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SRINAGAR SOJOURN
- How opportunities are squandered and advantages lost

Seven years ago, in June 2005, Srinagar was a city of bunkers. Hurriyat Conference leaders, the Indian Central government, the Jammu and Kashmir state government and the Pakistan government were then trying to negotiate their way to a new understanding. I came with a group of journalists from different magazines, newspapers and television channels to watch a Kashmiri delegation cross from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir at Kaman Post, over the so-called “Aman Setu” (Bridge of Peace). The few days I spent in the valley were a shocking revelation of what an occupation looks like.

Armed men, armoured vehicles, check-posts, chicken wire, guns, jackboots and a feeling of fear pervaded city and countryside alike. Nothing felt safe, and for those of us used to the administrative indifference, governmental sloppiness and default freedoms of other parts of India, the hyper-militarized atmosphere was unbearably oppressive. In an op-ed at the time, I wrote about hope and the possibilities available to a new generation of Kashmiri politicians to change the status quo of violence, distrust and corruption. But deep down, I was dismayed at the overt and apparently irreducible antagonism between the Indian State, especially its armed forces, and the local people of Jammu and Kashmir. Visiting the miserable Pandit camps in Jammu on that same trip confirmed my worst misgivings about the disrepair in relations between state and Centre, extremists and moderates, Muslims and Hindus, and Kashmir and India.

Srinagar today seems, on the surface, a far more “normal” city. Traffic is chaotic, new constructions are mushrooming, domestic tourism is brisk, business is busy. Everyone who could afford a loan appears to have bought a new car. The roads and highways are in good condition, and flyovers are being built like in any other smaller city elsewhere in the country. Cell phones, SIM cards and personal internet connections are no longer impossible luxuries. Most striking, though, is the thinness of security apparatus on streets and in residential neighbourhoods — at least by comparison to a few years ago.

Spend a few days and a different reality begins to emerge. In fact, the city is still jam-packed with soldiers and paramilitary personnel, but they have retreated to their camps, rather than being out at every corner and every traffic signal. Nobody waves a weapon in your face, but the guns are just a phone call away should there be the slightest sign of unrest, protest or trouble. Convoys of military trucks do go up and down. People are watchful. Conversations are hushed. Every official appears to need a fleet of cherry-tops and gun-toting men in camouflage fatigues escorting him around the city. Besides about four or five coffee-shops, there are no real spaces of the kind that Ashutosh Varshney described some years ago in his book about ethnic conflict in Gujarat, where civil society institutions of various kinds allowed communities to interact, mingle and work together on issues of common interest to citizens regardless of their religious backgrounds. English-language newspapers and magazines have proliferated in the past three to four years, but the quality of reportage, comment and editing leaves something to be desired. An astute journalist described Srinagar to me as a “greenhouse”. “You can see the light,” he said, “through a transparent film, but you cannot really breathe the air outside this closed atmosphere. A respite from violence, routinely functioning offices and banks, an uninterrupted school-year, an elected government (even if it is perceived as being rather toothless relative to its allies and benefactors in national politics), a receding memory of curfew, and some additional in-flow of tourists after years of uncertain summers are all welcome developments for local people and Delhi alike. But an almost quarter-century of incessant war is hardly over in a season of uneasy peace. “If this is indeed a ‘post-conflict’ Kashmir,” my journalist friend said, “then there has to be a sense that people will work through their trauma over a long period of time, through sustained processes of dialogue, reconciliation and justice. There have to be robust institutions that address what has happened here. There are no quick fixes.”

The government in Jammu and Kashmir changed in late 2008 from the People’s Democratic Party to the National Conference. In 2010, street-level protests in Srinagar escalated into a major political crisis. There was a serious face-off between mostly very young boys armed with nothing but stones, and armed paramilitary personnel, where hundreds of locals, many of them minors, were injured and killed. Since then, despite widespread calls for a rollback in the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the release of reports detailing mass graves created in the 1990s, and broad-spectrum conversations between Delhi-appointed “interlocutors” and Kashmiri authorities as well as mainstream politicians, the security state has not relented in any real sense. Disturbingly, approximately 20,000 young people face trial for participation in organized or unorganized protests, and their rights and prospects for justice remain tenuous, to say the least.

Conversations with bureaucrats and intellectuals taught me a number of things that are not so obvious, even to well-meaning and well-educated observers from afar. Land reforms in Kashmir under Sheikh Abdullah’s truncated and interrupted regimes between the 1950s and the 1980s have actually made abject poverty and extreme class difference very rare occurrences in Jammu and Kashmir. Economic inequality is not the main problem that this state is going to face in the foreseeable future, thanks to far-sighted reforms in the immediate aftermath of Partition. I was surprised to learn that Sheikh Abdullah had a good personal rapport with Jayaprakash Narayan and other socialist leaders during Indira Gandhi’s time, and that the Emergency, so catastrophic for Indian democracy, never affected Kashmir. In fact, socialism, once a creed shared between Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, would have made Kashmir one of the more politically progressive and economically equitable parts of the subcontinent, had despicable Congress tactics not repeatedly hobbled Kashmir’s chances over decades of betrayal, mismanagement and double-speak.

Kashmir is an object lesson on how to take the most breath-taking place in the world, with a small and potentially forward-looking population, with less of the usual divides and hatreds of caste, religion and class than almost any part of India, and to play such atrociously dirty politics over such a long time that you comprehensively ruin any chance of growth, peace or even just baseline democratic aspiration, whether within or apart from the Union of India. Kashmir is dealing not just with what happened post-1990 — it is dealing with 65 years of broken promises. Word is that even this year, tourism has been artificially boosted by Central government incentives to government employees to avail of leave and travel allowances in Jammu and Kashmir in particular (rather than other holiday destinations in the hills).

Interestingly, paradoxically, Kashmir’s ecology is not yet spoilt, nor its local dress and language completely abandoned by the younger generation, nor its old wooden houses torn down to give way to ugly malls, nor its villages, forests, fields and peaks of spectacular natural beauty tainted by rapacious or unplanned development. The only reason that globalization has passed this place by is war — a right outcome from a wrong algorithm, as it were. There has to be a way to preserve the god-given physical environment and historically determined cultural advantages of Kashmir without simply leaving it behind in India’s vaunted march to a prosperous future.

Spending a few days in a series of small hamlets in south Kashmir, set in rice and saffron fields, with majestic leafy chinar, poplar and willow trees giving over to tall pines, fruit orchards ripening for autumn, golden haystacks, herds of sheep, goats, cows and ponies driven by nomadic Bakarwals and Gujjars up the grassy slopes, gurgling streams and long winding roads, it is hard to imagine the awful stories lying coiled up like snakes in each house. A generation of young men dead or disappeared, families brutalized, livelihoods lost, Pandit neighbours who fled, shrunken decrepit temples and locked up Hindu homes, shuttered shop-fronts and exhausted eyes in the wrinkled faces of village elders. In the village commons, what no one likes to talk to an outsider about — graves, marked or unmarked. Educated young people in their mid-to-late twenties desperate to get out and build lives in other parts of India or the world.

It’s great to have a quiet summer, for a change, but it’s a difficult way ahead for Kashmir yet.