Saturday, January 23, 2016

Kashmir - a personal narrative

I am writing this from Srinagar Airport, on the last day of my 3-day visit. I returned to Kashmir after 12 years. My last visit was here in 2003, when Vasuman and I drove down from Leh to Srinagar via Kargil, Dras and the treacherous Zozilla pass. That visit to Leh was incredible in many ways. We had (Chitra with us) travelled from Manali to Leh by rickety public transport bus. But that was not the most painful part of our journey. From a height of 6500 ft we had climbed to Sarchu at 15000 ft on the same day, giving ourselves practically no time to acclimatize to high altitude. All three of us were suffering from headache, lack of appetite and feeling nauseous, and cold, but Chitra faced the brunt. She was so miserable that she was willing to dictate her will, only that I had no strength left to take down the notes. Next day, we crossed the second highest motorable pass, Tangri La at 17500 ft, when even Vasu and I wanted desperately the ordeal to be over, such a splitting headache we had. But soon after crossing, we started descending down, and things started improving, but leaving us totally drained. It was only when we sighted the mighty Indus river (Sindhu) that we had a sense of exhilaration, with fatigue also then retreating. At the crossing, we could even enjoy our cup of tea, with what else but ‘samosa’. But I must reiterate that journey was a new experience in our Himalayan travels. Nowhere in Himalayas, you get to see such changing landscape. From the lush green pine forests to bushes to green meadows, then to the naked mountains, with not even a blade of grass. And the mountains changing so many colours, I now cannot recall all. After staying at Leh, Chitra refused to go with us to Srinagar by road, and preferred to return to Delhi by air. But she was a sport in accompanying us to Khardung La at 18500 ft, the highest motorable road in the world.
Vasu and I carried on to Srinagar by road via Batalik sector, Dras and Kargil. The Kargil war had taken place only four years ago, and we saw huge army presence and big convoys of armored vehicles. We also saw the famous Tiger hill, and experienced a strange feeling when we stayed overnight at Kargil.
2003 was the year, when Kashmir valley was experiencing its first rush of tourists after a gap of many years. The hotels, guest houses, house boats, markets, restaurants, places of tourist interests were full of people from the plains. And we had to wait for long time at STD booths, whenever we wanted to have a long distance call. Kashmir at that time perhaps had no mobile connectivity.  
Over the years, since the start of militancy and ‘liberation movement’ in Kashmir, I have heard many intellectuals, socialists and opinion makers advocating, ‘let the Kashmiris decide, whether they wish to remain with India, or go with Pakistan, or have fully independent state’. Many times I too felt that way. However, after my visit to Kashmir in 2003 and savoring the incredible beauty of its landscape and warmth of people, I now know that we cannot afford the loss of Kashmir. We cannot separate ourselves from Kashmir.
I found this time a marked change among the people in Srinagar from the time of 2003. There was free movement of people everywhere and all the time. There was no obvious army presence in the civilian areas. There were no road barriers or security checks of vehicles etc. Even at late night, the vehicles and people, including women, were moving around freely. However, the floods (sailaab) of last year have taken a heavy toll on the city. Most of the city looks weary, old and colorless. The entire city is in need of major repairs and renovation work. It is here that people are bitter of government’s sloppiness and lack of serious intent on improving the lot of citizens. The relief has not reached needy people, while government says it has spent 1500 crores. It does not require an intelligent guess to know where the money has gone. They are angry over the previous chief minister, who just sat like a nincompoop doing nothing, literally like the proverbial Nero who sat twiddling thumbs while Rome was burning.
The present government keeps on lamenting about lack of ‘central assistance’ for all its incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption. PM Modi had visited Srinagar soon after sailaab and had assured people of ‘achhe din’ and ‘parivartan’, but nothing has been visible on the ground. The people are angry and bitter. Manjoor, who was chaperoning me around, sums it up differently, “this is all ‘Allah ka kahar’, Kashmiris are paying for their own sins; first, they suffered the wrath of militancy, and now this sailaab”. He says, ‘Kashmiris have become lazy and corrupt; they are entrusting all work to the Bihari migrants, and have forgotten the virtue of work and labour. He is not wrong about the work force from Bihar. Most of the hawkers, vendors, and unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers are now from Bihar. Even for their traditional and unparalleled skill in shawl and carpet weaving, they are employing outside labour. 
This time I found people much relaxed; they were open about talking of so many of contentious issues. Even if many people were driven by an ideology, they could talk about all the ill effects of militancy of nearly three decades, that militants are nothing but social outcasts, thugs and interested only in making money, and abusing firepower and women. They also state that Kashmir cannot afford to go with a failed state that Pakistan is; it cannot demand a fully autonomous and independent status, when it is surrounded by three nuclear powers. They accept that Kashmir’s destiny is linked with India only.
In last few years, the number of vehicles have grown beyond the capacity of roads. New roads and alternate routes do not exist. A welcome change, however, is the number of women drivers on cars as well as scooty.
One observation has been constant in all my visits to Kashmir, that is, all the governments without exception, have done precious little about the development of Kashmir. We do not tire ourselves of comparing Kashmir with Switzerland, or that ‘if there is a heaven on Earth, it is here, here, and here only’, but what a state we have reduced it to. The state of roads, infrastructure, developmental projects, all are as bad as they were in my earlier visit in 1987. On the name of development, Kashmir has only unplanned hotels and guesthouses and real state to show.
During the Mughal period in particular, Emperor Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan were so enamoured of Kashmir that during summer they moved to Srinagar with their full court entourage from Delhi at least 13 times. Shalimar Bagh was their imperial summer residence and the Royal Court. They crossed the arduous snowy passes of the Pir Panjal mountain range on elephants to reach Srinagar. The black pavilion built during the early part of Jahangir's reign in the top terrace of the Shalimar Bagh, has the famous inscription in Persian, which says:
Agar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast.
This is a couplet by the Persian poet Amir Khusrau,
Translated to English, it means, ‘If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here’.
It is also mentioned that when Jahangir was asked on his death bed about his cherished desire he is credited to have said, ‘Kashmir, the rest is worthless.’


Poonam Kirpal said...

A very insightful account of the valley before and after the militant insurgency. Kashmir is indeed a jewel in our crown and nature has bestowed it with ample beauty.
I recall my first visit to Srinagar in 1987 with a lot of nostalgia. It was breathtakingly beautiful,vibrant and pulsating with life.
On our recent visit two years back one felt that the spirit of the place has been shattered and the infrastructure has nose dived. The trepidation one goes through while planning a trip to this marvellous place overshadows the excitement.
I wish we could find a solution to all the problems this region is facing and be proud to show-off this wonderful treasure that we have to the entire world

Sudhir Khandelwal said...

Poonam, a large number of people would echo the same sentiments. I would agree with each word of what you have said. It is tragic in such long years, we did not learn to look after our own people and land.


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