A passage to Srinagar

I went to Kashmir for the first time the last weekend– to Srinagar and made a quick trip to Gulmarg. I spoke to everyone I met, going out of my way to do so fortuitously. I heard diverse people at a meeting I attended – of civil society groups discussing what can be done about the situation. I am not writing about the discussions at these meetings for there will no doubt be a report.

I have come back profoundly shaken and disturbed: the trip was indeed to India-Occupied-Kashmir. I went thinking azadi was out of question, but have come back questioning that. I don’t know what shape Azadi will take or should. My idea of India, multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, a lovely and terrible terrible mishmash of things will have to change.

First the ubiquitous, visible presence of the army, deeply hated. Why are they not at the borders? What are they doing at every street corner in Srinagar, and indeed even in the rural areas? This is what I felt but every person I met had an explanation: the army has now developed a vested interest to stay in Kashmir, that they do not want a solution to the problem because moneys are being made. Money is being made by the army, by the CRPF, and by all political groups, I was told. A very striking definition of the rich was given to me: one who has not had a killing in the family or assaulted and whose children study abroad. These people, I was told, have no stake in Kashmir, nor in resolving the conflict.

The landscape is still beautiful, the Chinar trees magnificent, but Srinagar is a graceless grey city, stinking in garbage and overflowing with plastics. What struck me is how hopeless, how cynical the young people, I met, are. “A black dog replaces a white dog” said one referring to the main political formations, “but they are dogs, not humans. They do not care for the people. Neither do the others who fight both–the former too are funded by the Indian state, the other groups, both by India and Pakistan”.  

I heard some celebratory noises during the India Sri-Lanka World Cup finals when the first two Indian wickets fell. Later, there was deadly silence. We could have heard a leaf drop. “We will celebrate any victory against India – it does not matter, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka,” said a young student, adding, “We are not against Indians”.

“This had nothing to do with Pakistan, or indeed with Hindus and Muslims. This had to do with azadi for a Kashmir – we will bring together Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and India Occupied Kashmir”, I repeatedly heard. “Kashmiris should not pay the blood price for partition and the problems between India and Pakistan” I was told.

Srinagar has no streetlights and the city is dead after dark. How can people live without the exaltation of music, opportunities for dance and indeed for vulgar consumption of culture – as in the World Cup cricket matches? A curfew was declared on the day of the India-Pakistan semi-finals. Theatre? Forget it. Cinema? Forget it. Seminars, lectures and conferences for people to know what is happening around the world? Forget it. How can one feed the hunger of the young for knowledge, for history, for art, and love? Forget it. Bookshops? Well, yes, but hardly inspiring one or two.

This is clearly not due to poverty–Srinagar and surrounding areas seems to be seeing a construction boom, with Greater Kailash inspired vulgar bungalows coming up. There are two golf courses with ancient looming Chinar trees, magnificent even in winter modesty.

The tragedy is, as in the rest of India, the tragedy of the middle classes. They have seceded from our people. I think Kashmiris are our people, and hence my sorrow.

Author is professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU and accompanied the CPA delegation for the first time. He can be mailed mohanrao2008@gmail.com