Does grief always fit in our increasingly binary world? Is it possible to feel intense grief for the Central Reserve Police Force soldiers whose lives were snuffed out by a suicide bomber in Kashmir's Pulwama district, and yet not be indifferent to the plight of ordinary Kashmiris who are caught in the crossfire?
The terrorist Adil Ahmad Dar, who rammed an SUV packed with explosives into a CRPF convoy last week, killing well over 40 soldiers, was a 20-year-old local Kashmiri from Lethipora village in Pulwama. The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility for the attack, perhaps the single deadliest on the security forces in the Valley.
Ordinary people across the length and breadth of India are grieving. There have been candlelight marches. There is anger and outrage. Talk of avenging the killings of those who lost their lives so suddenly in Pulwama rend the air.
But how does it help to turn that grief and rage into vile hate-mongering and direct it towards ordinary Kashmiri students, shopkeepers, traders, doctors and teachers elsewhere across India?
As citizens of India, how we view Kashmiris in this time of deep conflict is a pivotal issue. As a child, I have fond memories of family holidays in the wondrous Kashmir Valley. That was in the 1970s. That Kashmir no longer exists.
Today, many young Indians see Kashmir only through the lens of bloodshed and violence. But Kashmir is not just a piece of territory. Should we paint all Kashmiris with one brush because we have serious problems with some Kashmiris? How much do we know and how curious are we about ordinary Kashmiris who wish to make a life for themselves in India, and who see a future for themselves in this country?
What is to be gained by demonising them, isolating them and making them feel in myriad ways that they don't belong to this country of which they are citizens?
You don't have to be a Kashmir expert to know that Kashmir is a strife-torn state, that Pakistan is only too happy to fan the flames and that many among the Kashmiri youth are getting radicalised.
It is equally important to realise that Kashmiri youngsters studying outside the state and living in university campuses have chosen to be away from the turmoil, the curfews, the terrible and terribly insecure life in the Valley. How does it help to make them feel unwanted and insecure in the rest of India?
There have been reports from several cities across the country of hyper-jingoistic mobs targeting ordinary Kashmiris studying or working outside the Valley. Take the reports from Dehradun in Uttarakhand. Nearly 3,000 students from Kashmir currently attend colleges and institutes in the city. Media reports suggest that hundreds of such students have left the city, fearing a backlash after the Pulwama terror attack, and that some colleges are refusing to admit Kashmiri students.
“We had to do it under pressure from a mob of around 400-500 which was protesting at the gates demanding the expulsion of Kashmiri students from the institute and an assurance in writing that the new ones will not be granted admission following the terrorist attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama,” the chairman of Dehradun's Alpine College of Management and Technology, Anil Saini, told a news agency.
There was a poignant statement from Aabid Majeed Kuchay, dean of academics at the institute. "For the safety of the college and the Kashmiri students in it, I asked the college authorities to suspend me," Mr Kuchay, who is from Kaddar in J&K's Kulgam district, told a newspaper.
And it's not just about Kashmiri students. How does it help to advocate pauperisation of Kashmir? Who benefits if there is further alienation of Kashmiri youth? What does one make of Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy, who tweeted that he is "inclined to agree" to boycott everything Kashmiri. ‘An appeal from a retired colonel of the Indian Army: 'Don't visit Kashmir, don't go to Amarnath for the next two years. Don't buy articles from Kashmiri emporia or Kashmiri tradesman who come every winter. Boycott everything Kashmiri.' I am inclined to agree," Mr Roy tweeted. The governor has termed the suggestion of the retired colonel as a “purely non-violent reaction to the killings of our soldiers”.
Cracking down on those who break the law is legitimate. But ordinary Indian citizens are entitled to ask how boycotting every product that comes out of Kashmir — shawls, apples, et al — will help ameliorate the situation in Kashmir?
Significantly, those who have actually seen conflicts close up have struck a much-needed sober note. The CRPF, which lost so many of its men to the suicide bomber, launched a helpline — CRPF Madadgaar, with the Twitter handle @CRPFmadadgaar — in the wake of the numerous reports of alleged harassment faced by Kashmiri students and other Kashmiris outside their state. They made an open offer to help these students, wherever they are.
In a recent commentary, Julio Ribeiro, who served as director-general of the Punjab Police during the worst years of terrorism in Punjab, and who was also director-general of the CRPF, made a point that needs to be made vociferously — strong-arm tactics alone can never work.
The extremist leaders need to be neutralised by determined security operations, Mr Ribeiro pointed out, “but if the community to which the terrorist belongs is not won over, the latter will continue to receive ‘oxygen’ from co-religionists and one fallen terrorist will soon be replaced”. It is imperative, therefore, he says, "to revise the policy of 'muscular response' to one that includes a simultaneous appeal to the good sense of the local inhabitants and treats them not as enemies but as respected citizens".
Heart-warmingly, even as the country grieves the fallen CRPF jawans, many ordinary Indians have opened their hearts and homes to Kashmiri students outside their states who are feeling insecure. One of the best statements I read was from Rashid Pahelwan, a member of Dehradun zila panchayat from Lakshmipur: "They travelled hundreds of miles to study in our city... I felt that the entire student population from Kashmir shouldn’t be targeted because of a few people," says Mr Pahelwan.
Many more people feel like him. They need to speak up, and say that “Kashmir is ours, Kashmiris are ours”....