Apples for picking

Apples for picking

It is unbelievable, but true. Srinagar has changed beyond recognition in the past four years since I was there last. Right from new swanky airport to the hotel, a distance of about 10 km, there is modern construction. It looks as if another Noida, near Delhi, is coming up. However, trees have been cut mercilessly and familiar pavements have been dug out to accommodate fancy thoroughfares.

Shops are well stocked and full of customers. Too much money is flowing and the guess is that it is from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India in that order. The number of cars on the road is many times more than before. There are traffic jams and one has to keep the snarls in mind when one plans a trip. People move freely and I saw many women on the road without burqa or headwear.

The militancy is by and large over. Some terrorists strike once in a while. They attacked the police at the Lal Chowk a few days ago. But I get the feeling that media magnifies stray incidents to sensationalise. But when attacks were a regular feature, there was curfew after sunset. Now people are on the road even at 11 pm.
I did not see a single policeman on the road from the airport. Bunkers are mostly gone. I found one at Lal Chowk where some policemen stand with their fingers at the trigger of automatic weapons. The interrogation centres have been closed. But the capricious detentions still take place. The biggest worry is the occasional disappearance of the youth.

The anti-India feeling is there beneath the surface, and people are not afraid of saying so. However, the pro-Pakistan sentiments have practically disappeared, more because of Kashmiris’ perception of the mess in which the country is. Even Azadi is mentioned less and less because of increasing realisation that a landlocked area could not think of being independent.

I found the Hurriyat leaders sober. One leader told me that they had vibes from Delhi that something positive would emerge. They are looking forward to the talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expected to visit Srinagar at the end of the month. Mirwaiz, the Hurriyat chief, is reportedly in favour of it. Chief minister Omar Abdullah also wants New Delhi to talk to all political parties, including the Hurriyat.

It was an interesting talk which I heard when I was sitting with the Hurriyat leaders. A young American Pakistani told them that what had surprised him after the span of three years since his last visit was that Kashmir was being assimilated by India quickly. They were embarrassed but did not want to reply to him in my presence. Mirwaiz said that they would talk to him at some other place over a cup of tea. Born in Kashmir, this young man is a member of a think-tank at Washington. He told them that free state elections, watched by a large number of Americans on televisions, had made great impression on them. They, he said, were beginning to believe that the problem was more or less over.
Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah is more candid than his son, Omar, who is losing his popularity fast. Farooq says there are paid lobbies in the state to keep the problem alive. He accuses security forces, politicians and bureaucrats of having a vested interest in the Kashmir crisis. He has a point when he says that New Delhi has failed to make headway in resolving the problem.

There is a suggestion that both parts of Kashmirs should be demilitarised. But this is dependent on India and Pakistan reaching a settlement, supported by the Kashmiris. The problem of Jammu and Ladakh has become, indeed, ticklish. They do not want to stay with the valley. Jammu wants to join India and Ladakh wants a Union Territory status. True, the Hurriyat has never tried to woo Jammu and has seldom cared for the Kashmiri Pandits languishing there. Still both Jammu and Ladakh can be brought around if they were to be given an autonomous status by the valley within the state.
I have no doubt that the Kashmir problem will be solved sooner or later. But too much has happened in the state in the past that makes it difficult for the old Kashmir to come back to life. Familiar symbols are dying. Sufism has been replaced by assertive Islamic teachings. Kashmiri music is on its last legs because most of the society has been forced to acquire an Islamic edge.

The re-meshing of Muslims and the Pandits, destroyed during the insurgency, looks difficult. The Islamic identity has taken shape, reportedly more in the countryside. And the Kashmiriyat, a secular ethos, is beyond repair. The animosity among the three regions Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh, may dilute but will not go. It may still remain a state of Jammu and Kashmir. But the soul would be missing. Hindus believe that the soul is indestructible. I pray that the Kashmir gets its soul back.