Peerzu restaurant, sited on the banks of picturesque Jhelum river in Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar, is fast turning out into one of the most sought after meeting points for youth, especially journalists, writers and activists, says Altaf Bashir
Besides their personal lives, youth visiting the island restaurant chat about various contours of the Kashmir dispute – one of the world’s oldest but forgotten conflicts – over a cup of coffee or tea.
Youth, mainly the ones in their late twenties, start surging in late in the afternoon once they are done with their professional commitments at various colleges and universities. Journalists have their quota of afternoon tea over mild discussions before they retire to their offices to file their stories for next day morning newspapers.
While some youth gossip about girls, their strained love and married lives; others (this includes the majority) discuss various facets of Kashmir Conflict, with some relating its politics to currents in the Jhelum river, flowing just outside the small single-storey restaurant. At least here, unlike in their universities, nobody can prevent them from expressing their speculative or sagacious analysis of the bloody conflict that has claimed more than 60, 000 lives since it erupted more than two decades ago.
There are students who are keen to document all the happenings related to the Kashmir Issue. And whenever, there are serious discussions, students from various academic backgrounds present their works; some feature documentaries and photographs stored on their laptops while others give an account of their works to shore up their narratives and stories on the conflict resolution.
Like people affected by conflicts in the rest of the world, Kashmir too is full of sordid tales: story of a mother’s longing for her son, who, after disappearing in the custody of government forces, has been reported ‘missing’ in police files; story of a woman whose husband left to bring her a dress but never returned; story of a kid who left for school but returned home just a piece of flesh, and story of an old man who has buried hundreds of bloodied bodies while men in uniform kept a watch.
In this hi-tech world where surveillance agencies watch over the movements of the populace 24×7, it is an irony that they have failed to trace the missing buds of this ‘garden of solitude’ and the ones who abducted and apparently killed them for promotions and medals. Unmarked mass graves strewn across the landscape of Kashmir bear a testimony how oppressive forces turned the ‘paradise on earth’ into a living hell.
Not only do these students pledge to document the rights violations, they also discuss in the same breath the breakdown in our society –from immodesty to extravagant wedding ceremonies – and try to find out ways and means to tackle it.
Here, they criticize their culture, societal lacunas and political quandary and seek answers to political quagmire they are caught in. Their reactions to the chaos on the streets, corruption in government offices and academic institutions – a fall-out of political unrest in the state – vary from person to person.
While some panic and take a flight, realizing that the system will collapse anyway because of its own rot, others vow to take the issues head on. But there is another section of the youth, who I have dubbed as escapists. They just focus on their dreams of making careers in corporate world beyond the mountains somewhere in the Indian plains.
Though dreaming of a career can’t be condemned but these very youth, when reminded about the dispute and their responsibility in helping in its resolution, take the path of escapists. For them, Kashmir is normal again and past wounds have been healed, which unfortunately is nothing short of utopia.
When forced into such discussions, they will try to give an impression that have tried to set things right. “Well, we tried and did our part,” they will respond when reminded of their responsibilities as citizens of this bruised nation.
When they have no answers, they will start blaming the leadership of resistance movement or pro-India political parties, and will try to force us to believe that ‘ideology-less’ society can’t survive in isolation. “There is a need for merger, in this world of dependency on each other, a small state like Kashmir will not survive,” they would like us to believe.
An unfortunate part in their narrative is that they are not ready to accept the reality. But that is not the only lot of youth who throng this calm and serene restaurant.
There are youths who talk logic, rationality and justice and their narratives are different and impressive. They demand justice and accountability in the system. They want to change their world and lead in their own way; their narrative is based on logic and nation-state, and any sort of intrusion is unacceptable, they want to create a new space for youths to make them understand nation-state, i.e. Kashmir.
They can best be described as change-makers who can’t see anything wrong happening in their presence. They try to make others feel that Kashmiri culture, ethnicity, and religion are under threat and it is their duty to safeguard and secure them for the next generation.
They want to sensitize others with logic and maintain that ‘too liberal’ thoughts could be disastrous for Kashmir. We have to be moderate but at the same time cannot discard our own culture and adopt others, they urge others sitting around them.
These youths do not have any illusion to change the world around them, but might have plenty of doubts about the way to achieve the dividends. The situation can’t be changed obviously by just aiming stones at Indian paramilitary forces or by setting government buildings afire. However, hurling stone is important at times to make the oppressive state realize that the present generation of youths is fearless, and can’t be frightened by bullets or intimidation; they know how to demand justice and their rights.
They do not care much about jobs, luxury cars, status and security; all they are worried about is the future of our society. They want to do something for youths languishing without trial in various jails; they demand an end to daily harassments, the draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Public Safety Act.
They are demanding a life where their fundamental rights are not trampled under the boots of government forces. They wish the political leadership of India and Pakistan summons the courage and treads the journey towards a settlement of the Kashmir issues taking into account wishes of people.
Before taking the last coffee sip, these youth pray that justice is done to Kashmiris because without justice there is no peace.