I visited Kashmir last week with a small group belonging to the Centre for Dialogue Reconciliation (CDR), a non-governmental organisation working for peace and dialogue in the valley. At the end of the visit, I had an extra day which I decided to spend with my friend, Tanveer Ahmed Khan. We had studied in the same coaching institute while preparing for the Civil Services and had become friends then. Tanveer belongs to a little village called Srichan near Pahalgam and is currently a PhD scholar at Kashmir University, Srinagar.
In other parts of India, Kashmir is seen as a dangerous place. My parents had strictly advised me not to venture out alone in Kashmir and also to not move out of Srinagar city. However, Tanveer asked me to spend a day with his family at his place in Srichan, 80 km from Srinagar. Although I was aware that the security threat in Kashmir was a little overhyped, I still found myself reluctant to venture out of the city. But then, a part of me could not wait to explore more of the valley. Tanveer persisted and repeatedly assured me that it was absolutely safe and that there was no need for me to worry.
Finally, I agreed but not without hesitation. I knew it would be safe, but I could not completely let go of the possibility of an attack or a disturbance which might compel me to miss my flight back home the next day. I also wondered as to how the local people would treat me, given the massive anger towards the Indian State. With all these apprehensions in my mind, we finally set out in his car for his village Srichan from Srinagar.
There was traffic on the highway. Occasionally, we would see army vehicles and convoys. People on the road did not dare block their way. In many places, army men were also seen managing traffic. It is always a little unusual, especially for people visiting from mainland India to see such high army presence. We passed through Awantipora which is famous for a temple built by King Awanti Varman.
Pampore, Sangam and Bijbehara also lay on the way. I wondered why I always associated these places with terrorist attacks, like ‘Pampore Attack’. Maybe because that was the only thing I had heard about these towns.
As we moved towards Pahalgam, we started seeing hills and a cool breeze began to blow. We passed through small villages, clean canals and pristine streams. The countryside and its people looked very beautiful. The roads were clean and very smooth. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY), a centrally sponsored scheme, seemed to have done great work in the area.
We passed through Tanveer’s maternal home, a village called Salar. We also saw a few abandoned houses, which when I enquired from him turned out to belong to the Pandit families who left them in the early 90s. Since I come from a family that migrated from Pakistan in 1947, en masse migrations have always intrigued me. It must have been terrible for the people who went through this trauma, I thought. Leaving your home behind to save your life and that of your family’s is a scary thought.
But Tanveer told me that many Pandits stayed and continue to stay. Their Muslim neighbours did not let them go. One of his favourite teachers, Tanveer mentioned, was in-fact a Pandit. He, along with his friends, continue to visit to visit him until this day on Diwali and other festivals. To hear tales like these from a place which is often in the news for being a potential hotbed for Islamic terrorism was truly heartening and reassuring. On our way, Tanveer and I talked about the existence of both good and evil across religions. The greatest tragedy of history is that the evil ends up being more powerful. However, we also agreed that there has always existed an undercurrent of goodness all around, only in need of some strength and reassurance.
We crossed the beautiful Lidder River. The Lidder valley is one of the most scenic places in Kashmir. The town of Pahalgam lies upstream on the river. We reached Srichan at around 5:30 pm. Everyone around seemed to know Tanveer and greeted him with excitement. We met his father who was standing outside the house and I immediately bowed down to touch his feet. I am so used to touching the feet of my friends’ parents that it did not for once cross my mind that this practice is not common in Islam. However, after being momentarily surprised, he touched my head and blessed me almost as though it was an everyday ritual for him. We went in to meet Tanveer’s mother and she greeted us by kissing our foreheads. That, by far, was the warmest welcome I had ever received in my life. My fear-filled apprehensions started to fall apart.
Kashmiri houses are usually carpeted. People sit on the floor and use intricately designed cushions to rest their backs on the wall. It is a rather comfortable way of sitting and conversing and the floor somehow a gives a very humbling and intimate feeling. With everybody sitting at the same level, having a casual conversation just becomes so much easier.
