kashmir situation also requires the acknowledgement of the contrasting narrative of creative resistance that tormenting memory invokes in some. There is not only a tendency to black-out in the mainstream media the amazing work that many young people in Kashmir today are energetically doing, giving expression to their feelings, ideas and visions through poetry, stories, writings, paintings, theatre and organising dialogues and workshops at small levels, there are also all out attempts to squeeze their space and snatch their platforms through intimidation and muzzling their voices. Kashmir today carries multiple narratives which include not only gun wielding youth and stone pelting mobs, but also stories of every day resistance and resilience, of braving both the systemic state sponsored violence and that of their own people, of those who rise above and try to pitch in their bit to restore some sanity and calm amidst this madness. All these differently nuanced narratives are inspired by similar memories and a passion to ease Kashmir’s distress. Mannan Wani, a Kashmiri research scholar from Aligarh Muslim University, who picked up arms recently, had earlier been an active supporter of the peaceful and democratic campaign for the missing JNU student Najeeb. This tale is illustrative how tormenting memories and the continuously suffocating air can push peace loving citizens right into the lap of violence.
Guided by a flawed assessment of Kashmir situation and the people of Kashmir, the Centre today shows no signs of relenting and beginning a serious process of engagement, or at best continues to drag its feet, hoping for things to be resolved only through barbed wires and military jackboots. The psychological impact of this stubbornness coupled with the memory of a history of wrongs perpetrated on the people of Kashmir is disturbingly dangerous. The Irish experience tells us that the more there is a delay in starting the process of resolution, the more difficult it would get for wounds afflicted by a tormenting memory to heal and consequently for lasting and enduring peace to come.