Most locals claimed that militancy was now non-existent and most of the violence one reads about are internecine wars between different political groups, trying to create trouble for their opponents (with the separatists trying to muddy the waters even further). There is much truth in these statements as we were to find out. "Kashmir is peaceful" declared Majid-Bhai our houseboat caretaker, and indeed, taking a stroll or shikara ride on Dal Lake, watching other shikaras glide peacefully by, (the peace only shattered by noisy pot-bellied Indian tourists talking loudly to each other or on their mobiles), tourists practicing water skiing, the mountains in the distance, the floating vegetable gardens, India's brutal "war on terror" seems to be happening on a different planet. And yet violence lurks just under the surface, as we discovered. The locals are very friendly as I recall from my visit a quarter century ago, with no hostility, at least visibly, towards India or Indians. People are happy that tourism is picking up and they are able to make a decent living. Srinagar is clearly in much better shape that almost any U.P. town that I have passed through, none of which have known the kind of violence Srinagar has.
The next day we took a long drive to Sonemarg, along mountain roads bordering the river Sindh. The highways are maintained by the army and Border Roads Organisation which meant that they were in excellent condition. One sees frequent outposts of CRPF men carrying automatic rifles but there are no invasive and frequent checks as was the case in the past during the worst years of militancy. We took a pony ride all the way up to the Thajiwas glacier, at the snow line where large numbers of Indian families were trying ineffectually to sled down the snowy slopes.
And so to Gulmarg next day, and up the cable car which takes you up, first to the lower stopping point at Kongdoor at 2699 m and thence (which we did not take) to 3099 m, claimed to be the highest point in the world by cable car.
And then it happened. Next day we had taken the National Highway from Srinagar to Pahalgam, (passing through the beautiful "Green Tunnel") where we intended to stay for a day.
On reaching Pahalgam, we discovered that Srinagar had been 'convulsed' by riots. Our TV channels, never one to let an opportunity go, talked about riots in Srinagar, Kashmir in flames, each account getting more lurid than the next. It was an oft-repeated story. A young boy had been found murdered with severe wounds all over his body. The locals blamed the police for the murder, the police claimed it was a case of kidnapping and murder by persons unknown. The locality had come out in force, there was stone-throwing, burning of a police vehicle but no lethal weapons were used. The J&K police force, which draws its cadre from the ranks of the local populace, has earned the dubious distinction of being as hated and reviled as the 'external' CRPF and the army. There are frequent accusations against them of custodial deaths, torture and rape, as much as against the CRPF.
Pahalgam is a beautiful hill station through which the River Lidder passes. It's a place where one can go for long walks or treks through wooded forests or drive up to the Chandanwadi glacier, or river rafting on the Lidder. Our stay was a trifle spoilt by the worry of having to return to Srinagar in the middle of all these problems. However our driver assured us that this was a daily occurrence in Srinagar and there was nothing to worry. And indeed, so it turned out! We made it back without incident and saw no signs of trouble either outside or even within the city. And in fact we spent the rest of the day wandering through the Mughal gardens along with numerous other tourists from all over, milling around the tourist spots. The only sign of trouble was that all shops were closed. It's only after we returned that we saw this headline which told us that something was amiss.
So this is how it goes, as explained to us by our driver. All the demonstrations and stone throwing happens in the Lal Chowk, Civil Lines and downtown areas. The typical tourist hotspots in and around Dal Lake and Mughal Gardens are usually trouble free and normal, except for downed shutters. Thus, while tourism does take a bit of a hit and there is loss of business when shops are closed, life goes on. The separatists and opposition political parties have figured that disrupting the lucrative tourist business does not win them any plaudits from the local people and have therefore perhaps hit upon this solution! Moreover the days of truly violent demonstrations with separatists coming out on the streets waving machine guns and shouting Azadi seem to be over. The problem now appears to be a purely local one between the different bit players in the valley, with perhaps covert but no overt involvement of external forces. There is a general feeling of hope in the valley, at least from what we could gather from talking to the local people (unless they were all having us on, which I doubt).
A word about Azadi and this is my own two paise worth. India's serious bungling of the Kashmir issue coupled with human rights violations by paramilitary and military forces particularly in the hinterland has (or had) made Azadi a romantic concept for many Kashmiris who felt rightly that they had no future in India. However, looking at it purely pragmatically, shorn of all jingoism and political considerations, I am not quite sure how it would work economically. As an independent entity, Kashmir, a land-locked country which is not self-sufficient, would be surrounded by two hostile neighbours, neither of whom would be particularly well-disposed towards giving it favoured nation status. Tourism, its mainstay would take a severe hit. All the Indians who are now flocking to it in droves again, would hesitate if it involved passports and visas and all that, even if there were simple procedures (how many people visit Bhutan?). Thus, economically Kashmir would suffer if it were independent, since the Central source of funds (of which there is a lot, leading to much heartburn and resentment in Jammu) would dry up and it's not clear that Pakistan would be able to, or even want to make up the deficit. All in all, Azadi does not quite appear to be a viable proposition. Joining Pakistan? Well, perhaps, but then the Taliban are not too far off....
Update: Some more pictures are available at my photo gallery on my home page.