Saturday 15 August 2015

Independence and Partition - II: Kashmir ka Khat

I had to attend an ecology conference in Ladakh in July. My co-author Ashish Kothari, as well as the environmental group he helped to start, Kalpavriksh, was involved in organising it. It was part of a set of regular meetings that have been happening in different parts of the country that go under the name of Vikalp Sangam. The first one was held in October 2014 in Timbaktu, in Andhra. The second was in Madurai in February 2015. The third one was organised in Leh, Ladakh in July. The idea in these Sangams is to share experiences and exchange ideas on practically viable alternatives to the predatory development model that is ripping through the country's ecology and cultures like a remorseless, self-destructive juggernaut.

I arranged with some friends from Bangalore and Mumbai to meet in Srinagar and take the road route from there to Leh, a distance of 400-odd kilometres, via Zojila and Kargil, to be covered over two days. While I had traveled to Ladakh in 1986, I had flown, and so missed much of the stunning landscapes along the way. This time, armed with a brand new Sony camera gifted to me by my kind brother (the second camera he has gifted me over the years!), I was really excited about traveling to Leh by road.

I spent a day and a night beforehand, by myself, renting a room on a houseboat on Nigeen Lake. It was lovely. I heard from one of the boatmen the story of how the British gradually and subtly inserted themselves into Kashmir. It appears that in the 19th century, there was a British Resident stationed in the Maharaja's kingdom. They were forbidden from acquiring land in Kashmir. On one occasion a British merchant came upon a houseboat with a shop built atop it. He took a fancy to it and asked the owner if he could buy it from him for a price. The owner refused, but promised to build and sell him a new houseboat. This, legend goes, was the first piece of property the scheming Brits bought in Kashmir, without breaking their agreement with the Maharajah about acquiring land! Today a houseboat can cost up to Rs. 2-3 crores.

Enterprising young boys make humble livelihoods on Dal lake.

My friends from Bangalore and Mumbai arrived the next day. One of our colleagues was a friend of Jyoti Singh, daughter of Karan Singh, from the ex-Royalty of Kashmir. Jyoti so very kindly hosted us in her utterly beautiful and hospitable Almond Villa, at the base of Shankaracharya Hill, overlooking the famous Dal Lake. She embarrassed us with the sheer prodigality of her hospitality, serving some truly delectable food, other than the splendour of the rooms we stayed in.

We had a good look at the fabulous mosques of Srinagar one day, seeing some exquisite places.

We were to set off for Leh by jeeps on July 17. However, luck (or rather weather driven by climate change) was not on our side. Ladakh had unpredicted rains because of repeated cloudbursts and two attempts at approaching Zojila from Srinagar were thwarted by mudslides and flooding near Sonmarg. We were obviously disappointed.

On each occasion, we were violently stopped by heavy cordons of CRPF jawaans and J&K Police. They banged the vehicles with their batons and screamed at the drivers of the jeeps for daring to go towards Sonmarg. There were mostly young Kashmiri men among them. When we got off the vehicles to explain the purpose of our visit to Leh, they straightened up, especially when they realised that Jyoti Singh was traveling with us. They showed us pictures of the flooding ahead on the highway explaining, this time gently, why we could not go. The same armed men who were throwing their weight about a minute ago were behaving like obedient schoolboys. Their behaviour was schizophrenic. I was reminded of the TV advertising in Srinagar one evening when I saw ads of mental health counselling. There are many commercials like this. The other ad you see frequently is of cures for infertility among women. It appears the whole valley is sick from the ongoing conflict with Indian security forces. The place is the nearest thing to Palestine I have seen in my life. There are up to 800,000 armed men in uniform in the Kashmir Valley. Armoured vehicles with 'Sadbhavna' written in front of them have gunmen at the ready.

I had visited Kashmir in 1974, with my parents and my brother. I had just begun playing serious golf (briefly contemplated turning professional when I was about 18). I do not remember seeing a single army jawaan on that trip to Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. This time, 41 years on, was different. Very different.

