I ts natural beauty, charming tulip gardens, glorious greens, gushing rivers, waterfalls and placid lakes once inspired the great Persian poet, Amir Khusro to utter: Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast. (If there is a paradise on earth It is this, it is this, it is this….)

But, it’s a different Kashmir today with its games of hide-andseek, secret conspiracies, sudden gunshots and those helpless victims and the smoky sky with flames of hate all around. Add to that an increasing fear of terror and killings in cold blood, chilling threats of beheadings and of course the azadi slogans of misguided youth, methodically mobilized to cause endless disruptions and destruction of life and property in the state.

Even after decades of Independence, Kashmir remains an unsolved issue. Over the years, it has become complex and menacing. Let’s accept the truth. Today’s Kashmir faces militancy, terrorism and rebellion that manifests itself in killing, destruction, stone-pelting and other types of disruptions.

Though the unrest looks increasingly uncontrollable, a clinical assessment would show that only about 30 per cent of the state’s geographical area, mostly the southern part, is affected by disturbances, while almost 70 per cent is usually unaffected and peaceful. It may be a key to the solution.

The causes of disturbance are more than one. The first and foremost is the destructive design and the actions from across the border by our uneasy neighbour. Then there are different terrorist and militant organisations like Lashkar-eTaiba, Hizbul Mujahideen and others owing allegiance to groups like Al-Qaida and Taliban who want to establish Sharia law in the state or make it part of a greater Caliphate. Then there are home-made separatist groups like the Hurriyat who play their paid and unpaid roles to keep the fires burning for their own benefit.

These groups can be dealt with but the big question is why our own people of Kashmir come forward in such large numbers to pelt stones at Army, police, para-military men and women sometimes without even being provoked? There may be a story behind this painful story.

Centuries back, a Sultan Yusuf Chak ruled over the valley of Kashmir, the beautiful kingdom of progress and peace. Once, while riding on a hunt, he heard a resonant voice coming from the woods that touched his soul. Already in love with the melodious voice, the king proceeded to locate the great soul. To his amazement and pleasure, he discovered Zoon, she who is beautiful like the moon, a rare beauty with the voice of a nightingale. The king was besotted and married the peasant beauty Zoon, who became Habba Khatoon, the queen of Kashmir.

This was about the time the Sunni Moghul ruler Akbar was eyeing Kashmir. After two failed attempts to win Kashmir, Akbar invited the Sultan to Delhi. The story goes that Queen Habba was suspicious of Akbar’s motives but after repeated requests she allowed the Sultan to leave for Delhi. The king never returned, and had to spend the rest of his life in prison by the order of the Mughal emperor, a deceitful act that shocked the Kashmiris.

It is said that when Akbar came to the soil of Kashmir, the furious public gathered en masse and pelted stones at the Delhi emperor. It was their answer to the traitor who belied their trust and hurt their hearts.

Though generations have passed, possibly that hurt feeling is still left unassuaged and many Kashmiris still tend to look at an outsider as one wanting to snatch the autonomy of Kashmir and pelt stones in protest. The need is to understand the core reasons for this mistrust and find therapeutic ways to change mindsets of our own Kashmiri people.

But not all stone-pelting incidents of today are the consequence of mistrust. This has become a profession for many, even women and children, who are employed to do the job for a fee that is funded from across the border. Thus historical mistrusts are being wedded to modern-day manipulations in a trap laid by instigators, local and foreign.

While stone-pelting may have historical origins, why do such large crowds join funerals of slain militants? This may be for two reasons. One, that Kashmiris are emotional and get persuaded to join the aggrieved family till last rites are performed. The other is that many people join processions out of fear because their absence may tempt militants to assume they are police informers.

The government must understand the present situation of unrest is no less than that of 1991; rather more delicate and dangerous than before. While in 1991, the disturbances were mainly designed from beyond the border giving the army freedom to react with robust force, today’s unrest sees large numbers of our own people involved. It’s more about local anger that even the army can’t think of defeating with its strength. This extremely delicate situation demands deft handling.

Though the army has a great history of impartiality and professionalism, some of its recent actions in Kashmir have been called into question by thinkers, intellectuals, activists and others who believe it’s possible to win over the agents of vice without losing the values of our democracy. Nobody should question the professionalism and nationalism of our Army, its jawans and of course its chief. But in this kind of charged atmosphere the Army Chief should keep away from issuing statements which create controversy.

The government also has a bigger role to play to win the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir, in order to disengage them from militants out of sympathy or fear.

It is time the Prime Minister personally takes up the challenge, to win over the disillusioned people of Kashmir and change the direction of the state. He should engage with citizens one to one, through his Mann ki Baat and other means. He must seek to engage with the poor, who seek a future for themselves, and pull them out of the trap militants set for them.

The PDP and BJP with their distinctly different ideologies are not natural partners. But working effectively on a consensus is the need of the hour to send a strong message to the people of Kashmir and to discourage militants. There has to be more coordination and understanding to run the wheels of administration and take ahead the agenda of progress and peace.

Kashmiris are a proud and cultured people. They think of their valley as unique. They believe they are distinct and different from all other races of the sub-continent. That makes them feel that they are first Kashmiris and then Indian. Culture and identity are so unique in their consciousness that they want to perpetuate it through symbols. That is why people of Kashmir are so sensitive about Article 370 too.

But the good thing is they have by now understood the soul of India. India’s incredible diversity and vibrant democracy are compelling factors. The best way to win them over is to love, trust and care for them more.

I was saddened when one of my Kashmiri friends expressed his anguish and pain saying. “Look when in Kashmir I praise and support India, fanatics call me a traitor and Indian agent. When I move out of Kashmir and people learn of my origins, they feel I am anti-national.” What a painful life it must be for many of our Kashmiri brothers and sisters who study and work outside Kashmir or who are openly for India while living in Kashmir. This must change.

When the BJP led by Modi won a historic mandate in the UP election, the educated and practicalthinking Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, tweeted to get ready for the 2024 election, implying that the Modi magic would survive 2019. But such assumptions will have meaning only if Modi successfully solves the internal burning of Kashmir.

The truth is that fissiparous and anti-national forces have to be handled with severity. Modi knows it well that the armed forces cannot be asked to work under the imposed conditions.

Modi may lead his party to victory in 2019 in spite of Kashmir. But one of India’s biggest leaders, one with the potential to be a global statesman, would have missed the chance of leaving an indelible mark on the sands of time if he leaves Kashmir unresolved.

The writer is Chairman, Paras Foundation and can be reached at [email protected]