Part IV : The Lost Paradise
Fifteen years ago I had left Srinagar with a little packet of dried green leaf, known to the Kashmiris as woppal haak, slightly bitter in taste, and believed to be a favourite dish of our family deity, Roop Bhawani. Perhaps there was something symbolic in the fact that it was an Englishman who gave this leaf to me. Ever since the British left India, Kashmir has continued to be a disturbed area, although there have been some periods of relative peace and calm in-between. The Pakistani misadventure in Kargil; the 9/11 attack on the US, followed by the American invasion of Iraq; the war against Al Qaeda in the ravaged lands of Afghanistan; the suicidal attack of 26th November on Mumbai; and a general current of anti-Islamic feeling in the West, further kept fanning the fires of insurgency in Kashmir. After Kargil, the presence of the Indian security forces in the valley had become more visible, adding further to the general discontent among the people. The army can never be a peace-keeping force. Armed soldiers are trained not to hesitate if a threat is perceived, but to eliminate the threat first and then to investigate . Under such tense situations it is very likely that some innocents got caught in the crossfire or were perceived as potential threats and eliminated by the security force personnel. The presence of a large anti-India establishment in the valley like the Hurriyat, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who openly advocates the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, supplied additional fuel to the separatist tendencies of the young, impressionable minds. The Hurriyat was quick to capitalize on some excesses of the armed forces, and ready to shut the valley down for long periods, depriving the people of their freedom of movement; closing down schools and colleges, business establishments, as also health centres. My longing to make another visit to Kashmir had only become intensified, but it was looking more and more unlikely that a visit could be planned in these troubled times.
The war against terror gradually started coming closer to Pakistan, and when the Pakhtoon areas of the North West became the central theatre of this war, Pakistan found itself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The ISI and other military organizations got drawn into this home-grown war, leaving fewer resources to continue with the insurgency in Kashmir. The sheer fatigue of an agitation that has been carried on relentlessly for over two decades would also have had its own enervating effect, and that is why some semblance of normalcy appeared to be returning to the valley. In the year 2010, Kashmir again went up in flames following the death of a youth who was hit on the head by a tear gas shell. The Hurriyat saw its chance and called for a complete shutdown of the valley. But the conflict had become localized and did not get enough manpower and material support from across the LOC. There were sporadic street fights between the Security forces and the mobs, and normal life did get disrupted, yet there were signs that the tide had turned. This was confirmed by the fact that a large number of tourists were willing to visit Kashmir during the holiday season. The annual Amarnath Yatra also saw a significantly large number of devotees (estimated at about five lakhs) visiting the remote cave to worship the sacred ice lingam. The absence of direct Pakistani control of the conflict from the separatists’ side is, to my mind, the major factor in the success of the yatra, and in the inflow of the tourist crowds.
With conditions significantly stabilized I decided that time had come for that long-cherished visit could now be undertaken. Firming up our plans we flew into Srinagar on the 1st of October 2011. Accompanying us was our daughter, her husband and their two girls, aged 9 and 6. Our son-in-law, though of Kashmiri origin, was born in Scotland, and had grown up in New England in the US. His parents had emigrated from India in the early 60’s and after a few years in the UK, had moved to the US. He had been to Kashmir as an infant and, predictably, had no memory of that visit. For the girls, it was going to be their first visit, and they were as eager as us to visit the land of our ancestors.
The Indigo flight from Delhi to Srinagar takes about one hour. As we approached the Pir Panjal range of mountains that separate Jammu from the valley, the heartbeat went up dramatically. The snow-white clouds high above the peaks sharply outlined their grace and beauty. There is no more breathtaking sight than this view of the Himalayan ring protecting the valley in its bosom. On a clear, sunny day it becomes obvious why this is the most prized piece of real estate on earth.
Emerging out of the aircraft we set foot on the tarmac. The Airport building is a new, modern steel and glass structure, having replaced the once quaint little brick and wood shed. The airport was teeming with tourists, largely from within the country, as also a few foreigners. A cacophony of languages made speech almost indistinguishable. Children of all ages were running here and there looking for their baggage on the carousels, while the elders were discussing their itineraries. Our baggage came soon and we found the transport from our intended hotel waiting for us outside the Arrival Hall. Srinagar was hot and a trifle humid. The car air-conditioner had to be switched on to make the weather pleasant. Soon we were on our way to the Guest House at Shalimar.
Al Hamra is a pleasantly designed guest house, located a walking distance from the Shalimar Garden. Its rooms are well furnished, and bathrooms are clean. Electric geysers ensure that running hot water is available at all times. There is a nice little garden, the showpiece of which is a Chinar tree. Autumn had set in and the deciduous trees had already begun to shed their leaves. The Chinar leaves turn from green to yellow and then to a fiery crimson. The grounds below a Chinar tree can become a carpet of red before the onset of winter. These leaves are gathered and burnt to produce a kind of charcoal that the Kashmiris use in winter in their kangris to keep their persons warm.
