The still waters of the Dal rippled ever so lazily while the shikara drifted along, past a colony of sleepy lotuses. An arm’s length away, a lone coot poked around the pads,. Beyond the lotuses rose a rickety fence enclosing a small cucumber patch and a bearded billy goat staring meditatively at the water through half closed eyes. It was a little past dawn and I was still sleepy as I stretched into a long, slow yawn…“Good morning sir!” I turned and looked for the owner of the chirpy little voice… “Ah Zahid! Good morning!”, I said. “You live here?”
Last evening, I had taken photographs of a lone boatman silhouetted against the pink and gold sky. Then as night pulled an inky blue curtain over the sky, I began dismantling the lens while that boatman paddled up to me. “Good morning sir!” chirped the voice and I looked up at a cherubic little face and a beatific smile. The boatman was a tiny little kid in his little blue and battered boat. Even though it was clearly way past ‘good evening’, I replied with an equally cheerful “good morning”. The boy’s smile grew wider as he proceeded to show me his wares. My shikara-wallah, Yusef, told me that Zahid, for that was the boy’s name, sold little trinkets to tourists after school to help his father, a fellow shikara-wallah, keep the fire burning in what was by necessity, a very large kitchen. Twelve year old Zahid and I had a little chat after he’d fleeced me off a pair of 500s. I knew he loved going to school so I asked him why he didn’t look like he was going to school this morning, he said “chhutti hai!”
I waved good-bye as the shikara floated away languidly, but then it struck me that it was a Monday. I asked Zahid why was Monday a holiday. Zahid was about to say something when Yusef spoke to him in Kashmiri and then said, “nothing sir, his school teachers want more pay so they are on strike.” Ah! I lay back in the shikara and focused on making the most of my last few hours in the valley before catching a flight home. However, when I reached Delhi, I realized that Zahid’s school was shut because a group of separatist leaders had called for a ‘nationwide bandh’ in memory of a youth who’d been killed accidentally by a tear gas shell fired by para-military forces during a protest march. The separatists had urged the people of the valley to remember the ‘blood of martyrs’ and not forget their sacrifices. Yusef’s desire to bury this uncomfortable fact deep in the muddy bed of the Dal isn’t unique. Every Kashmiri who has anything to do with tourism, and that’s a whole lot of Kashmiris, would do their damndest to soften such truths beyond recognition for the treasured tourist this season.My man Friday for the trip, cab driver, guide and shayar extraordinaire, all rolled into a burly balding ball of a man called Majeed, was no different. In his mid 40s Majeed looks no younger than a 60 year old. He lost his hair and health during the decades when gun-toting militants had the run of the valley, but now that the tourists are back, he works with renewed vigour. “I got tired of resting”, he says. “No more rest days for me. I’m just happy I have work….” I asked him if things are fine now and he said that peace had returned to the valley more than a year ago. Every corner’s safe and every Kashmiri welcomed this new peace. However, later while out for a run around the Dal, I trailed a bunch of soldiers and they revealed that while Srinagar indeed had been free from incidents for about a year, out in the country, stray incidents involving militants still weren’t uncommon. When I asked Majeed about that, the usually garrulous transporter was quiet for a while and then mumbled something about the media hyping things up. The fact that I had been quoting soldiers and not journalists didn’t seem to bother his media cryingwolf- hypothesis much. There were other comforting truths though. As we drove along the Lidder, a river that seems to tumble down the Himalayas sparkling with joy and the stunningly gorgeous valleys of Pahalgam, I heard claims about how tourists had never been targeted by militants and how Kashmiri militants never wanted to take the battle beyond the borders of the state. And it was more or less true. Except for a bunch of attacks in 2006 and the Al-faran kidnappings in 1995, most tourist deaths have been rare and incidental. Indeed these have been the exceptions and not the rule. What about the Pandits? This question is the most difficult one for the Majeeds and Yusefs to handle. They admit that there were times when life was indeed difficult for the Pandits. They blame it on factions that don’t represent the majority and the madness of the moment. Then they get into a tourist friendly philosophical monologue about how life’s about ‘insaniyat’, not religious or regional divides. And then they tell you about this abandoned Shiva-temple near Gulmarg which had been without a priest for long and then a Muslim gent named Muhammad took over the priestly duties in the temple. Now if that isn’t secularism, what is? That day, drifting in the Dal, I wondered how long this peace would last. Kashmir had always been a handsome powder keg. Nearly a decade before this insurgency took hold, Kapil Dev’s world champions faced off against the West Indies in Srinagar and were greeted with boos and pro-Pakistan slogans. Every West Indian run was cheered and every Indian wicket jeered. An uneasy calm followed before the first gun battles in 1989 announced the insurgency.I reflected back on a class discussion I had had with my students in 1997 while discussing the idea of nation and ethnicity in the context of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, and BS Gidwani’s Return of the Aryan. I’d come to understand that what ties people to an idea of a nation is perhaps a sense of shared cultural values or a vision of the future but it definitely isn’t religion, neither is it a set of economic and political ideals. By that token, the idea of India is purely a British legacy. To have come as far as we have as a country must have surprised a lot of historians and defies a lot of established logic. Of that, we all should be proud. Having said that, unlike other states in the Indian Union, Kashmir never really had a choice.
Knocked about by circumstance, politics and pride, Kashmir had been set upon by a pack of wolves that seem to have agreed to rend the state into bite-sized pieces to suit their own political appetite. India, Pakistan, China and even power brokers within the state-nationalists, separatists, activists and terrorists, we’ve all had our own axe to grind on the river stones of the Jhelum. My Kashmiri friends say that ‘the rich want to stay with India, the middle class is divided between India and aazadi and the poor want Kashmir to become a part of Pakistan’. But even for them, Pakistan isn’t a political choice. The poor welcome any change as a possible harbinger of better times and opportunities and that is what prompts the disfranchised to look westwards. Perhaps history and culture tie Kashmir closest to India. Religion does not unite nations. If that were to be the case, why would Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, India and Nepal, Japan and Korea be separate countries? Someday, Kashmiris who insist otherwise would see that too, but not if we take away their right to see and choose for themselves. The rest of India has to accept that Kashmir’s history is different and if autonomy is what a people want, beyond a point of persuasion they must be allowed to, and in fact it is their right, to have it. Indian fears about border security etc. have multiple answers, and as for pride, is it fair to sacrifice soldiers, resources and the dignity of a people on the altar of mere collective pride? If India really is the best bet for the Kashmiri people, then time will bring them back. I might sound hopelessly idealistic, but it has happened before, and why should it not happen again. A fragile peace brews in the valley for now. Pack your bags and see how gorgeous a land can look with your own eyes and you’ll know that while it is definitely a land worth fighting for, nothing is worth killing for; it is the soul of the people that needs to be won, and guns would only help one win over them but they would never help us win them over. What was it about loving someone enough to set them free, and if they come back, they were meant to be ours, and if not, it was never meant to be…? Well, if it works for people we love, why should it not work across, states and faiths? Why should we let cold manipulations of politics and the heat of war get in the way of love? So go, fall in love, and reach out to the people as much as the place, and irrespective of which side of the border it ends up, you would have done your bit for Kashmir to be yours too…