What does 'freedom' mean? What has it come to mean for me after 25 years? Why do I try to escape this freedom every time, to borrow Erich Fromm's title from his phenomenal book? As a woman why do I cringe at the very mention of it now, my whole body manifesting physical symptoms including nausea? Has more than the price of sleepless nights been paid for witnessing all that I have?

I observe a lot of discussions and debates on social networking sites about the need for Kashmir to attain freedom. This is a long time later when the Valley erupted in 1989 and certain questions started hammering at my mind even though I was a child then. Being part of a community with not much of a broad based education one tends to go through the motions of imitation (naql) as part of the conditioning of childhood. So it was that though the body copied all that the exhilarating wave of the 'azaadi junoon' brought with it, the mind carefully stored the traumatic events of massacres, mindless searches and crackdowns in the night, the quiet and increasing exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits and the 'disappeared' youth. Even the murder of a KP woman returning with her daughter to collect her luggage in the same locality as mine, did not jolt me into some awakening or rebellion, though the mind did its careful filing only to burst it all out at once when the conscience started stirring in a mature body.

Does freedom mean we won't be violent in our ways? Violence does not constitute of just guns and weapons; blasts and hostages. We should look at the nature of violence and its permeation in everyday life. Kicking a child out of bed for dawn prayers; shaming him/her for incorrect recitation of 'holy texts'; frowning or gnashing teeth at any critical questioning of belief; slut-shaming if the head scarf recedes even an inch; instilling a sense of the 'Other' for a racially or culturally different person constitutes violence too. It’s these little forms of abuse that over the years add to the oppression of an individual's sense of self and given an adverse or oppressed circumstance or situation, manifest into a full blown violence leaning mind. It’s not just guns and weapons that need to be resisted but the abuse of the individual at all levels in everyday life – physical, emotional, intellectual.

Does freedom mean we won't be polluting our waterways and lakes? The recent flood in Kashmir was of our own making, no matter how much we blame the incumbent government and come up with conspiracy theories of Indian and Zionist origin. We choked our wetlands and lakes with concrete jungles and encroached upon flood channels with bribes to corrupt officials or illegal constructions. And when there is some sort of cleanliness drive or effort to tear them down by a conscientious official, we very conscientiously protest. Of course, the rich never have to worry about the bulldozing; it’s always the 'pestilent poor' who watch their dwellings be pulled down. 

Does freedom mean we won't be hitting our women or neglecting our orphans? I doubt anything is going to change considering every single one of us believes all social problems the result of political turmoil or as we all know it the 'unfinished Kashmir question' (masla-e-Kashmir). Forget it that giving women the same equal status has nothing to do with boundaries or lack thereof, judging by violence towards women cutting across all boundaries, race, class, creed and religions. Considering the other half of the population as an equal stakeholder in society takes personal freedom of acknowledgment or transcendence of social conditioning that family has to be a safe and nurturing environment for both genders; and that any form of imbalance will skew the worldview of the progeny creating a cycle of misogyny and hate.

Does freedom mean we will be living to our full potential and contributing to humanity in all spheres of life? I doubt it considering our academia and intellectual class follows the practice of 'bila kayfa wala tashbih' - without inquiring how and without making comparison - to their own roots and history. We are bent on erasing our centuries old heritage and in the words of the Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul bent on doubly colonizing ourselves to an 'oil-rich' culture. This gives us a huge identity crisis, negating our roots and conforming to an alien culture which does not even acknowledge us as equal citizens but 'converts'.

Does freedom mean the scores of mentally ill and increasing in number will be free from their debilitating disorders? With a dearth of doctors and a social stigma associated with mental illness, the victims mentally commit 'hara kiri' enclosing the whole family into their darkness. It’s not only these 'hidden disappeared' who have lost their voices but the socially ostracized free thinkers and dissenters too. Brow-beaten and bullied into acquiescence about the mainstream narrative, their versions nullified, discredited and outright laughed upon, these 'witnesses to history' differ from the 'insane' in that they function as caretakers and responsible citizens with the 'Truth' choking down in their hearts and minds. The consequences of being forced into silence once in a while every day are seen in a 2 cm by 2 cm news item - "...consumed a poisonous substance".

Where then are we headed? What is to become of us? What legacy are we leaving our children and their children? With massive global changes taking place in terms of environment, technology, economics, scientifically and academically, when will we catch up and advocate reasoning as primary to our struggle for peace and prosperity, the goal of every culture in the world. I started with questions and I am ending with questions. What have more than two decades of conflict given us? Questions with no answers, about our future, our disappeared youth, our dead, our orphans, our exiled, our past, our present. It is these questions which have to be faced, if we want to leave a semblance of a legacy to our next generation.