Mohammed Alam (extreme left) and his shopkeeper mates in the Kamblinar square in rural Baramulla. Pictures by Sankarshan Thakur
Under the simmering canopy of the Kashmir dispute lumbers the realm of the forgotten Kashmiri.
In a vale so tiny — it is 130-odd kilometres long and 40 kilometres at its widest — that realm is never far to seek but it seldom attracts notice.
The tourism industry doesn’t mark out routes to it, the guides will never take you there, the state stays mostly away and averse, the politicians, oh but they barely even remember. Barely even at the time they require this realm most, at election time.
“Hamara siyasat se matlab nahin, siyasat ka hamse nahin (we have nothing to do with politics, politics have nothing to do with us),” so saying, Mohammed Alam, cloth merchant in the one-lane bazaar of Kamblinar, wished us on.
In a day or two, men and materials will drone into the heart of the village, churning dust and curiosity, and set up a polling centre in the tumbledown structure that calls itself a middle school.
| Iron smith Abdul Khaliq at his workstation in Chandoosa, the native village of PDP candidate from Baramulla, Muzaffar Hussain Beg
Alam won’t be bothered going in to vote. Nor his mates in the Kamblinar bazaar that stocks nothing beyond the most rudimentary things — you can acquire torch cells but not torches; they would have to be got from Handwara, the closest retail hub, two hours on a local bus that plies once a day.
Alam’s reasons for not voting are not what you’d classically expect from a Valley Muslim. His reasons are not about subscribing to the Hurriyat’s boycott call, or about the protracted sub-continental quarrel over where Kashmir should belong.
It’s merely about what Alam said in the first place: about not giving anything to politics because it gives nothing to you. “I will not acquire a bigger shop or a plot of land or a better school for my children if I go and vote,” Alam said sardonically. “I have a chance of doing that if I run my shop well. We are happy being what we are, let me not be told some masiha (messiah) will change things overnight.”
His friends from Kamblinar’s little merchant community — half-a-dozen shopfronts including a bread-and-tea vend — said they wanted to add no more to what Alam had said.
“You can see we are happy with what we have, and you can see what we do not have,” one of them said. “Should we be fooled it will come from casting a vote? We’ve tried that. All we have heard is talk of a final solution to Kashmir. Meantime, what are we meant to do?”
We had arrived in Kamblinar quite by accident. We had strayed looking for quite another village in the up-and-down maze of rural Baramulla — Chandoosa, the native place of Supreme Court lawyer and PDP candidate, Muzaffar Hussain Beg. We had climbed up the arrow road from Srinagar to Tangmarg, humped over Gulmarg — teeming with the summer’s first tourists scratching about the dregs of remnant snow — and plunged down the back of the forested shrine of Baba Reshi.
Quite suddenly, the clamour of tourist Kashmir had faded and an ante-dated Kashmir had taken over. We had travelled no more than 10 minutes downhill and we had plunged in time, into a radically removed environ from the luminous signposting of Gulmarg, shorn of its glitter, bereft of the excited hubbub of its hotels and eateries, the tinkle of easy cash and the chirp of commerce.
There was barely a dwelling to be seen that wasn’t ramshackle, barely a field that wasn’t being worked with bare human hands. We passed struggling horse carts and farmers pushing wheelbarrows. We barely came across motorised transport. We saw no hospitals or health centres, only the odd school where the classrooms were empty. There were no security people either, as they are elsewhere in the Valley.
The road had vanished and rubble had taken over. The Chandoosa of Beg was nowhere to be found. Somebody told us it may lie beyond the bend north of Kamblinar
That’s how we came to meet Alam.
Chandoosa was not one but several bends in the undulating valley from Kamblinar. “You’ll find nothing special there,” Alam said to us by way of caution. “It’s just the same as here, a forgotten place.”
In the centre of Chandoosa, we found iron smith Abdul Khaliq working his denuded lathe, the only man in the village with the time or the patience to talk. “I’ve been at this since I was a child,” he said motioning to his workstation of scattered metal things, “since the angrez (Englishman) ruled. Nothing has changed, not even my tolls or how I craft them.”
Khaliq was happy to have pictures taken; to look at him was to see a man from centuries ago. “I voted once, for Sheikh Abdullah, but never after, they all come and say good things and go, the fools, they are no good, a waste of time.”
The mustard was being harvested, and soon it would be time to sow paddy; Khaliq had his hands full crafting or sharpening farm tools. Isn’t he happy to have a fellow villager in the fray, the famous Beg? “But who?” Khaliq cocked his ears. “Yes, we are told he is from here but does he ever come? I have never seen him.”
Baramulla, one of the three Valley seats other than Anantnag and Srinagar and probably the one with the longest LoC run among them, has another famous contender — Sharifuddin Shariq of the National Conference. Shariq has represented the constituency three consecutive times. But with little to show for it.
It’s a harsh place, the Baramulla countryside; its bedraggled beauty does little to offer relief from the daily grind of subsistence life. Neither do those who compete to represent it in the high halls of legislature. For them, the lot of the people, remains in abeyance until they are done with the high rhetoric of Kashmir’s “final solution”, which looks nowhere in sight in this abandoned wilderness.
Baramulla votes on May 7