Race for Change: Kashmiri Youth Trade in Stones for Sneakers

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By: Waheed Ur Rehman Para
When thousands of Kashmiri youth gather in stadiums in South Kashmir, one expects to see stones being pelted, and a clamour for azaadi. And as the astounding realization dawns that they are here to compete in a half-marathon, hoping not for azaadi but this time for discs of gold, silver and bronze, one realizes that perhaps what young Kashmiris are clamouring for, is change.
The current Army General, Atta Husain conceived of the half marathon as a platform to vent youth energies. But this valiant effort proved inadequate compared to the weight of the burden that young Kashmiri minds are carrying. Two half marathons in South Kashmir, one in Anathnag and a second in Pulwama stadium, were attended in overwhelming numbers, exceeding anticipated attendance by several thousand. One is left to wonder what causes the same people who pelt stones at security forces to turn up in droves to participate in a sporting event organized by the Army; what do two events that espouse completely opposite agendas, activities, and slogans have in common? For Kashmiri youth they are both opportunities. To prove themselves. To channelize their energies. To slake their thirsts for recognition and reward.

In this valley of turmoil, as everywhere, young minds yearns to make something of themselves, to not live a life unfulfilled, to not die unknown. The same youthful energies that youth across India and the world can realize through various media like singing, dancing, acting, sports, fulfilling careers; their theaters, TV shows, movies, stadiums, glass-fronted office buildings providing spaces to let out the fires that burn within. In Kashmir, these same young minds, for lack of constructive channels become, as idle minds will, the devil’s workshop. Blocked youth energies, which never see light of day for lack of platforms to prove their mettles, reveal themselves in recurring prolonged cycles of violence in the valley. The role of the absent playground is carried out by the streets during hartal (strikes). The last three cycles of violence bear witness to the fact that youth on the streets are fearless, passionate and brimming with untapped energy. Cycle of Frustration, When young Kashmir turns on the TV and radio he sees a world overrun with opportunities, and a nation advancing at warp speed. He yearns to participate in this progress, to make his mark on the world, but finds his path blocked: by the darkness of his streets for lack of electricity, by roads torn up, by Internet disconnected, by infrastructure that won’t hold up and a health sector riddled with disease, by industries falling by the wayside, by drug trade and nepotism, insecurity and no hopes of recovery. ‘Why?’ heasks himself, and he asks the world. A reply comes back carried on the winds, an echo of‘Azaadi!’ That’s the answer then, the only answer and the only hope, that azaadi will come. And with it my fortunes will change and my dreams will come true.

Often when walking around Kashmir’s streets at night, I see groups of young boys gathering to give voice to the frustrations within. I recently overheard a conversation near my house where some kids were discussing their plans to go on a trip. One young man was trying to convince his mates to not go to Pahalgam this time as always, but Delhi, where they could see the see Lotus Temple, the Red Fort, etc. ‘Where we will end up,’ his friend retorted, ‘is Tihar jail. What will you say if the Delhi police arrests you, that you are on tour, who will believe you? They don’t need reasons to arrest Kashmiris yaar.’ As I continued to listen, the conversation continued on to other topics and I caught another snatch – Yaar hartal ka koi call nahin hai kya? Bohot din say exercise nahin hui. (Is there no call for strike? I haven’t had any exercise for days.) These idle young minds, with no constructive ways to engage their brains and bodies, instead find themselves engaged in perpetuating the same stereotypes that outsiders project onto the region –  the notion that all young Kashmiris are hooked on violence, and that the rest of the country does not accept them as anything but troublemakers.

Gen. Ata Husain’s efforts seem to stem from having a finger on the pulse of the young masses, and recognizing the paucity of viable performance platforms. The marathon was an attempt at engaging youths’ attentions, channelizing their energies, realizing their potentials, rewarding their talents, and recognizing their lives; breaking down for Kashmiris as for the rest of the nation the stereotype that young Kashmiris are violent by nature or born pelters. Here stone pelters came to become peace pelters. The General’s idea was brilliant in its simplicity, and the recognition that it was such baby steps not high aspirations of demilitarization, revocation of AFSPA, etc. which would bring people together in peace. At its attempt to bring young folks together around a constructive cause, the marathon was a resounding success. Where only a few thousand participants were expected, eight to ten thousand showed up. Clearly this event was filling a gaping void in the lives of youth.

Unfortunately, the event management was not prepared for this smashing turnout, and soon things started going belly-up. Without enough staff to manage and oversee the race, some cheating took place. When the General arrived at the stadium in Pulwama to hand out awards, he was greeted, to his deep chagrin, by the crowds chanting their accusation of “Cheating! Cheating! Cheating!”But the General need not be disheartened, and the effort must not be chalked up to anything but what it was: an unqualified triumph. What one must take away from this is the irony, that for the first time in as far back as anyone can remember, a massive crowd of young Kashmiris has banded together, not to protest human rights violations, not to fight for land or freedom or the right to live, but for the right to run and indeed win a fair race. A new conflict for Kashmir, a positive cause to stand up and chant slogans for. An easy one too compared to what their lives had become. A conflict zone today cried out not for azaadi as usual, but for good governance, better management, and a medal. This is a new beginning, one of hope. Young Kashmir thanks you, dear General, and hopes you will try again a local athlete Arif Shah said.
*Author is Journalist & Peace Activist.

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