When the defiant old man Geelani died recently, an Indian travel writer was holidaying in Kashmir along with his wife. He found himself in a quagmire and negotiated his way out of the valley to come up with his telling travelogue.
Kashmir is a land that strikes both fear and fascination in Indian hearts. Fear because of the long decades of violence and turbulence that have ravaged the place since the armed upheaval of 1990. Fascination because of the long tradition of elegant Muslim culture, poetry, song and dance, fabulous cuisine, unique wooden architecture and spectacular Himalayan landscapes.
As an Indian travel writer it is not a place that one would want to miss, so with a couple of years of relative political calm following the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, my wife Saroj and I decided to pay a visit in August 2021.
Our itinerary was the usual one of the first-time visitor: a week spread over the main tourist centres of Pahalgam, Srinagar and Gulmarg.
At first all went well and we enjoyed our visits to Pahalgam and Srinagar. Everywhere we were welcomed with the warmth, friendliness and hospitality that Kashmiris are known for. And everywhere we noticed the sense of despondency and malaise, a feeling like time had stopped still for this beautiful valley for the last three decades. The security presence was like nothing I had ever seen before and it would be quite accurate to call it an “occupied territory”.
Some 700 thousand forces—Indian Army, BSF, CRPF and J&K Police—work out to one armed guard per ten Kashmiris. While they didn’t interfere with the normal flow of life they are obviously poised to spring into action which is exactly what transpired later.
The first inkling of trouble came on our last night in Srinagar on September 1 when I got a message from a Kashmiri exile friend in Delhi, saying that Kashmiri resistance leader Syed Ali Geelani had died peacefully at home. The defiant old man had been under house arrest for over a decade and the state immediately executed what sleuths call the G-plan to bury the body that night itself. I was told by my Delhi friend that all communications would be cut off in the valley the next morning.
Never having experienced something like this I scoffed at his suggestion. But sure enough when I awoke in the houseboat we were staying on in Nigeen Lake and looked at my phone, it was dead as a dodo.
No calls, no SMS messages, no Whatsapp, no internet. I felt like someone whose oxygen supply had been cut off. The analogy is not at all an exaggeration given how critical our mobile phones are to our lives today.
That morning I had a very important meeting with a top LAWDA official for a piece that I was writing on houseboats for CNN Travel. I had been trying to get him for days and he had finally granted me an interview at the Circuit House at 10 am.
I could feel my stress level rising rapidly but we were reduced to waiting for the shikara to arrive from the other side of the lake to find out what was happening – the equivalent of the runner that people used to rely on to send messages between cities in ancient times. The boatman confirmed that tourist traffic was being allowed to move and that my driver Tariq had arrived in our Innova cab.
Now there was no help for it but to pile into the cab and hope for the best. Tariq drove as quickly as he could but we were hampered by several checkpoints where we were turned back and forced to change our route.
In Delhi, I am used to the cops putting up barricades from time to time but usually one can negotiate them without much trouble. But in Kashmir, it was on a different order of magnitude both in terms of intensity and scale — every cop armed with an automatic carbine and yelling at drivers and nervous passengers to turn back or suffer the consequences. One leaned his head into our car and shouted at Tariq in Urdu: “Do you want your guests to die? Don’t you know trouble can erupt in the city?”
We somehow reached the Circuit House half an hour late but my contact was there and the silver-lining was that I got as much time with him as I needed given that all his meetings had been cancelled for the day. We then set out for Gulmarg, our next destination, negotiating our way out of Srinagar city which seemed no different, calm and peaceful.
We drove past Badami Bagh, the main army cantonment planted squarely in the middle of the city — its red walls and barbed wire making it as immense and imposing as Red Fort in Delhi.
But what normally should have taken an hour-and-a-half to Gulmarg took us much longer because of the number of checkpoints where we were stopped.
At some of those barricades we were told we could go no further despite the government instructions that tourists were not to be hampered. At some we were arbitrarily told to pull over and made to wait for long minutes before being allowed to proceed one car at a time. At one point cops had placed stones and concertina wire on the main road solely for the purpose of diverting traffic through a deserted parking lot.