We checked into our rooms and after a short rest decided to visit the Shalimar Garden and Cheshma Shahi that evening. I also wanted to go to the little shrine near Cheshma Shahi and see if Michael was still there after a lapse of fifteen years. Both the Moghul gardens were full of tourists, both local and visiting. The flower beds were not at their pristine best due to the season. Cheshma Shahi’s famous spring was gurgling as ever, discharging the finest drinking water on earth. We went to the little shrine at the back of the garden. It had been completely renovated. The path to the shrine was paved and the garden looked more organized.
There were some men doing aarti. They looked like they were from the armed forces. The little cottage at the back was still there. It had a fresh coat of paint. But I was disappointed to see a padlock on the door. There was a Muslim worker collecting water in a bucket from the stream. I asked him if an Englishman was staying in the cottage. He told me that the cottage was occupied by a Pujari, who had come from either Jammu or somewhere in Himachal Pradesh and had been there for a couple of years. The Pujari was not to be seen anywhere and may have gone to town for supplies. The Muslim worker had no knowledge of any Englishman. Obviously, Michael had moved on, and nobody seemed to have his forwarding address. I hope he is well on the road to spiritual advancement and distributing happiness to others as he did to me that summer evening fifteen years ago.
During this visit we were able to visit the famous Khir Bhawani temple near Gandarbal. Although it was an auspicious day there were hardly any visitors to the shrine. The road to Khir Bhawani has undergone a drastic change. It used to be a walking path with a stream flowing alongside. Now it is a motorable road with houses and shops lining it all the way up to the entrance. The stream has disappeared. The parking area near the entrance is used by the local villagers to spread out and dry their paddy. The shrine inside is unchanged. But the surrounding areas have been walled in (for security reasons) and a block of rooms has been erected in the back to accommodate devotees who would like to have an extended stay there. The vendors of the famous halwa, lucchis, and pakoras have all gone. Instead there were two temporary stalls selling these items. They too were winding up and shutting shop the next day.
This time I was keen on visiting Vaskur, the shrine near Sumbal, where legend has that Roop Bhawani had made a blind man dig a well with his elbows and restored his eyesight. Fifteen years ago this was a highly insecure area and I had not been permitted to venture there. But now, it was safe to go and after seeking directions from local villagers we were able to find the place.
The shrine is kept locked and the keys are with a local peasant who was very happy to open the lock and let us say our prayers inside. He told us that he looks after the place and keeps it clean. He also lights a lamp every day. The place looked reasonably clean and well kept. The miracle well is permanently locked and we could not draw any water from that. A small marble image of Roop Bhawani and her father has been installed by an unknown devotee within the shrine. A similar image was also installed in the shrine at Cheshma Shahi. There used to be a primary school here that was run by the shrine administration. The building was still there but obviously had not been in use for a very long time. Another house that was the abode of the descendants of the Mattu family that looked after Roop Bhawani when she lived there was in ruins and I wondered about the fate of the family that lived there. Most probably they would have run away with the exodus to escape from the hostile militants.
We also went to Manasbal Lake. There, on the banks, an ancient Siva Temple had been recently excavated. I had seen it in a documentary on TV, and now had the opportunity to visit. It is quite easily accessed and only a short distance from the main entrance to the garden at the Lake.
The authorities have excavated only the top of the stone temple, as most of it is still under water. The temple is believed to have been built in the 8th century AD, and was constructed during the reign of Avantivarman or Sankaravarman. The temple, constructed with local grey stone, has a unique pyramid-shaped shikhar that has been carved with floral motifs. An exquisite example of temple architecture of the Indian classical age!
Kashmir has changed. Gone are the paddy fields that lined the roads in and out of Srinagar. They have been reclaimed for construction of residential and commercial development. There has been a continuous flow of people from the villages into the city, and new colonies have sprung up to accommodate this migration. Militancy has destroyed the rural economy of the valley, and land alone is unable to support peasant families. The benefits of land reform that Sheikh Abdullah had introduced in the early fifties have been lost due to this state of siege that has lasted over twenty years. The results are unpleasant to the senses. Most of these colonies are unplanned and without proper civic amenities. The roads are just as narrow as they were in the old city and it is impossible for two cars to pass through these lanes. The bureaucrats and the politicians have carved out prime real estate around the Dal Lake for their residences, which resemble entrenched fortresses. They are so distant from the people that it is no wonder that Kashmir is so poorly governed. Traffic is a complete nightmare, and there are hardly any constables visible to check and direct the flow of automobiles. There has been an explosion in the number of cars and I noticed that there were practically no bicycles on the roads. When I used to live in the valley, a bicycle was the most common mode of transport, apart from the horse-drawn tonga. Kashmir’s climate and terrain are ideally suited for cycling during summer and autumn.
