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.

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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”

Jammu, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Home a bus ride away on the other side of the hill, but out of reach

Panun Kashmir protagonists Virender Raina and Ashwini Chrangoo in Jammu: “We are victims of a holocaust.”
Agitated Pandit migrants at the Jagti township near Jammu: “We are actors of a forgotten tragedy.”
Agitated Pandit migrants at the Jagti township near Jammu: “We are actors of a forgotten tragedy.”
The Telegraph report on the first wave of Kashmir migration in early 1990
The Telegraph report on the first wave of Kashmir migration in early 1990

Jammu, Nov. 28: Among The Telegraph’s reports on the first torrent of Pandits fleeing the Valley in 1989-90 was the story of a little girl and her grandmother.

They’d been ejected from their Habbakadal home in Srinagar and flung into the disarray of a campsite on Jammu’s outskirts. The girl played with sand in a pit, as she would do with snow; her grandmother hadn’t rid herself of a lifetime’s habit of carrying a kangri (firepot) around.

The Jammu weather didn’t warrant a firepot, so instead of embers she stored in it lozenges for her granddaughter and keys to a faraway house she’d never return to unlock. It’s likely the old lady is no more, the little girl would be a 30-something somewhere. It’s unlikely she’s home.

Kashmir’s Pandits flew frightened and far from the violent aazaadi eruption, like birds off a startled tree. In the 25 years since, they’ve gone everywhere but not back up the Banihal Pass, never to that native tree of theirs.

The horror of departure shivers Raka Khashu after all these years. “I was a schoolgirl and I heard our entire neighbourhood warning us of consequences, from the mosques, from the streets, it was horrific. And then they came home and shot my grandfather dead.”

Continue reading “Home a bus ride away on the other side of the hill, but out of reach”

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