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”

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, New Delhi, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley And The Rajdeep Sardesai Book They Almost Forgot

Between two Finance Ministers, a Book Launch Nearly Gives In To Budget Talk

New Delhi, Nov. 7: For a fair while it was tough to make out if the evening was about a hot-off-the-press bestseller or about superannuated or future budgets.

Between an incumbent finance minister and his immediate predecessor and adversary, the launch of Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014 The Election that Changed India (Penguin Viking, Rs 599) became a dour policy duel rather than a soiree of political spice that lies liberally stuffed between the covers.

P. Chidambaram challenged Arun Jaitley to have the courage to scrap the controversial retrospective tax proposals with the comfortable parliamentary majority his government enjoys; Jaitley appeared the meeker to the task, suggesting he expected the outgoing UPA to have “cleaned up the mess” before departing from power.

“I feel let down, if I enjoyed such a majority as you, I would have repealed the retrospective tax,” was how Chidambaram cast his dare to Jaitley. “And I sincerely hope you do that in your next budget, that you will scrap it.” Continue reading “P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley And The Rajdeep Sardesai Book They Almost Forgot”

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