Monday, December 3, 2012

Engaging Kashmir Youth

FORCE's Ghazala Wahab was invited by Indian Army's Srinagar-based 15 Corps to deliver a talk on how the Indian Army can engage with the Kashmiri youth. This was part of the seminar on youth empowerment. Here is Ghazala's paper:

This is a difficult subject primarily because of the limitations on both sides of the divide – the army and the Kashmiri youth.

The Army’s Limitations

One, Kashmir is a political problem and not a military problem. Hence, both the management of the problem and the resolution has to come from a political process. Whether we do it within the country or engage with our neighbour — that’s a different subject. The army can only play the role of a facilitator by keeping violence down; so that there is room for the political process. The more army expands its role, more vulnerable it will render itself to allegations of having vested interests.

Two, despite army’s exemplary (non-military) contribution to the state of J&K, through its ‘Winning Hearts and Mind’ programmes and Operation Sadbhavana, the army at the end of the day remains an instrument of State’s (read Union government) policy. As a result, the animosity towards the State (remember, Kashmir is a political problem stemming from the animosity towards the state) is channelled through its more visible instrument which is the army. So, anything that the army does is always viewed with a degree of cynicism and suspicion. Additionally, as army moves into non-military areas, more it hampers the political process, because this gives fodder to the perception that India holds Kashmir through force. The army must perforce be as invisible in populated areas as possible for a resolution to come about.

Three, the army primarily started the Sadbhavana programme to put into place an intelligence grid. Hence, one of the earliest relationships that it forged with the people was a transactional one. People usually do not forget these things, and in Kashmir especially, memories go very far. So whenever the army would start any process, irrespective of the nobility of its purpose, there will always be wariness, which will limit its scope and to a large extent prevent the army from reaching the people who can actually make a difference.

Kashmiri Youth’s Limitations

One, the Kashmiri youth is the product of their history. A Kashmiri youth or even a person in his early 20s was either born in or after 1989. These, nobody can deny, were the darkest years in Kashmir. Even if this person has not personally suffered, he or she has grown up seeing close family members, neighbours or friends suffer. Mostly, at the hands of the Indian security forces which, in popular perception, translates into the Indian Army. Now, even if this young man or woman wants to build his or her future, the shared history of his community is the burden he/she must bear. For them, to engage with the Indian Army for their own betterment would be a betrayal of the sacrifices made by their family, friends or neighbours. After all, a sense of martyrdom is not exclusive to the uniformed forces.

Two, Kashmiris, especially the youth, suffer from a persecution complex. And with some justification. They face regional and religious profiling in other parts of the country. Not only that, even within the state, they are made acutely conscious of their inferiority simply because the opposite side holds power. Hence, they feel psychologically compelled to acknowledge as superior even those who may be unequal to them in terms of education or social hierarchy. This puts a psychological pressure on them to huddle together among their own and view the others or the so-called superior force with fear if not loathing.

To give an example from yesterday, the state administration belatedly realised on Thursday afternoon that Friday was also the 8th day of Muharram. Anticipating trouble they ordered curfew to be imposed on Friday in six police station areas of Srinagar. But the schools were not informed, some of which were conducting examinations. I had an appointment across the Jhelum, where there was no curfew. As vehicles were not allowed, I took the lane behind my hotel to cross the river via the foot bridge. But J&K police and the CRP personnel had put up the barbed wires at the bridge to restrict movement. Standing on the right bank of Jhelum, I saw school girls and boys screaming their lungs out demanding to be allowed to cross as they had an examination. The men in uniform were screaming back, trying to frighten the school children with their lathis. I was beyond rage. Whose fault was it? If the curfew had to be imposed, why weren’t schools asked to close down? At that moment, I could completely identify with the impotent rage of the school children. How do you engage with them? A young girl at the barbed wire was trying to talk with one of the CRP personnel in fluent English. She foolishly believed that her education and knowledge of English had empowered her. But how long before she realises that education is not power in her state? A mere danda is.

A connective factor here is that years of strife have robbed Kashmiri youth of education and other avenues of growth. So, academically and in terms of human resource development they are far behind their counterparts in the rest of the country. This is the reason that one sees the spectacle of long queues of job aspirants — some as qualified as graduates — at the army’s recruitment rallies for PBORs. The problem with this is that when you study high enough to get through the college, your and your family’s expectations from you increase. You expect to get into a white collar job and not work with those who have just scraped through class 10 or 12th. You may accept the job for economic reasons, but disillusionment with the society and the education system fills you with bitterness. A bitter person is a dangerous person. He is full of angst, which can be directed towards anything or anybody.

