In 1990 when Kashmir spilled out on to the streets to express its anger against a rigged election, middle class India sat up and took notice.
In 2010, when it came out yet again with stones and rocks – they switched channels to Star Plus.
So fractured is Kashmiri society today that most Kashmiris, unable to go to school or office for several months during the stone-pelting phase, might just have also switched channels to Star Plus.
Ironically, Kashmir was the war to cover in the Nineties. For a generation of reporters it was “sexy”! If you didn’t know your Traal from your Shopian, your Hizb from your Ikhwan, your XV Corps from your XVI Corps – you were just another political scribe doing the daily darshan of 24 Akbar Road and 11 Ashoka Road. Boring.
Kashmir added clout and pizzazz to your resumé. It had mojo. It had dangerous foreign liaisons. You dealt with armed militants, grenades strung across their chests, contemptuous and cerebral generals, Pashtun accents that swore “Kashmir banega Pakistan!”, blown-up BSF commanders in their IED-hit vehicles strung on trees, kidnapped hostages, state brutalities in bedrooms and kitchens and hysterical protestors screaming hatred. Riveting stuff on camera that even the Gandhi family doing handstands could never generate.
And a dangerous, thrilling ride for any bright-eyed young reporter willing to go on it.
Besides, it also had a youthful anti-establishment impudence that found many takers in the rest of India, especially young journalists who reported on the heavy-handed state response of those early years. Mohalla boys swaggered in front of the camera showing off weapons bigger than them, old grannies in remote villages spat upon Indian journalists who dared to ask why they wanted Azaadi, secular Muslim professionals – many of them government employees – gave double edged statements to the camera and vociferously espoused Azaadi off it.
This genuine backing across classes and ages also kept India glued to its TV sets. Militants were real people who could be met – because they were actually Kashmiris with roots in their society, whose relatives and friends could access them for the press. Reporters talked to them and discovered what they wanted. That solidarity, even if it aggressively opposed your ideas of nation and community, was somehow strangely “likeable”.
Devious, stupidly reckless, playing with fire and off-the-charts unrealistic – but… sort of “likeable”!
A big factor in this “sort-of likeability” was that the Kashmiri was at the centre of his own albeit amateur war. Death and violence were far greater than their levels today, yet there was a feeling of headiness, not fear – of being at the frontier – of whatever it was that was going to happen or change.
Passion, violence and youth. It was a war made for the camera.
Au naturel it brought in eyeballs by the droves. It inspired heated, nationalistic debates about how “we’ll never leave Kashmir” and generated furious shouting matches between “Kashmiris” and “Indians”.
Till the Islamists took over and destroyed anything that was left of the old Kashmiri sense of Azaadi.
Today boredom with Kashmir’s shrill, nihilistic, chappal-clad war of pelters and straggly beards, it’s aimless anti-establishmentism and “spontaneous” street frenzies over years of rigidly programmed “calendars” and hartals has resulted in a curious situation where Indians will go in touristic hordes to see its beauty but immediately pull the plug on any emanations of rage coming their way.
In fact it’s a war whose magical tipping point in the early Nineties has come and gone. Violence is today roughly seven per cent of what it was.
Yet its cast hasn’t moved on. It’s frozen in to a cynical tableau of actors who play their professional “roles” backed by whoever it is that is backing them.
The telegenic Mullah who spouts medievalist hatred with elegance. The smooth suit-and tie-clad English speaking Jamaati-in-liberal-garb academic who threatens that all hell will soon break loose if the government does not do as he says. The allegedly “mainstream” politician belligerently roaring for the Pakistani rupee on national television. And the aviators-and cravat-clad Army General who tells reporters for the nth time that “exemplary” punishment will be given if an enquiry reveals an infringement of operational procedures.
Azaadi’s mojo no longer rests with the people but with entrenched interests whose formulaic bluster has long outworn their attention-getting ability.
And so Kashmir fatigue looms large. No reporter goes to Kashmir today to discover new frontiers because almost everything in Kashmir today is a cliché – said and done to death a thousand times.
Viewers? A been-there-done-that kind of heavy feel has them instantly reaching for their remotes.
The Rage Boy Syndrome
In 2007, international bloggers noticed that the same straggly bearded, wild-eyed man fronted every single demonstration in Kashmir for any and every Islamist “cause”. Danish cartoons, Salman Rushdie, the Pope, Guantanamo Bay, the sex scandal, human rights violations, President Bush – you could name it and he was there. Photographers shot his face in extreme close-up and no one knew whether there were four people or 400 behind him.
