The Tribune - Spectrum

, December 2, 2001
Lead Article

KASHMIR Good times ! Bad times ?

Much has changed during the past few years in the Kashmir valley. The fear is not as palpable as it was earlier. People now say "things are near normal" and not "the situation is bad," as they used to. Ashwini Bhatnagar travels through the beautiful Valley to report firsthand on the conditions prevailing at the grassroots level.

THE colour honey-gold filled the valley. It flowed from the distant horizons, tinged with a hint of grey, and caught the sunís eye as it lapped across the broad expanse of the flatland hemmed in by the muscular Pir Panjal range. It shone and sparkled and winked from the shimmering tinroofs of houses at the nearer end. From the heights of the Jawahar Tunnel, it seemed as if the Valley stood stilló very stilló as it waited, perhaps apprehensively, for the drape of the golden haze to be pulled away by the inky darkness of the sickle-moon night. A cold gust from the west suddenly cut across the warmth of the sun-baked bowl, making the poplar trees shiver and drop a few more leaves. The silent, ramrod straight sentinels had been stripped of their cover and the gold of their bodies waited to take on the onslaught of the winter ahead. A hilltop suddenly ran into the journeying sun and eclipsed it. The shadows began to lengthen in the Valley and a numbing chill quickly followed in its wake. The landscape had turned hostile.


"Yes, there is still fear but things are much more normal now," the dhaba owner said serving lunch on the outskirts of Ramban town. The Chenab flowed peacefully to the left of the dhaba and a 100 metres away a bridge spanned it. A barrier marked the end of the bridge. Obviously, it was an army camp as jeeps and trucks came into view from time to time, either going into the area or coming out of it. On the hilltops, jawans basked with their automatic weapons in the bright sunlight. The townís main artery was clogged with traffic that spewed sootblack fumes on the carasses of goats and sheep lined up for Ramzan shopping. Neat rows of chopped goat heads, innocent even in their eternal rest, completed the idyllic picture of a town going about its business on a lazy afternoon.

"Do they come to town?"

"Who, janab?"

"The militants?"

"I donít know. Must be, but what can I say? They are their own masters."

"Have you ever been approached by them for food or money?"

"I am from Gurdaspur, janab. I donít know much."

"How long have you been in Ramban?"

"Fifty years."

"So you are almost a local."

"I donít know, janab. My livelihood is here, thatís all I know. Why donít you talk to the police."

"I will. But do you think that things are normal?" "They are. Sometimes a blast takes place or there is firing. But it is normal. The fear is gone. I am happy."

Later in the day, the dhaba owner heard a blast from across the river. Militants had thrown a greande at an army convoy entering the camp. Eleven soldiers had been killed. The dhaba owner calmly downed the shutters and left for home at an even pace. Cordon-and-search operations were minutes away, and he would have to patiently wait till tomorrow to light his tandoor again.

The traffic was heavier on the Jammu-Srinagar highway than it is on most other national highways. Hundreds of trucks, with sturdy Sikhs manning them, snaked across the barren Pir Panjal range. "Winter stocks, bhaji," the young Subedar Singh grinned. "If we donít move all this grain across before it snows, these blighters will die of starvation. Khoob militancy karoji. Koi gal nahin, asin jo hain tuhasnu khilan vaste," he slapped his tummy and let out a mirthful laugh. "They will attack only when we pass," he winked, "Canít really bite the hand that feeds!! Saadi understanding hai!" he laughed again and waved goodbye, "But you be careful. Apna khayal rakhi!"

"They tried tricks with the Sikhs when they killed us in Chittisingpora. They thought we will also pack up and leave like the Kashmiri pandits. But how can we? We are Kashmiris. My forefathers lived in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan- Occupied Kashmir and it was because of Partition that we came to Srinagar," says Rajinder Singh, additional director, Doordarshan, Srinagar. "Immediately after the massacre, we called a meeting of prominent Sikhs from all over the country and told them in clear terms that if we were forced to move out of the Valley, no Sikh will drive the trucks into it. Offers were made by the government to give firearms to the one lakh-odd families of Sikhs who are in the Valley but we refused. Whatís the point of having a double-barrel gun when your next door neighbours donít want you? So, we said that if the majority community didnít want or need us, let them say so and we would leave. They have to guarantee our security otherwise. So far, no word from them. They need us."

Rajinderís brother was caught in an army-militant crossfire a year and a half ago. A bullet went through his throat and jaw and the needle passed 18 times through his skin to sew up the wound. "It is alright. Accidents happen everywhere. I was driving past an army convoy after sunset when militants lobbed a grenade. The army thought I had lobbed it and the firing started from both sides. But it is not so dangerous." He laughs away the incident. "I must, however, tell you how Kashmir is different from the rest of the country. For one, we donít have to be particular about going to office. I go whenever I want to. My other colleagues donít come in for weeks. Most of them have businesses running on the side and they devote their time to that. Nobody asks us why we donít attend office. Good, no?" he says with a twinkle in his eye. "Moreover, we donít pay any taxes or bills. Income Tax, this tax, that tax doesnít apply here. Sab set kiya hua hai. Use as much electricity as you want to and you will not get a bill, or use water. Sab mauj mein hai! Tell me, is there a better state than this in the whole of India?"

