Beards and burqas, much in evidence among the angry crowd outside the chief minister’s fortified residence, don’t go with the ballot box on the banks of this tranquil stretch of the Jhelum river. Within the citadel, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed projects an altogether more modern image in collar, tie and lounge suit.
This is Kashmir’s great sartorial divide. It’s not unlike that old Bengali cartoon showing Deshapriya J.M. Sengupta in impeccable dinner jacket, sipping his scotch, while a liveried flunkey held out the mandatory khadi dhoti and panjabi. The caption — “Bearer, meeting ka kapra lao!” — has passed into political idiom.
The beards and burqas were protesting against the arrest of militants. “So-called Healing Touch of the State Terrorism” I read on one banner held up by a pair of buxom veiled women. “The State Calls Its Own Violence Law But that of the Individual Crime” shrieked a poster carried by two heavily bearded men.
Also bearded, though it is fashionably trimmed, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the Awami Action Committee, is a very angry man. He cannot understand why Indian democracy does not mete out equal treatment to pro- and anti-election rallies. The former receive police protection; the latter are the targets of police attack. “We only tell people not to vote in this election which is really a selection,” he fumes. “We don’t use force to stop them as in Manipur.”
If publicity is oxygen for terrorists, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, there is plenty here in posters, slogans and the local newspapers. Tellingly, the most popular paper is called Greater Kashmir. Inside the guarded walls, the chief minister’s contrasting attire speaks of the People’s Democratic Party’s political conformism, commitment to the Indian union and stated faith in the electoral process. The Mufti has made Western clothes into a uniform of modernity.
In contrast, National Conference leaders are quick-change artistes.
Farooq Abdullah changes from smart golfing gear into a pheran to leap and dance on the stage; his son Omar looks as if he would be more at home in jeans and T-shirt. Chunky American-style trainers protrude from the meeting ka kapra of father and son. In another blend of old and new, the bearded young man in an astrakhan fez next to me in the crowd outside the Mufti’s house sends SMS messages with his left hand while the right one clicks away at an ornate green and gold rosary.
The Abdullahs’ slogan of “Autonomy, Peace, Progress and Stability” provokes the laughter of young Maqbool, a computer mechanic at Srinagar’s Hunhuma airport. “We call it aeroplane autonomy,” he says and explains that a plane laden with cash arrived from Delhi soon after Dr Abdullah first promised autonomy. That was the end of his commitment.
Maqbool also tells me that there has been no development in the state since Sheikh Abdullah’s time. Legend has it that Dr Abdullah, his chief secretary, Ashok Jaitley, and another aide, B.R. Singh, would go up in a helicopter to confabulate, and that the chief minister left all vital decisions and action to Jaitley. Seldom is a retired civil servant mentioned so often and so accusingly. His regime is also blamed for creating the dreaded Special Operations Group and unnecessarily intensifying security.
Maqbool’s friend tells me of the foreign tourist who decided to walk from the first checkpost about 2 km from Hunhuma to the airport with his hands raised above his head. It made the constant frisking easier.
The tale must be apocryphal, but I can believe the irritation as the security man at the airport gratuitously pushes the palm of his hand against my chest, as if I am about to force my way into the security enclosure before they are ready for me. Perhaps living with danger makes people rough. My driver will not give a ride to hitchhiking soldiers in khaki. They are an invitation to the militants, he tells me, but I suspect he dislikes them too.
I ask about the fabled Kashmiriyat which, says Pandit K.K. Khosa, an Independent candidate from Srinagar, took 5,000 years to evolve. But Sadiq Ali of the National Conference, now smart and trim in a well-cut navy suit, is disdainful. “Are we going to cling to the pheran and kangri as symbols of cultural identity in this age of globalisation and international citizenship'” he asks.
The past is at a discount. The Mufti knows that Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed used to live in the house he occupies, not that it once housed junior ladies of the royal family. “Royal Samadhis of the Dogra Rulers” reads a red and white arch over the entrance to an expansive but overgrown park.
The ashes of this miniature Austro-Hungarian empire comprising Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, lie buried there.
Nearby, another hoarding speaks of the future. It’s outside the office of the Freedom Party, and it says, “Freedom is my Birthright.”