We went to a couple of shops since I had to buy gifts for family and friends. Tanveer helped me get great deals. Many of the shopkeepers were his friends or schoolmates. Everyone was worried about the total absence of business this season. They all were excited to see a non-localite. Everybody, yes everybody, invited me for a cup of tea.
Pahalgam was some 13 km from Srichan. I had first visited the town two years ago. And just like last time, I found myself falling in love with it all over again. This lovely little town remains very popular among tourists. However, there were hardly any visitors this season. The unrest in the valley last year had hit the tourism sector hard. While there was a complete shutdown in 2016, this year that was not the case. Yet the tourist footfall remained minimal and the lanes of Pahalgam, slightly lonely. The locals largely blamed it on the media which ceaselessly portrayed Kashmir as a perpetual war zone. I could see for myself that the presence of the army was almost negligible in the area, which they said was because of the absence of any incidents of violence in Pahalgam, or for that matter, in any tourist area.
The three of us sat near the river for some time. It was getting dark so we switched on the headlights of the car which was parked close by. The place felt like any other hill station in India. We saw a group camping nearby. They were trying to light a bonfire. In the rest of India, we always look at Kashmir from a security point of view. But there are multiple dimensions of the place. The TV channels will never talk about the Kashmir on the banks of whose rivers you can sit together with friends in the evenings and talk about topics from politics to your love life.
We returned to Tanveer’s house. An uncle of his who lived nearby was there. We had discussions over the political situations in Delhi and Kashmir. Every talk in Kashmir ultimately drifts towards the Kashmir issue. Through the many discussions I had there this time, I realised that the mental distance between Kashmir and the rest of India has reached unimaginable levels. It is going to be a very arduous task to reduce this chasm.
Dinner was waiting for us. We ate dinner traditionally, sitting on the floor. Given that I was a vegetarian, they had cooked three sabzis exclusively for me. Although the staple diet in Kashmir is rice, roti was also made for me. Post dinner, we went to sleep.
The next morning Tanveer took me to his backyard. It was a beautiful space with the most scenic view. The Lidder river flows with lush green hills in the background. It is also the site for white water rafting. I had not seen a more beautiful backyard. One could just sit there for hours and appreciate the sight.
I had my flight the same day so we soon left for Srinagar. We had also planned to visit the shrine of Sheikh Zainuddin Wali at Aishmuqam. It was a beautiful shrine with a great view. It is this place where the song “Bhar do Jholi Meri” from the movie “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” was filmed. While I loved the shrine, Tanveer did not like it for the reason that at such places men of religion forcefully extract money from you.
When I left his place, Tanveer’s father asked me to visit again in winters, when it snows. He hugged me twice and asked if I could stay for one more day. His mother asked me to bring my parents next time.
It is true that Jammu and Kashmir is a big security and political issue for India but there is much more to the place. We have completely overlooked the human aspect of Kashmir. The warm hospitality I received from Tanveer’s family and friends is also a story from Kashmir. His mother’s fight, who is a cancer survivor is yet another story from Kashmir. I met a young girl whose single mother struggled hard to send her to college – that is another story of courage from Kashmir. Every student, shawl weaver, shepherd, farmer, shikara-wala, labourer, author, etc from Kashmir will have their own personal story.
All these stories are quite similar to our stories in mainland India. They portray the same hope, determination, hesitation, victories and defeats. These are simple tales of human emotions and experiences, devoid of any politics – religious or nationalist. Political differences and media’s scary portrayal has unfortunately made us blind to these human expressions.
To win the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir, India must embrace these stories of the Kashmiri people. Meaningful reconciliation will only begin when we see them as humans with the same life problems, hesitations, dreams and confusions as we have. And then political differences can be discussed on the table. The simple stereotype of a Kashmiri as a gun-wielding militant or a stone-throwing young man, popularised by our news media is not only a terrible failure of imagination but also a close-minded thought that betrays the diverse and accommodative ‘Idea of India‘.