IT is unbelievable, but true. Srinagar has changed beyond recognition in the past four years since I was there last. Right from new swanky airport to the hotel, a distance of about 10 kilometers, there is modern construction. It looks as if another Noida, near Delhi, is coming up. Trees have been cut mercilessly and familiar pavements have been dug out to accommodate fancy thoroughfares. Walls running along the road have been demolished and the rubble is still there for all to see. Probably something new, modern would replace what once aroused feelings of nostalgia. As I covered the journey to my hotel, I missed the old Kashmiri houses from where women with long trinkets would peer to see the incoming tourists.
Shops are well stocked and full of customers. Too much money is flowing and the guess is that it is from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India in that order. The number of cars on the road is many times more than before. There are traffic jams and one has to keep the snarls in mind when one plans a trip. People move freely and I saw many women on the road without burqa or headwear.
The militancy is by and large over. Some terrorists strike once a while. They attacked the police at the Lal Chowk a few days ago. But I get the feeling that media magnifies stray incidents to sensationalize. But when attacks were a regular feature, there was curfew after sunset. Now people are on the road at even 11 p.m.
I did not see a single policeman on the road from the airport. Bunkers are mostly gone. I found one at Lal Chowk where some policemen stand with their fingers at the trigger of automatic weapons. Papa one or Papa two, the interrogation centres, have been closed. But the capricious detentions still take place. The biggest worry is the occasional disappearance of the youth. Incidents like the rape of two women at Shopian are rare. But whenever they take place, they infuriate the people to the extent that they come out on the streets.
The mode of search, whether of a vehicle or a person, has changed. Policemen are more polite than before and less intrusive. Still a member of a very respectful family told me how he and his wife were stopped on the road until the helicopter of a top brass had flown over the place. A policeman wanted to search his wife but on his insistence a woman police did so.
The anti-India feeling is there beneath the surface, and people are not afraid of saying so. However, the pro-Pakistan sentiments have practically disappeared, more because of Kashmiris’ perception of the “mess” in which the country is. Even Azadi is mentioned less and less because of increasing realization that a landlocked area could not think of being independent.
I found the Hurriyat leaders sober. One leader told me that they had “vibes from Delhi” that something positive would emerge. They are looking forward to the talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expected to visit Srinagar at the end of the month. There is an effort to have a consensus among the different parties, including the Hurriyat, before the Prime Minister’s arrival. Mirwaiz, the Hirriyat chief, is reportedly in favour of it. State chief minister Omar Abdullah also wants New Delhi to talk to all political parties, including the Hurriyat. But he has also emphasised that India should have a dialogue with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir problem.
It was an interesting talk which I heard when I was sitting with the Hurriyat leaders. A young American Pakistani told them that what had surprised him after the span of three years since his last visit was that Kashmir was “being assimilated by India quickly.” They were embarrassed but did not want to reply to him in my presence. Mirwaiz said that they would “talk to him at some other place over a cup of tea.” Born in Kashmir, this young man is a member of a think-tank at Washington. He told them that free state elections, watched by a large number of Americans on televisions, had made great impression on them. They, he said, were beginning to believe that the problem was “more or less over.”
Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah is more candid than his son, Omar, who is losing his popularity fast. Farooq says there are “paid lobbies” in the state to keep the problem alive. He accuses security forces, politicians and bureaucrats of having “a vested interest in the Kashmir crisis.” He has a point when he says that New Delhi has failed to make headway in resolving the problem. Not many solutions are hawked about now.
There is a suggestion that both Kashmirs should be demilitarized, India withdrawing its forces from the valley and stationing them on its border and Pakistan doing likewise and pulling out its forces from Azad Kashmir. But this is dependent on India and Pakistan reaching a settlement, supported by the Kashmiris. New Delhi will not agree to a unilateral demilitarization, definitely not till the question has been resolved.
The problem of Jammu and Laddakh has become, indeed, ticklish. They do not want to stay with the valley. Jammu wants to join India and Laddakh wants a Union Territory status. True, the Hurriyat has never tried to woo Jammu and has seldom cared for the Kashmiri Pandits languishing there. Still both Jammu and Laddakh can be brought around if they were to be given an autonomous status by the valley within the state.
I have no doubt that the Kashmir problem will be solved sooner or later. But too much has happened in the state in the past that makes it difficult for the old Kashmir to come back to life. Familiar symbols are dying. Sufism has been replaced by assertive Islamic teachings. Kashmiri music is on its last legs because most of the society has been forced to acquire an Islamic edge. Old crafts attract fewer artisans because there is a race to earn quick buck. The wazwan, a string of Kashmir dishes served at one sitting, is still there but new cooks are hard to get.
The re-meshing of Muslims and the Pandits, destroyed during the insurgency, looks difficult. The Islamic identity has taken shape, reportedly more in the countryside. And the Kashmiriyat, a secular ethos, is beyond repair. The animosity among the three regions Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh, may dilute but will not go. It may still remain a state of Jammu and Kashmir. But the soul would be missing. Hindus believe that the soul is indestructible. I pray that the Kashmir gets its soul back.