The images aroused a visceral reaction and soon went viral making Rage Boy, as he was nicknamed, a de facto poster boy for radical Islam and all that the West hated most about it.
Soon a subject of mirth in the Western blogosphere, his angry face – eyes ablaze, nostrils flared, mouth agape, teeth bared in a caricature like snarl – was plastered on Rage Boy T shirts, mugs, boxer shorts, stickers and even a clock that asked “What’s the Time?” – and was told; “Time to Die, Infidel!”
Rage Boy was a typical by-product of this Islamist professionalisation of the conflict. Its leadership was farmed out to Pakistan. Nameless Wahabi websites and global Islamist angst helped net its young. The middle class Azaadiwallas retreated to the drawing room, fearful and silent, or just left the state. Anything spontaneous or real about Kashmir was drained and spat out by its new Islamist managers, steering its new, Arabised direction.
Soon, the real shift could be seen. The professional seminarists with a jargon-heavy vocabulary of Conflict Studies, the networked, convent-educated, New York-returned Kashmiri, wobbling under the load of liberal American grants, the clean-shaven, barely disguised jehadi – they came to the forefront.
The illiterate, poor fringe like Rage Boy became their rote street army; fodder for protests, hartals and face-offs with the security forces. A force of professional protestors shouting their brainwashed rage at the cameras invited to click them.
Any which way – there is only so much rage a comfortable, self-obsessed middle class preoccupied with malls, FM, Fashion Weeks, Saifeena and Page Three can take.
Rage Boy’s repetitive meme and his snooze-rendering propaganda of Wahabi fantasies is today a sure shot invitation to diving TRPs. The global distaste for Islamist causes aside, the Indian middle class has long ago defected to more pleasurable prime time pastures. As for understanding the layers of the conflict? No one unfortunately has the time or the inclination any more – truly a pity.
A lovely new war
Besides, there’s a lovely new war in town – one that has started grabbing eyeballs because, unlike Kashmir, it threatens large swathes of India. It is one whose class character could actually upset the applecart of the urban Indian, smug in his sheltered First World existence. Whose foot soldiers are the desperate, the poor and the deprived, unlike the soft, middle class, comfort loving Kashmiri whose media savvy guile has always been a far deadlier weapon than his AK rifle.
Even the JNU/NYU educated facebook warrior of Kashmir whose posts stoke stone-pelters in downtown Srinagar while he sits with his laptop and a Café Latte downtown, in Khan Market, Greenwich Village or Soho can’t compete with the raw fierceness and genuine angst of the Maoist warrior.
His conflict still has the passion and idealism of something real so far. Much of its tragedy and defiance still seem natural and untutored. Importantly, as a comparatively new war, it hasn’t been transformed into a “managed” event with its own stock cast yet.
Sooner or later of course it will. But till then, its value remains high, its frontier appeal seductive for the ambitious young reporter of today.
This smart reporter, coming from small town India, eager to make it big, knows the only way to make your bones is the Maoist insurgency. And if you don’t know your Gadchiroli from your Dantewada you’re never going to have any hope of a Barkha Dutt-style Kargil Moment with its thrilling promise of endless repeat telecasts a decade later. The Maoist war is today’s definitive “sexy” conflict.
Kashmir’s conflict has always been about India’s past and its minute, tiny details. Pre ’53 or post? Accord or not? Plebiscite or not? Article 356 or not?
Dantewada is about India’s future, how it will develop and where it will go.
Even if you never want to see them come to the automobile manufacturing plant near you, you can understand their issues will affect the India you will live in. No prizes for guessing which one captures the ratings, especially the demographic of those born in the last two decades.
Either way, Kashmir is no longer the war of the moment. Unless Pakistan pulls a giant rabbit out of its moth-eaten hat, it’s a war going nowhere, just like its TRPs. That hurts the Islamist who can’t bear to see the graph of violence come down and his relevance diminished. Expect to see him shadow-boxing away in studios and streets. Expect too, to see most televisions viewers press the button on that remote and zap him out of sight.
With apologies to P Sainath whose decisive book Everybody Loves a Good Drought should be top of the list reading for all young reporters on the Maoist beat.