Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Trip to the Valley

Despite much well-intentioned advice, we took a vacation recently in Kashmir. We reached Srinagar on a somewhat warm Sunday afternoon. Srinagar, on first impression, shows few signs of having borne the brunt of the militancy ridden years. The roads are wide, and pot-hole free, with well-proportioned sidewalks (Chennai Corporation, are you listening?) the traffic, like in the rest of India is noisy and bumper to bumper with those pesky SUVs, and tourism is booming again, and particularly now in the Amarnath Yatra season.

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.


AmOK said...

Glad you had a nice holiday. Thanks for the snaps and writeup. Good reminders of days gone by yet not so. :).

Anant said...

OLO: I was wondering why all was quiet on AIP. Glad to know you had a pleasant holday.

Anonymous said...

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.

Hmm! Reeeally? And which U.P. towns have you passed through ?

Rahul Basu said...

A very large number, Lucknow downwards and passing through Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur and so on to much smaller ones...

Sourendu said...

Did you have to put your laptop in your checked in bag? Or maybe you took a REAL holiday and decided not to take your laptop with you. In which case the same question about your camera.

Rahul Basu said...

Ah ha! The issue of hand baggage at Srinagar airport :) (Hand Baggage is allowed on the Delhi-Srinagar flight).

1. I don't carry my laptop on vacations (or at least try not to!) and in fact didn't.

2. I checked in my backpack (unlocked!) after removing the camera. The latter is then scanned and hand checked.

3. In principle, if you are persistent you can carry your hand bag with you. You then have to scan it and then get every bit of it opened and inspected manually which takes for ever. (and of course there is a long line for it). So most people prefer not to, except the die-hards. Those with laptops with at least a cover on them had just taken them out and carried them in their hands.

4. You also have to go and identify your checked-in baggage which also takes for ever since it arrives ever so slowly.

5. Moreover, before all this your car and baggage is scanned by the army half a kilometer before the airport. You off load your baggage from the car get it (and yourself) all scanned and then load it back into the car.

As you might guess, all this takes about a couple of hours....

Sourendu said...

Last week on the way to the airport there, I was caught in a traffic jam. At ten minutes before the counter closed I got off the car and ran. I had to pass through security just as I got into the airport gates. This was thorough but quick. In the departure hall I had to scan (again) and check in my precious hand baggage. Didn't have the time to argue about it. Security at the boarding gate was also efficient and quick. By the time I got through it, the checked in baggage had arrived for identification. I had time to get a coffee before we boarded. I found the security obtrusive but efficient. The airport and airlines ground staff were also efficient. This could have been because I was the last in.

Interestingly, I bought a bottle of water at the kiosk inside the secure area of the boarding gate but was not allowed to carry it on the craft. Since I'd not broken the seal on it, the security personnel told me that I could return the bottle. The sales person at the kiosk took it back and returned my money without question; this probably happens very often.