Apart from the Kashmiri Pandits, the group that has suffered the most because of militancy is the young Muslim male of the valley. Boys born in the middle nineteen-eighties have seen nothing but conflict and are now grown into young men in the age group of 25-30. Their parents were afraid to let them go out of their homes as they feared that they would be picked up either by the security forces or misguided by the militants to join their cause. Those who were lucky to escape both still missed out on education. The girls were a little better off than the boys. They were relatively safer from the two predators on the streets and thereby managed to attend schools and colleges and some of them even qualified as professional doctors and engineers. The inequity in the educational status of the boys and the girls of the valley has thrown up another problem. The girls are unwilling to be married to these boys and their parents are now forced to look for suitable matches outside the Kashmiri community, in other parts of the subcontinent. The boys are condemned to remain single and will eventually have to settle for girls from a lower stratum in their society. The young man who ferried us everywhere within the valley in his Toyota Qualis is an example of this tragedy. His older brother is a doctor and so is his sister-in-law. But he, being born in 1986, missed out on schooling, and consequently, suffers by comparison. His one regret in life was that he could not attend school as a normal child of his age should have. But not everyone has been as lucky as him. At least he has a taxi that he drives quite competently, and can earn a decent amount to look after his mother and himself. The young man who was looking after the houseboat where we spent one night had a similar tale to tell. He too had lost out on the educational front and felt condemned to a life of mediocrity. Most of the young men we saw on the streets were looking like zombies, their eyes without expression, a look of sheer hopelessness on their faces.
In the mass emigration of the Pandits, Kashmir has lost much more than a mere five percent of its population. It has lost a whole civilization that had withstood countless earlier attempts at conversion, and had evolved a very distinct culture, language, literature, and customs. The Pandits had learnt to live as a minority, and were quite content to let the majority community have the benefits of development as befitted their size. They were like that spoonful of salt that adds flavour to a dish. To a large extent it worked admirably. The state remained free of any communal tension and the conflagration that engulfed the Punjab and Bengal at the time of Partition did not singe the valley in any great way. Pakistan’s misadventure in 1947 also did not succeed in destabilising the harmony among the Pandits and the Muslims. Successive attempts by Pakistan, in 1965 and 1971 met with the same fate. It was Zia, using religious zeal to promote his political fortunes, who initiated the transformation of the valley’s ethos by injecting indoctrinated Wahabi elements into the mosques and madrasas of Kashmir. The Government of India, from Indira Gandhi onwards, also contributed to this alienation through short-sighted and politically-motivated policies. The leadership of the Congress had been completely emasculated by an insecure Indira Gandhi, for whom winning elections and staying in power was the only dharma. She used every dirty trick in the book and did not hesitate to use divisive tactics in pursuit of her ambitions. She was ready to fragment the country if it could ensure her stay in power. Punjab burnt first, and then Assam. Her son and successor was too inexperienced and fell easy prey to the wily power-brokers within the party. Kashmir, that had stayed conflict-free for so long, finally began to smoulder when the state elections were blatantly rigged. Pakistan took advantage of the simmering discontent, and in 1989 the fabric of communal harmony finally tore apart.
The heavy hand with which the Indian state responded to the insurgency has been adequately documented by various observers and commentators. If Kashmir today is limping towards a semblance of normalcy, it is not because of the overwhelming presence of the Indian security forces, but mainly due to the fact that Pakistan has its hands full with domestic strife and cannot afford to concentrate on Kashmir as it once had. The other reason is that the people of the valley are now fed up with the state of siege and are desperately yearning for a normal way of life. The common Kashmiri has no faith in his leaders and sees them as tools of one agency or another. The politicians, without exception, have no constituency within the valley and are nothing but parasites feeding on the body of the people. It may be that someday normalcy will return. But I fear that day will not be soon. There is a lot of money flowing into the valley from the Indian state and a lot of it is getting into the pockets of the politicians and the administrators. Even the security forces have an interest in keeping the pot boiling as there are immense opportunities for corruption. The Islamic (Wahabi) world also continues to pour in vast sums of money (some of it counterfeit) in the misplaced hope that Kashmir would one day become a part of Pakistan.
The feeling that one gets today is that Kashmir will never return to its pristine era that existed before 1989. The Pandits who fled twenty-two years ago have moved on and the young generation has no affinity with the valley. They have educated themselves in various parts of the country and have dispersed all over the globe like the Jews of the Exodus. The Pandits living in camps in Jammu are too few to be taken seriously by anyone; they do not represent a vote bank. And very soon they will also disperse and meld with the rest of the country. The valley is almost one hundred percent Islamic and this Islamization is very visible. Mosques have sprouted everywhere and one can hear competing azans from Shia and Sunni mosques almost throughout the day and night. All women, even small girls, are wearing a head-scarf, if not hijab, and men have taken to sporting traditional Islamic symbols. When people allow religion to become the focus of their lives, they lose the ability to assimilate and absorb. Intolerance lurks just below the skin and the slightest provocation can enflame and destroy centuries of trust and fellow-feeling. That is the greatest tragedy of Kashmir.
Image Source: By Kashmir_map.svg: w:user:Planemadderivative work: Opus88888 (This file was derived from:Kashmir_map.svg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, By Gktambe at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons