2017, Kashmir, Reportage, Srinagar, Telegraph Calcutta

Valley Voices

Last fortnight, I spent some time in Kashmir, trying to sample opinion on the Centre’s new effort to open dialogue.

 

Dineshwar Sharma landed here last week as a text message. A couple of days before New Delhi’s newest emissary to Kashmir presented his person to the Valley, telephones of local notables began to simultaneously ping – mainstream and separatist politicians, opinion leaders in the media, academia and the bar, hand-picked retired civil servants, all from a list of numbers that Sharma had been handed. ‘Could we meet? Want to talk? I’m coming,’ is how Sharma was sounding out his target audience.

The response he received was, to put it mildly, lukewarm, especially insufficient in dropping early winter temperatures. Separatists rejected the overture out of hand; mainstream entities like Omar Abdullah of the National Conference showed little eagerness, settling down for a ‘private call on’ only because Sharma had gone knocking his door; among others in the intelligentsia, few obliged, opting to sense the depth and drift of Sharma’s enterprise before they revealed their minds. Those that arrived at his heavily secured VVIP perch at Hari Niwas – many dozen delegations, authentic and adulterated – had mostly been herded and nudged to Sharma’s presence by administrative fiat. On the eve of Sharma’s arrival, the office of Divisional Commissioner Basheer Khan, occupied itself shooting off directives to any outfit worth the name to present themselves to Sharma – Bakerwal and Gujjar tribesmen, boatmen, tour operators, hoteliers, motley sets of tillers, women’s and youth groups, government-funded NGOs, even a dubious crew of young journalists nobody seemed to know existed. As Sharma laboured on in his exclusive bungalow, trying to shore up respectable numbers of the interested, The Telegraph spoke to a cross-section of those not on his telephone log – young unaligned professionals who remain invested in Kashmir and count among stakeholders as any other. This is what they had to say on New Delhi’s latest venture:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rashid Rather, Sociologist: Kashmiris love talking, we’ve been talking since 1947. The issue is what about. To me the problem here is not about how to deal with separatists, it is how Delhi has dealt with mainstream parties, right from Sheikh Abdullah to Farooq Abdullah to the present generation of leaders. They have been pressed to the wall. Delhi has failed the Kashmiri mainstream consistently, it was made to fail before the Kashmiri people to a point that it had no credibility left. From Indira Gandhi to Rajiv to P.V. Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, everybody made promises and turned on them. That is what has created the space for separatists. There were always separatist pockets here, but they were pockets. New Delhi-inspired failures of the mainstream have expanded the separatist constituency. My message to New Delhi is: don’t be bothered about separatists, look at how you have treated the mainstream, how you have manipulated and emaciated it. But they are not prepared to learn any lessons, they are going on repeating the same mistakes. They have played with the mainstream leadership. Such a record inspires no confidence in us. The new emissary has met many so-called delegations, nearly 40 in two days, but is this a railway platform? What is he trying to do meeting so many delegations in such a short time? Are we to take this seriously? It has become a joke. Please do not come to Kashmir without examining your own record, it will serve no purpose. Go back, introspect and if you realise you’ve made mistakes, a start can probably be made.

Continue reading “Valley Voices”

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2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah

An elderly lady embraces Omar Abdullah on the campaign trail in rural Beerwah
An elderly lady embraces Omar Abdullah on the campaign trail in rural Beerwah

Beerwah, Dec. 6: Out barnstorming the countryside a day after multiple terror hits to the Valley, chief minister and National Conference spearhead Omar Abdullah spelt out a blunt “no” to any post-poll deal with the BJP.

“That’s not going to happen, people can keep speculating and dreaming about it,” Omar told The Telegraph in an exclusive chat along his roadshow. He was touring his newly adopted rural constituency Beerwah, southwest of Srinagar.

It appears imminent the ongoing elections will throw up a hung Jammu and Kashmir House and there has been speculation in some circles Omar could ally with the BJP, or support its power effort from outside. Omar conceded the mandate may be fractured but said nothing will drive him to an alliance with the BJP, which is making an audacious first-time bid for power in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Continue reading “Uphill with Omar Abdullah in Beerwah”

Essay, Kashmir, Telegraph Calcutta

Grave caged by Parray’s life

Kuka Parray's elder son Wasim at his graveside in Hajin
Kuka Parray’s elder son Wasim at his graveside in Hajin

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones – Julius Caesar , William Shakespeare

Hajin (North Kashmir), Dec. 4: Where Kuka Parray is interred an argument still rings between good and evil, between what he was and he was not.

Who’d argue with a daughter whose eyes moisten when she points in the direction of Parray’s grave and lets out a sigh: ” Meray Papa… my father.”

Who’d argue with the fathers and mothers of those that Parray’s men wantonly killed – “that traitor who preyed upon his own”.

Not a blade of grass springs on Parray’s graveside, much less a blossom; and birds don’t alight to sing. For a cage it is where he lies, a padlocked enclosure of mortar and wrought iron filigree erected on his front lawn, a stained general in his cold labyrinth.

He wouldn’t be safe elsewhere in a place under open skies. He denied himself the eternal liberties the way he lived and died.

Between folk singer and folk terror, Kuka Parray became a blistered chapter in Kashmir’s contemporary tales, a chapter nobody fondly recalls but nobody would wish to forget in this neck of the woods.

Continue reading “Grave caged by Parray’s life”

Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Lone’s unlikely asset in Valley – ‘No’, ‘yes’ and Modi

Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.
Asma, Sajjad Lone’s wife, seeking votes in the Handwara countryside.

Handwara (north Kashmir), Dec. 1: Sajjad Lone is walking too many paradoxes to bother finessing them.

His political legacy is separatist but he is pushing for an elected mainstream ledge. His wife Asma is daughter to the Pakistan-based chairman of the JKLF, Amanullah Khan, but she is scurrying tirelessly around town and hamlet canvassing an Assembly seat for her husband.

His shadow ally in this militancy-infested border outpost is the “Hindu nationalist” Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. The taunt that has relentlessly trailed Sajjad’s campaign is: “Jo Modi kaa yaar hai, gaddar hai, gaddar hai (Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor, is a traitor).”

But if Sajjad’s adversaries — chief minister Omar Abdullah and challenger Mufti Mohammed Sayeed — believe they are embarrassing the People’s Conference (PC) leader with the Modi link, they are shooting north Kashmir’s grey chill.

Continue reading “Lone’s unlikely asset in Valley – ‘No’, ‘yes’ and Modi”

2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

The passing of Kashmiriyat – A quarter century on, mistrust busts an old myth

On Tuesday, Jammu and Kashmir casts the first vote in what’s probably its most consequential election in many decades.

The house of the Abdullahs, the first family of Kashmiri politics, is palpably in decline. A new “outsider” claimant to power — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP — is in dramatic surge.

he field is abuzz. Players like Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s PDP and Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference too are backing themselves in what is the most open contest the state has seen.

It is an election pregnant with implications, for India and for the region. What could it mean if the
BJP were to grab controlling stakes in India’s only Muslim-majority province? How will it impact relations with Pakistan, which occupies one chunk of Kashmir and is deeply and violently enmeshed in the affairs of the part India governs?

There is another, oft ignored, facet that this election could be about, a brutally plucked piece of the riven map of J&K — this is also the 25th anniversary year of the hounding of Kashmiri Pandits from their homes, a calamitous chapter that left a populace adrift and the Valley a radically altered space.

Kashmir’s Pandits restively await the end of exile. Is this election to be the herald of that hour? A status report on India’s unspoken Partition

Mun tu shudam
Tu mun shudi;
Man tan shudam
Tu jaan shudi;
Takas na goyad bod azeen
Mun deegaram
Tu deegaree

(I am You and You are me; I am your body, You are my soul; So none should hereafter say, I am someone and You someone else)

So singing out Amir Khusro’s sufi verse, Mohammed Sheikh Abdullah turned to embrace Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmiri Musalmaan to Kashmiri Pandit, in front of thousands gathered at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

It was November 2, 1947; the ink on Kashmir’s accession to India was only a week old. What followed would knock the stuffing off that sublime vow and render it a tattered feast for vultures.

Banihal, Nov. 24: This is an obituary notice that has long required posting: Kashmiriyat is dead.

But never mind, nobody’s shedding tears. Not least the standard-bearers of that celebrated covenant of syncretic concord and peaceable, if not also rich and festive, cohabitation.

A quarter century after they tore ties, suture upon suture, Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits have heckled Kashmiriyat to gory expiry. That achieved, they have dumped its cask and stomped off opposite ways to curse the faith they once together espoused.

The few that insist Kashmiriyat is still alive are stoking wishful rumour, frosted embers at the bottom of a kangri, the signature Kashmiri hotpot. Kashmiriyat? Then you must also believe the “Happy Valley” suffix to Kashmir isn’t a cynically deluded indulgence.

Down opposite sides of the Banihal Pass, up 9,291ft in the Pir Panjal bridgehead between Jammu and Kashmir, has come to prosper a migraine aspiring to become a civil war. If there is a broken truth on earth, it lies here, it lies here, it lies here.

The mouth of the Jawahar tunnel at Banihal Pass which links Jammu to the Kashmir Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The travesty is, there aren’t a more kindred people likely to be found — they come from common roots and genealogy, they kiss the same soil, eat the same food, speak the same language. But their conversation has become a grisly caterwaul ringing in the depths of the Jawahar Tunnel, a connector that has now become a divide three kilometres long.

Continue reading “The passing of Kashmiriyat – A quarter century on, mistrust busts an old myth”

2014, Journalism, Kashmir, Reportage, Srinagar, Telegraph Calcutta

Srinagar: A Lost Magic No Money or Masonry will Retrieve

The city Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to put poultice on was a thing of magic taken by a shock of water and flung into the past. The greater part of Srinagar is now but a memory no amount of money or masonry will retrieve. Cuckoo Wazir took me up a ramshackle stairway to the third floor of his Rajbagh mansion to show me what the September flood had taken and what it had left behind.
Cuckoo Wazir's sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar
Cuckoo Wazir’s sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar
In the dank hallway he picked on a wall stripped to bare brick and it gave like crumble cake. “A month and a half after, it’s all still soggy,” Wazir said, “It is probably unsafe being up here, all of this looks ready to fall.” Much of the mansion’s interior — partly rented out by the Wazirs as a boutique guest home — was heritage construction: old cedar beams and gables, and traditional Kashmiri mortar of husk and clay and pounded wood; the amalgam kept homes warm. “They don’t do homes like this any more,” Wazir, wizened, stubble-faced and weary, said stoically, “We have lost what we can never recover. And most of what is left of our home we must bring down, this won’t survive.”
Hired hands lumbered all over the compound and the peeling interiors, salvaging torn furniture and bloated volumes, hammering mosaic floors, sawing off rotten woodwork. Wazir’s wife and son sat on a heap of soggy carpets, surveying the the unstrung glass beads of what might have been a magnificent chandelier.
A deathly stench floats about where autumn only ever brought redolent flower-scented drifts, one sweeter than the other. It is a cloying flood-pollen conjured by untended rot — drowned garbage and medicines, clogged drains, putrefying pools of water, plentiful human waste, decaying animal flesh. It is an invisible violence that has caused an eruption of masked faces on the streets.
What used to be until this summer Srinagar’s prided and envied upscale neighbourhoods — Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar, Gogji Bagh, Wazir Bagh — are now rubble, the scattered leftovers of a shark’s wanton meal. The deluge had scythed right through the midriffs of handsome homes, ripping timber and glass, ransacking interiors, churning dainty lawns and flower beds to pasty mud. Most homes lie abandoned, their molested effects tossed asunder like entrails left behind after a fitful postmortem. An elderly man in Wazirbagh thought he was done with clearing up the insides of his devastated home, but now he stood confounded by a monumental pile at his gate. “This has no end,” he sighed, “You clean up one place and another place is screaming to be cleaned up, there is just no end to it. And winter is nearly upon us.” Mounds of refuse on every street corner are ready evidence the municipal works are paralysed.
Srinagar’s central hub — Lal Chowk and Residency Road, tailing off it — has become demolition row. Flattened shop fronts getting the first doses of recovery at the hands of cleaners and carpenters and painters and masons. It will be some time before the buzz and bustle can be restored. The Telegraph’s midtown offices barely escaped the waters by dint of being on a high floor, but access to it wasn’t to be had for weeks. And now that my colleague Muzaffar Raina has doughtily resumed operations, his remains a largely solitary enterprise amid doomed establishments. There isn’t a place to go for a quick cup of coffee. The old world garden cafés nestled among leaping chinars and avant garde delicatessens have alike suffered the flood, drowned to their gills, unable to make a quick turnaround. “How on earth?” cried out one restaurateur, “The furniture, the furnaces, the foodstocks, the cooks and waiters, all gone, I can barely serve myself a meal.”
In Qamarwari, a conservative Srinagar neighbourhood the flood knifed through, we saw this afternoon a magnificent old home being hammered down and carted away to grave in wheelbarrows. It was a mud and timber three-storey, classic of the way pre mortar homes were constructed. It had a wooden stairwell, a fire flue, ornate windows and two lookout gables at the top. But all of that was too gone in years to withstand the knocking; it had to be brought down. All that remained of how grand the home may have been was an outline etched on the walls of the neighbouring house. Like Wazir’s mansion, this Qamarwari residence is forever gone, and will unlikely be replaced in the way it used to be.
A new Srinagar will surely erect itself on its ruins, but it will never quite be the old one, the magical one the shock of water came and took away.

Cuckoo Wazir's sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar
Cuckoo Wazir’s sabred mansion in Rajbagh, Srinagar
2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Poll Recall: Telegraph May 7/Kashmir: Final solution: Mind Your Business

 A shop to run, a lathe to work at, a field to till — Baramulla knows too well not to wait for messiahs

Under the simmering canopy of the Kashmir dispute lumbers the realm of the forgotten Kashmiri.