There is a construction boom across the Kashmir Valley, very reminiscent of what happens in Palestine. On the other hand the old homes and shops are crumbling. I was puzzled as to what is going on. How come so many new homes and mosques are coming up in such a context? Who is financing them? I was informed by more than one person that land and real estate markets have been very active across the Valley. People are selling off land, forest, and any other assets in order to raise capital to build fancy new homes. Banks are also giving attractively priced loans for home construction and ownership. A lot of mosque construction, it turns out, is being financed by money coming from the Middle East. The new mosques are being built on the Central Asian design, without the big bulbs and minarets familiar from the Sub-Continent.

Next to every mosque is the inevitable CRPF or BSF camp with security forces on the alert. Every few hundred yards on the road to Pahalgam are armed commandos and jawaans, ready to address any exigency that is never too far under the surface. Security arrangements were particularly tight (you had to go through security layers, almost as bad as at Srinagar airport) when we were in the Pahalgam area, since the annual Amarnath yatra was going on. In the Valley, there is hardly a home which has not lost a family member to death or disappearance. At the airport I saw a number of books documenting such tragedies.

This boy grinned from ear to ear when I teased him that he resembled Shahrukh Khan!

As the film Haider (which was shot partly in the basement of Jyoti's lovely house) tried to show, the one thing most palpable across the Valley is suspicion. You can virtually cut it with the proverbial knife. 

A man somewhat older than me I met in Pahalgam's Lavender Park asked me where I was from. I said "Hindustan", which has, revealingly, a better chance of inviting friendship than an answer like "Delhi". He said "Ab toh jenaab hamaara Hindustan se koi waasta nahi hai. Hindustan-Pakistan ab hamaare peechhe hain. Hame toh aage dekhna hai." When I asked him to elaborate, he said "aap ko Hindustan ki kaun si fauj Hindustan mein nahi mil rahi hai? BSF, CRPF, ITBP...yahaan aa jaiyye Kashmir ki ghaati mein, mil jaayegi. Aathon faujein yahaan maujood hain." 
Yet, daily life goes on amidst these stiff odds. Big billboards advertise higher education - such as medicine or engineering - in Bangladesh, not in India or Pakistan!

People speak openly against the Indian government, against all Indian political parties and the National Conference, and against Narendra Modi. Our driver Mehraaj Bhai told me that PDP would have won with a far handsomer margin had Mufti not allied with Modi's BJP. Srinagar's leading newspaper Kashmir Rising is openly critical of Indian policies in Kashmir.

We saw something surprising in Srinagar one day: a liquor store busily conducting its trade among the youth of the city, at the base of the Shankaracharya Hill. As soon as the Ramzan rozas finished there was quite a crowd at the liquor store, loud music blaring from cars on the boulevard by the Dal.

At the airport I saw a large number of new books documenting the atrocities and excesses of security forces in the Kashmir Valley. The alienation seems to have got so encrusted that things appear to have passed the point of no return. No maturity or sagacity has been shown by leaders. Gone are the days when one could expect an Indian Prime Minister to quote the great Kashmiri poet Mahjoor and say to militants "agar aap samvidhaan ke daayre mein nahi baat karma chaahte hain toh chaliye hum insaaniyat ke daayre mein baat kar lein." Vajpayee is still the most respected Indian leader in Kashmir.

The last picture I took in Kashmir was of our departure lounge at Srinagar airport. It resembles an army sports arena!

The picture tells us much about why the Kashmir Valley is in the shape it is in, why the BJP could not muster a single seat there. The picture also reveals the immense value of some of the peace and healing initiatives being undertaken in the Valley by citizens. Jyoti Singh organises every year in the last week of August the Annual Dara Shikoh Festival for the Arts, in which a range of Kashmiri artists get a chance to show and discuss their work. 

Jyoti's goal is to  address local youth and help revive faith in the great syncretic traditions of Kashmir, ways of community life and philosophical and religious thought and practice, not to forget poetry, that have sustained the people of this beautiful land over the centuries.

Kashmir refuses to be treated as a trifling yo-yo in the predatory politics between India and Pakistan. And in this defence of dignity lies its hope for the future.

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