Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Oh No More On Kashmir - 2

A short note by Ajit Chaudhuri

Since the earthquake of October 2005, I have traveled to Kashmir several times – specifically to Srinagar town and Baramullah and Kupwara districts. When I mention this to people, I get a strange look along with the question ‘how is it?’ or ‘what’s it like?’ I am never too sure what to say – are they asking about the scenery, the food, the women, or the militancy? What follows is a general introduction to Kashmir for those with an interest in going beyond the stuff in the news and films, and those considering a visit.

The first thing that strikes one about J&K state is its size and diversity – it is a huge area consisting of plains, mountains, valleys, passes, deserts and plateaus, and of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities. Both size and diversity were much more so before 1947 when it stretched from Tibet in the east to the Northwest Frontier in the west, and from the plains in the south to the Wakhan corridor, a narrow stretch of Afghanistan created to separate the British and Russian empires, in the north. It then consisted of the Jammu region, the Kashmir valley (including the Pakistani-administered bits of it), Ladakh, what the Pakis call their Northern Areas – Baltistan (which was originally part of Ladakh) and Dardistan – and Aksai Chin, the area India conceded in 1962 to China. I will restrict this paper to the Indian part of the Kashmir valley.

The Kashmir valley is a fairly small part of this vast region, but it is the part that is heavily populated. Most of the residents are ethnic Kashmiris – they are Kashmiri speaking, rich, educated and traditionally dominant, with what was an 80:20 mix of Sunni Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) changing to about 99:1 because of the militancy and the subsequent out-migration of Hindus. Minorities include the Pahadis, who are tall and broad and claim to be Rajputs brought as mercenaries by the Dogra kings, and the nomadic Gujjars and Bakharwals. The minorities are less educated, speak a dialect of Punjabi, and stay in the mountains surrounding the valley – they tend not to speak Kashmiri, and are looked down upon by Kashmiris (and don’t like it – both the terms ‘Pahadi’ and ‘Kashmiri’ have a slightly derogatory connotation when used by the other). The earthquake-affected areas of Uri and Tangdhar are Pahadi and Gujjar dominated, and the Sikh officer accompanying me from Border Roads Organization (BRO) on one of my journeys was much more comfortable with the community than his Kashmiri superintendent. Most of the Muslims are converts from Hinduism and, in the villages, retain their caste identities and hierarchies – Bhats, for example, are Brahmin converts and consider themselves superior to others. The Rajput and Jat converts tend to disagree.

What is the militancy about? One of my friends, a conflict expert[1], said that unfriendly neighbours can fan insurgent movements but root causes always lie within. The Kashmiri people were actively pro-India in its conflicts with Pakistan in 1947, 1965 and 1971, which gives lie to the view that the cause of the problem is in the way the region acceded to India. In my view, poor governance and high corruption levels enabled a very small group to gain at everyone else’s cost, and the resultant backlash has taken the form of a movement against the state. The movement has a broad spectrum, with some strands that are Islamic in nature, some that are pro-independence, some that are pro-Pakistan, and some that are mere extortion rackets. Most people, with the exception of the KPs, are pro-independence and most are also quite happy to see the back of the KPs who dominated government employment and were seen to gain disproportionately from corruption.

Who are the militants? The BRO guys gave me an interesting take on this. A brief word first on the BRO – it builds and maintains roads in the border areas of the country, and is responsible for most roads in Kashmir. It is scattered in remote outposts across militant dominated areas without protection, and yet rarely gets attacked. Its formula is fairly simple. First, neither its camps nor its vehicles ever carry weapons, and this is known to one and all. Groups therefore never attack it so as to re-stock their weapons inventory. Second, the roads it builds are critical links for remote villages, and it is often the most important employer in the communities where it works. There is therefore considerable pressure from people on the militancy to enable BRO to work unimpeded. And third, and not least, it does not hesitate to make strategic use of its liquor rations. The BRO boss in Uri said that when he gets a call from the Hizb area commander asking for five men to be employed for five days, he could be sure that five men will land up and will actually work for five days. When LeT or JeM area commanders ring up asking for the same, it is usually just money they are looking for. He attributes this to the fact that the Hizb is a Kashmiri group, has a vision for what it wants Kashmir to be and sees BRO’s work as an important part of that, and the others are Pakistanis with only one thought on their mind. Kashmiris themselves are fairly wary of the Paki groups and of Pakistan itself – many have visited Pakistani Kashmir and seen for themselves the effects of Punjabi imperial attitudes and military rule. This was re-enforced in October 2005 by the positive role the Indian Army played in earthquake relief, which was in sharp contrast to their Pakistani counterparts who walked through the affected region without looking left or right to secure their borders – a fact all Kashmiris are aware of.