In a vale so tiny — it is 130-odd kilometres long and 40 kilometres at its widest — that realm is never far to seek but it seldom attracts notice.

The tourism industry doesn’t mark out routes to it, the guides will never take you there, the state stays mostly away and averse, the politicians, oh but they barely even remember. Barely even at the time they require this realm most, at election time.

Hamara siyasat se matlab nahin, siyasat ka hamse nahin (we have nothing to do with politics, politics have nothing to do with us),” so saying, Mohammed Alam, cloth merchant in the one-lane bazaar of Kamblinar, wished us on.

In a day or two, men and materials will drone into the heart of the village, churning dust and curiosity, and set up a polling centre in the tumbledown structure that calls itself a middle school.

Alam won’t be bothered going in to vote. Nor his mates in the Kamblinar bazaar that stocks nothing beyond the most rudimentary things — you can acquire torch cells but not torches; they would have to be got from Handwara, the closest retail hub, two hours on a local bus that plies once a day.

Alam’s reasons for not voting are not what you’d classically expect from a Valley Muslim. His reasons are not about subscribing to the Hurriyat’s boycott call, or about the protracted sub-continental quarrel over where Kashmir should belong.

It’s merely about what Alam said in the first place: about not giving anything to politics because it gives nothing to you. “I will not acquire a bigger shop or a plot of land or a better school for my children if I go and vote,” Alam said sardonically. “I have a chance of doing that if I run my shop well. We are happy being what we are, let me not be told some masiha (messiah) will change things overnight.”

His friends from Kamblinar’s little merchant community — half-a-dozen shopfronts including a bread-and-tea vend — said they wanted to add no more to what Alam had said.

“You can see we are happy with what we have, and you can see what we do not have,” one of them said. “Should we be fooled it will come from casting a vote? We’ve tried that. All we have heard is talk of a final solution to Kashmir. Meantime, what are we meant to do?”

We had arrived in Kamblinar quite by accident. We had strayed looking for quite another village in the up-and-down maze of rural Baramulla — Chandoosa, the native place of Supreme Court lawyer and PDP candidate, Muzaffar Hussain Beg. We had climbed up the arrow road from Srinagar to Tangmarg, humped over Gulmarg — teeming with the summer’s first tourists scratching about the dregs of remnant snow — and plunged down the back of the forested shrine of Baba Reshi.

Quite suddenly, the clamour of tourist Kashmir had faded and an ante-dated Kashmir had taken over. We had travelled no more than 10 minutes downhill and we had plunged in time, into a radically removed environ from the luminous signposting of Gulmarg, shorn of its glitter, bereft of the excited hubbub of its hotels and eateries, the tinkle of easy cash and the chirp of commerce.

There was barely a dwelling to be seen that wasn’t ramshackle, barely a field that wasn’t being worked with bare human hands. We passed struggling horse carts and farmers pushing wheelbarrows. We barely came across motorised transport. We saw no hospitals or health centres, only the odd school where the classrooms were empty. There were no security people either, as they are elsewhere in the Valley.

The road had vanished and rubble had taken over. The Chandoosa of Beg was nowhere to be found. Somebody told us it may lie beyond the bend north of Kamblinar

That’s how we came to meet Alam.

Chandoosa was not one but several bends in the undulating valley from Kamblinar. “You’ll find nothing special there,” Alam said to us by way of caution. “It’s just the same as here, a forgotten place.”

In the centre of Chandoosa, we found iron smith Abdul Khaliq working his denuded lathe, the only man in the village with the time or the patience to talk. “I’ve been at this since I was a child,” he said motioning to his workstation of scattered metal things, “since the angrez (Englishman) ruled. Nothing has changed, not even my tolls or how I craft them.”

Khaliq was happy to have pictures taken; to look at him was to see a man from centuries ago. “I voted once, for Sheikh Abdullah, but never after, they all come and say good things and go, the fools, they are no good, a waste of time.”

The mustard was being harvested, and soon it would be time to sow paddy; Khaliq had his hands full crafting or sharpening farm tools. Isn’t he happy to have a fellow villager in the fray, the famous Beg? “But who?” Khaliq cocked his ears. “Yes, we are told he is from here but does he ever come? I have never seen him.”

Baramulla, one of the three Valley seats other than Anantnag and Srinagar and probably the one with the longest LoC run among them, has another famous contender — Sharifuddin Shariq of the National Conference. Shariq has represented the constituency three consecutive times. But with little to show for it.

It’s a harsh place, the Baramulla countryside; its bedraggled beauty does little to offer relief from the daily grind of subsistence life. Neither do those who compete to represent it in the high halls of legislature. For them, the lot of the people, remains in abeyance until they are done with the high rhetoric of Kashmir’s “final solution”, which looks nowhere in sight in this abandoned wilderness.