"Farooq Abdullah is my man," says businessman R.K. Kaul on the Jammu side of the Pir Panjal. "I have 100 per cent subsidy on everything. I set up a generator and the government gave me back all the money I spent on it. I donít pay power bills or any other taxes or bills. Kashmir is a paradise on earth administered by Dr Farooq Abdullah. I love him," he says matter-of-factly but the sneer in his tone is clear. "He is having a good time and we too are having a good time. Let militancy continue. I have a vested interest in it as a free- booter."

Naeem Khan runs the National Front in the Valley. He was once said to be very close to Shabir Shah, the JKLF supremo, and had even contested elections under the banner of the MUF. "What we need is good governance and not the type of administration Dr Abdullah has given us. The last elections were a fake and he has been forced on us as the chief minister. Look at all the political injustices that New Delhi has done to us since the very beginning. The problem has to be now redressed fully."

"But if it is a question of good governance, why no politicial platform has emerged against Dr Farooq Abdullah? After all, in many states people have managed to change the governments of the day through political processes. Why a lack of leadership in J and K?"

"It is all New Delhiís doing. It is responsible for crushing us. I was in jail for many months because we participated in a political process through the MUF."

"You have been part of the movement for many years. How has it changed over time in terms of militant activity?"

"Our boys are better trained, better equipped and better motivated. It is wrong to say now that foreigners are running the show here. May be, one per cent or two per cent of the total are foreigners. But all these suicide attacks in the recent past were done by locals."

But Khan is sure that Kashmir is not on its way towards Talibanisation. He cites the open opposition to the diktat of wearing the burqa by women as a case in point. "It was not accepted here. Intellectuals wrote against it and politicial and non- politicial people condemned the move. Our society doesnít subscribe to the Talibanís Islam." Khanís claim is verifiable on the roads of the Valley. Whether in Srinagar or in the rural areas, women go about town in their traditional attire. Women wearing pants or driving cars without a headcover are a common sight. They are also out on the streets in large numbers. Even in small towns like Bijbhera, Quazikund, Pampore, Anantnag, Tanmarg or Gulmarg, unescorted women are a rule rather than an exception.

Prosperity is also as much on display. The hardships of militancy- affected life have all but disappeared. Shikarawallahs donít run after new faces, offering boat rides at a discount. If you want to paddle in the lake, you have to make the move and the price is almost fixed. Some haggling does take place but they are not desperate for customers even though there are not many around. Six years back, ponywallahs and sledgewallahs in Gulmarg begged and pleaded for another rupee and fought with each other to grab the lone Ďtourist.í Today, they just sit and stare at the new arrivals. Their clothes are not in tatters and they donít look miserable.

The Banihal Tunnel also opens to a continuous view of new houses in every area of Kashmir. Every big or small settlement has wood and concrete structures coming up. In Srinagar, more than a score of new posh colonies have sprung up, each boasting of houses that can rival designer kothis in Delhi or Chandigarh. Most houses belong to government servants. Obviously, there is a torrent of money gushing out of the government treasurery. Add to this, foreign funding whether it is through the illicit channels of the ISI or through the madarsa network. "Actually, says Ashok Bhan, IG, Kashmir, " Foreign money is not much. The real prosperity is because of the large number of security personnel stationed here. Every man who goes on leave, spends at least two monthsí salary on buying gifts to take home --shawls, dry fruits, woodwork and other Kashmir specialities. I wonít tell you how many security personnel are here but they are enough to take care of the loss of tourist traffic," he smiles broadly. Other locals say that business is booming as people even in rural areas have transformed themselves into contractors, supplying odd necessities to the army and other establishments. Consequently, shops stocking top brands are always full. Business is brisk during the winters especially in the sale of compact discs of Hindi films and electric blankets.

But has it altered the situation in terms of limiting militancy? Almost everyone contends that "life is near-normal" and the terror of the nights of high-pitched noises, gunfire and the dread of search cordons is a thing of the past. Even the Hurriyat and the Hizbul Mujahideen have started talking in terms of opening dialogues. Besides, has the September 11 and its aftermath has had a sobering affect on the headstrong? "Nothing has changed," says Bhan, "There is no exodus of foreign militants from the Valley. Infiltration is still on and anything can happen anytime, anywhere. They are now selecting targets and then hitting them through suicide bombers. This is one tactics. The other is creating a scare. Anything can happen, donít be taken in by this apparent normalcy."

Hours later, a grenade exploded in the bustling Lal Chowk, Srinagar, killing one and seriously wounding 23 passers by. A night earlier, security personnel had eliminated the top leadership of the Al Badr group in an encounter on the outskirts of Srinagar.