None of it seemed to make any sense whatsoever and I felt my irritation and anger rising but Tariq warned us from saying anything at all. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that this was just arbitrary and capricious behaviour by people in authority who were not answerable to anybody or anything.
When we arrived at our hotel, the Vintage in Gulmarg, we were accosted by an anxious guest Vinay Parekh and his wife from Pune who had not been allowed to checkout and return to Srinagar. Nobody had any information whatsoever as to what was happening. If people were being allowed to drive from Srinagar to Gulmarg, why not the reverse? Again, it made zero sense and there was nobody they could argue with or appeal to.
Later on in the evening I found Vinay still in the hotel. Along with other guests he had driven down to Tangmarg at the bottom of the hill which guards the access to the Gulmarg valley but forced to turn back by the local police. They were told to report at Tangmarg at 6 am the next morning at which time they would be allowed to go with an armed escort.
We were scheduled to spend two nights in Gulmarg and the beautiful green environs of this little valley did help to lift our spirits the next day. But the uncertainty about our return marred our entire stay and the total inability to communicate was suffocating.
We had tea at the Highland Park hotel which is situated at probably the best vantage point in the valley and the receptionist told us that their guests had left during the day with no problems. And Vinay and the others had not returned after leaving at dawn. So that gave me more confidence that things were under control.
However, in the evening that confidence was to evaporate. I went to see some friends staying at the Khyber Hotel to discuss plans as there was no other way to get in touch. We happened to meet a top local police officer in the lobby who insisted that the same procedure was to be followed as before or else we would not be allowed to leave.
So very reluctantly and against my better judgement, Saroj and I piled into the Innova and set off down the hill at dawn on September 4th morning. We got to Tangmarg and there was no sign of any security, any police vehicle, any escort at all! I was livid with anger but there was nobody to complain to. Once again the sheer arrogance of people in power was staggering.
Our ride back to Srinagar was completely uneventful with no checks at all which meant we got there with hours and hours to kill before heading for the airport. All so completely unnecessary and a sad way to end our holiday.
But we are after all only privileged tourists and we can always leave. What about the poor people of the Kashmir valley subject to such overbearing control by the Indian state? A feeble old man dies, by all accounts a spent force, and they shut down the whole damn place?!
I spoke to my Kashmir exile friend who cited the example of Hizbul Mujahedeen commander Burhan Wani whose death in an encounter with government forces in July 2016 set the valley aflame with thirty dead and over a thousand injured in a matter of hours. “Anything can happen anywhere in Kashmir,” was his argument.
But while the state coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti was caught unprepared in 2016, it’s very hard for anyone to take on the massive well-oiled security apparatus now.
The same friend’s son who lives in Srinagar and belongs to a younger generation said, “The Indian government lost an opportunity to show strength. They could have allowed the funeral of Geelani to proceed and limited the security and the clampdown to his immediate surroundings. Instead they showed weakness by this extreme overreaction which has alienated people further after several months of relative normalcy.” I am compelled to agree with the logic of his argument.
But the larger question is what does the Centre want to do with Kashmir after having revoked Article 370 and turned the erstwhile state into a union territory? The stated goal is to allow normalcy to return to the valley which will attract desperately needed new investment and create employment and economic opportunity.
Two years in the making and there is no sign of that in Kashmir. So the alternative theory is that it serves the clear political objectives of New Delhi to keep Kashmir in the limbo of UT status.
Firstly, it serves as a fully militarised buffer zone to crush the cross-border militancy fuelled and instigated by Pakistan. Of course this is justified but is it really necessary to have such an overbearing military presence in every corner of the valley?
Secondly, on a stage devoid of any political actors, the Centre has a free hand to do whatever it wants. Any perceived threat, howsoever inconsequential, can be justified to order a communications clampdown and show the beaten-down Kashmiris again who their real boss is.
Of course the mainstream media simply reports it without a comment as a “tightening of security measures” before it slides off the headlines. And India’s only Muslim majority state remains the Hindu dominated Centre’s puppet on a chain.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counter-views are welcome at [email protected]