So what is the fight between India and Pakistan over Kashmir actually about? Is it that the land is worth the conflict? Or that Pakistan is desperate to repay India over Bangladesh 1971? Or even that the Pakistanis feel for their Kashmiri brethren, as is often touted to be the case? There is a more cynical and basic explanation in some quarters[2] – that it is neither about land, nor egos, and not even religion – it is about water. More than 90 percent of Pakistan’s fresh water comes from India through, from the north southwards, the Indus, the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej rivers. According to the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, India has the right to treat the southern three rivers catchments and has to let the northern three, all of which are through J&K, flow unimpeded into Pakistan. However, fresh water requirements in both countries have grown astronomically and are projected to grow even more astronomically in the future. India has begun treating the northern three rivers as well, thus effecting Pakistan’s real strategic interests. The Chinese have not helped the situation by considering the same on the three large Indian river systems that originate in their territory, the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra, to divert water to their parched northern provinces. As someone said – the wars of the future will be fought over water, not oil.

So much for all this background! What’s Kashmir actually like? Well, for one, it’s as beautiful as advertised – the chinars along the Jhelum, the houseboats on Dal lake, Nishat Bagh, Sonmarg, etc. The roads are excellent. The food is tasty – with rice a staple and various kinds of meat such as Rishta, Gojtaba and Tabak Maaz to go with it in a distinct style of cooking called Waazwaan. And the women are stunning! Preventing heavenhood are the Kashmiris themselves, who though highly educated and well spoken are not straightforward (your tourist tout in Connaught Place is a fairly typical example), the ubiquitous guns of the security forces and last but most, the reason for these guns.

A word about the Army – this is one lot of people you really feel sorry for. They are cooped up inside barricaded areas all the time, going outside only under heavy security (despite which they are constantly being shot at), and with no scope for normal interaction with anybody. I had to stay 3 days in the BRO mess in Srinagar, which is not under particularly high security compared with the Army camps, and yet could not go out anywhere and had to maintain hierarchy and formality 24 hours a day. Imagine doing it for three years? No wonder they have to deal with so many psycho cases these days.

Traveling within Kashmir is stressful! Civilian vehicles are stopped and checked every twenty or so kilometers. I once had the experience of traveling at night from Kupwara to Srinagar, where the vehicle was stopped and powerful lights shined upon it, blinding one completely. With the lights was a medium machine gun, which was pointed at the vehicle. Three soldiers came out, of whom two would stay a little back with their fingers on their AK-47 triggers, again all pointed at the vehicle, and one would come up to the car and ask for papers. The moment they are sure that you are no threat (being from the plains and having an India Today identity card help that along), there is a visible easing of tension and their demeanor is almost welcoming while letting you through. But until that point, even a small twitch can lead to a massacre. And this was repeated every twenty kilometers. After that, I made sure that all movement was done in daylight.

Kashmiris tend to be two-faced, thinking one thing and telling you another. And yet, hospitality norms have not been eroded by the many years of militancy, and once you have come to a deal with a vehicle or hotel you will usually be pleasantly surprised at the quality of service. Everyone speaks very well and is politically aware, and good discussions are sometimes possible. But scratch below the surface and there will be several areas of argument, such as the misdeeds of the Army and India the imperial monster. The effect of many of these is that I turn into an unashamed nationalist as soon as I enter Kashmir (the sort who would make me blanche anywhere else), taking examples of misdeeds of the militancy and asking why it is that the Army’s misdeeds can be questioned, but these cannot. And questioning Kashmir’s ability to survive without the Indian taxpayer subsidizing it – to which the response usually is that that problem is for them and not the Indian taxpayer to worry about. All in a very civilized vein, of course.

Would you be safe if you visited? Yes! The militancy is fairly well organized and you are a target only if you are a target – a few random incidents notwithstanding. My advice is not to be dumb and organize security unless you actually are a target (in which case, don’t visit) because the mere presence of security attracts militant operations. And if you leave by air, budget 45 minutes for the journey from the airport gate to the check-in area.

This paper may not read like a J&K Tourism brochure, but I would like to conclude along similar lines. Most people who travel to Kashmir come back with the view that it was, net net, a great experience. And while you may not return quoting Mohamed Iqbal (who, upon seeing Kashmir, said ‘if there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this’), it will still be worth the time, money and effort. If you are considering a visit, do go ahead.

BRO Border Roads Organization
Hizb Hizbul Mujahedin
J&K Jammu and Kashmir
JeM Jaish-e-Mohamed
KP Kashmiri Pandits
LeT Lashkar-e-Toiba

Additional Reading Material for the very enthusiastic:
‘Jummoo and Kashmir Territories’ by Frederic Drew, the then Governor of Kashmir, published in 1893.
‘Shalimar the Clown’ by Salman Rushdie
[1] Dr. Sunil Kaul, currently with The Ant, an NGO in Assam.
[2] Gleaned from discussions with Col. Talwar in Srinagar over long and cold winter evenings.

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