Written by Muhammad Tahir .
Since 2008, street protests in the Kashmir valley have become frequent. Over 250 protesters and bystanders, mostly young people, were killed in the last three civil uprisings—2008, 2010 and 2016. Many analysts argue that these post-2008 street protests in Kashmir mark a shift from the armed rebellion of the late 1980’s to youth-led civil agitations. As Tariq Ali argued: “Now a new generation of Kashmiri youth is on the march. They fight like the Palestinians, with stones.”
Many policy makers and journalists tend to view youth participation in anti-India protests as a symptom of the economic problem, such as high levels of unemployment. But by way of a counter-argument, it is also asked: why do school-going boys or girls take part in these protests? Or: why were 130 state employees listed by the police for participating in the 2016 summer protests, and twelve of them sacked?
Though India acknowledges the gravity of this unprecedented phenomenon of youth-led street protests, at the same time a certain policy of ‘denialism’ is adopted. The youth protests are projected as a manifestation of economic problems (like unemployment and underdevelopment) or Pakistan-sponsored agitations. Moreover, Kashmiri youth activists and protest participants are being portrayed, with the active help of compliant and sometimes frenzied electronic media, as “radicalised,” “misguided”, “alienated,” “agents of Pakistan,” “anti-nationals,” and “terrorists.” Through seemingly choreographed media performances on certain Indian news channels, these pejorative labels are repeated to discredit and criminalise the youth protests in Kashmir.
As per the 2011 census, around 30 percent of the population of Kashmir was between 15-30 years of age. In the face of high unemployment, the youth bulge can potentially give rise to political violence. But unemployment alone is not enough to explain the protests. Regime type is also an important factor. Political violence can emerge among some cohorts of the youth in a situation where political repression is prevalent and democratic spaces are denied.
Some analysts and policymakers believe the Kashmiri youth are radicalised, and this is the cause of the protests. For example, in a May 2012 interview with the Indian newspaper Business Standard, the then Inspector General of Police (in Kashmir), Shiv Murari Sahai, said: “Our problem today is a radicalised youth bulge [in Kashmir]. Some 50 per cent of the population is between the ages of 13 and 25.”
Sahai is partially right. The youth bulge is a factor for political protests in Kashmir, given the region’s large youth population. As per the 2011 census, around 30 percent of the population of Kashmir was between 15-30 years of age. In the face of high unemployment, the youth bulge can potentially give rise to political violence. But unemployment alone is not enough to explain the protests. Regime type is also an important factor. Political violence can emerge among some cohorts of the youth in a situation where political repression is prevalent and democratic spaces are denied. Scholars like Henrik Urdal, however, argue that political violence is less likely in highly democratic and highly autocratic states than in semi-democratic or semi-autocratic ones.
Young people participate in activism or engage in political violence for many reasons. But generally, young people participate in larger numbers because they usually have fewer familial or professional responsibilities. American sociologist Douglas McAdam calls it “biographical availability” i.e., young people are unencumbered by obligations which adults usually face.
The above factors seem to coincide in Kashmir: a combination of a youth bulge and political repression. The state in the Kashmir Valley uses wide-ranging repressive methods to deal with anti-India dissent and protests, which includes pre-emptive detentions through laws such as the Public Safety Act, coercion, hard-policing, harassment, deliberate blinding of protestors and killings. But despite the state using the coercive apparatus in good measure, protests haven’t died down. Kashmiri Muslim youths in the 1990’s were “angry but scared” but post-2008 they are “angry and fearless.” For example, despite the direct threat from the Indian army chief Bipin Rawat in Feb 2017 (and the subsequent fatal shootings at encounter sites), young Kashmiri protestors still helped armed rebels escape at least on 13 occasions by risking their lives. This aspect of Kashmiri youth activism has baffled many analysts, most of whom see in it portents of a more worrying future.
As argued, the economic argument does not fully explain the political dissent in Kashmir nor does the radicalisation theory. One of the weaknesses of these arguments is that they do not seem to appreciate the political substance of the protests in Kashmir. By using the economic argument and the radicalisation theory as the sole determinants, they take the focus away from the political aspect of the Kashmir conflict.
Though economics does play a role in exacerbating the problem, we can better understand the youth protests in Kashmir by looking at political dimensions. In his 2013 article, academic Paul Staniland argues that the Indian policy in Kashmir suffers from what he calls paradox of normalcy: the Indian state desires to preserve the status quo in Kashmir and “articulates a goal of normalcy that it does not allow to come to fruition.” If the Indian state walks the talk on liberal democracy rhetoric in Kashmir, it would face the democratic challenges to the status quo from Kashmiris—the majority of whom prefer independence. Thus, India continues to manage and manipulate the existing political arrangements in Kashmir through a corrupt political elite and a large coercive machinery, which eventually leads to repression of popular aspirations through coercion and violence.
It is this paradoxical political environment in which youth participation in street protests must be located. The Kashmir youths’ dissent and protest have developed in response to the political culture that the state has maintained in Kashmir. And as long as the “paradox of normalcy” persists, political protests are likely to break out.
The question if this paradox can be resolved is a difficult one. The current dispensation in New Delhi looks at Kashmir through a particular ideological prism. The BJP is against Article 370, the only legal instrument which governs the relations between the Indian union and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This Article was negotiated by the Kashmiri leadership in the early 1950’s to ensure substantial autonomy for the state. Muslims, who form the majority, would like to strengthen the autonomy, though many of them would like to eventually have an independent state of their own. For the moment, what India wants in Kashmir and what Kashmiris want seem to be unbridgeable, a scenario described by John Cockell (2000) as ‘structural paralysis.’
Muhammad Tahir is a doctoral researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland. His articles have appeared in The Japan Times, The Caravan, The Express Tribune, Kindle Magazine, and in newspapers and magazines in Kashmir. He tweets @TahirFiraz. Image credit: CC by Kashmir Violence/ Flickr