Engaging with youth is easier said than done. And here is the challenge

Like most of South Asia, Kashmir is also facing a youth bulge. I believe almost 60 per cent of the state’s population is under-30. If you further dissect these age bracket, then the proportions of early and mid-teens are larger. This, all social scientists accept, is a dangerous age to be. The children, especially the boys have to deal with all sorts of adolescent issues, whether they are physical, emotional or psychological. They are impatient, short-tempered and easily persuaded. This is the age group which is most susceptible to exploitation because the hormones are raging and they need an adrenaline rush.

Sensible adults try and direct the hyper energies of the children into productive areas. Unfortunately, in Kashmir, a lot of parents may not be sensitive to this because of their own personal, political as well as economic traumas. Driving around the old parts of Srinagar, I have myself seen young boys idling along the road sides. They have nowhere to go. Their homes have just enough space for them to sleep quietly in one corner at night. In the day time they simply cannot stay at home because the space is required to perform several household functions. To my mind, this is the most volatile and vulnerable group. If engaged correctly, they can be a great force multiplier. If engaged in a cavalier manner, they can turn against you. And if ignored completely, they can become tools in somebody else’s hands.

With these inherent limitations, what can the Indian Army do?

The first question that comes to mind is why does army wants to engage with the Kashmiri youth when it is not its job. I would think that there could be two reasons to do this.

One, to improve army’s image among the youth; and

Two, to fulfil what could be called the Army’s Social Responsibility, something akin to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

If this is correct then the way forward comprises two roads: the easy and the well-trodden. And the unpaved track which may or may not yield success.

The easy and the well-trodden road is what the army has been doing so far. Youth empowerment centres, computer classes, coaching classes for higher education, vocational training centres, sporting events etc in its areas of comfort. All these are hit and run programmes with no follow-up. Perhaps, no one even keeps a track of what happens to the students who participate in these centres or programmes. Sure, you cannot do this because you don’t have the man-power. In that case outsource these, or enter into some kinds of MoUs with local universities or respectable NGOs.

The unpaved track would be to engage with the urban youth, because these can be the potential opinion-changers. This may even lead to questioning of the so-called ‘Sentiment’ in the Valley. And the army does not have to show its overt presence in the Valley to do any of this. Here is my wish list:

  1. The army, through various organisational headquarters, can institute a number of scholarships in urban schools, colleges and Universities. While some of these can be named after local Kashmiri heroes, some can be named after even military heroes. These scholarships should enable the students to study in some of the better institutions in the rest of India. In fact, the students ought to be given the option of even opting for a military institution if they so desire. This way, they will be able to see the other side of the uniform.
  2. The army frequently takes group of students from smaller Kashmiri towns or villages on a ‘Bharat Darshan’ or sight-seeing tour. Similar tours could be conducted, again in urban areas, but this time not to see Taj Mahal and Rashtrapati Bhawan, but to military institutions like the NDA, IMA, INA or the AFA. The student profile should be mid- to late-teens so that such visits have an inspirational and aspirational value. In fact, instead of touch and go, a system could be instituted whereby the students spend a few days at these academies, maybe during a break or something when accommodation arrangements could be done. Or sponsor a group of youngsters during Passing Out Parades at different academies.
  3. Motivate, sponsor or build yourself, SSB training or coaching centres. 10 Kashmiri PBORs will not have the impact that one officer can have. Mentor and nurture the officer cadre drawn from Kashmir.
  4. Institute in collaboration with private players sporting academies or clubs. Everyone talks of Kashmiri’s passion for cricket. How come no Kashmiri finds himself in the national team? Especially today, when there is a test team, a one-day team, a T20 team and God knows how many more. I could be wrong, but I haven’t heard of a Kashmiri player even in IPL. Last year, the army organised a Kashmir Premier League tournament. When so much money was spent on that, why couldn’t you get senior cricketing heroes or officials from mainland India who could adjudge the best players and offer them scholarships to learn cricket from the best coaches in Delhi or Bombay. Ditto for football. In fact, engage with the South American footballer’s Academy in Srinagar (don’t remember if he is Brazilian or Argentinian). I believe he even takes kids abroad for youth tournaments.

These are random ideas. The main question that remains, however, is that, is this really the army’s job? I’d say no. It is the state government’s job, followed by the Union government. But because the people of the state have suffered so much in the last two decades, maybe they can use as much help in rebuilding their broken lives as they can get. After all, they cannot remain slaves of history forever. But because of the inherent limitations of the army, I feel the best bet for the army would be to work as much through the private sector as possible. You can generate ideas and offer security. Let the private players be the executors of those ideas. This way you can probably reach out to a much larger section, than you would be able to if you were to do this on your own. Sure, credit would be hard to come by; but if it is change that you are looking for, that would be the price for it.