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  Photo: Ron Sumners
  Photo: Alan Crawford

Kashmir: A Calm Between Storms
By David Hammerbeck

When flying into Kashmir, the first sign you see that the situation is different than in most of India is the airport in Srinagar, which in fact is an air force base moonlighting as a commercial airport.  Buildings are swathed in camouflage blue, yellow, and green, the perimeter ringed by several layers of barbed wire; machine gun nests squat in the middle of transition areas, sand bagged and manned by armed personnel.  Army helicopters and aircraft sit to the side of the runway outnumbering commercial airliners.  All the accoutrements necessary for an active military air base in an area subject to outbursts of deadly violence and terrorist activities exist.  Armed soldiers, efficient with a vague hint of cordiality make sure that no foreigner goes undocumented, that all whereabouts are accounted for.

Should you arrive in Srinagar via ground transport from Jammu, over 100 kilometers away, by the time you actually arrived in the capital of the state of Kashmir, you would have had to pass through several military checkpoints, registering your presence as a foreigner in this heavily militarized zone, and you would have also seen numerous armed patrols conducting surveillance patrols along the National Highway roadside, patrols with minesweepers, on the lookout for any sort of roadside explosive.  I traveled this route upon leaving Kashmir. The soldiers, look drawn and taut from the demands of endless vigilance, dead serious, and very ready to use their weapons. Perhaps the reason they look so nervous, all 500,000 of them, is that they are overwhelmingly Hindu and Sikh, while the population of Kashmir, almost five million in all, is well over 95% Muslim.  Facing these dominating numbers, they have a tendency to view every local not only as a likely terrorist, but potentially a fidayeen on their way to the market to blow themselves and dozens of innocent people, up.  I could see the soldiers visibly relax when they saw me, tall, blonde, blue eyes with Nordic features.  No threat.  Some even smiled.  A moment’s break from the hours of mutual hostile scrutiny that make up every day.

The tragic story of Kashmir since partition is well known.  Since the creation of Pakistan, this state in northwest India has served as a playing field for India’s and Pakistan’s antagonisms towards each other, a ground that has seen tens of thousands of innocent people killed and scores others maimed, tortured, raped, or forced to flee the carnage.  India blames terrorists trained in Pakistan who infiltrate through the Line of Control to create havoc so that eventually Kashmir will become part of Pakistan.  Pakistan blames the Indian army, which it says fabricates terrorist attacks, dressing its own soldiers or willing locals as “terrorists” who then carry out brutal attacks on Kashmiri villages.  These in turn justify Indian Army counter measures such as wiping out entire villages and committing other barbaric atrocities.  The Kashmiris blame both countries, but their voices count for little on the field of international politics.

But Kashmir also serves as a kind of screen for the projection of each country’s fears of the other.  You only have to watch Indian TV to see any of the number of films churned dutifully out by Bollywood chronicling the brave and valorous Indian Army’s mission in defending this frontier state against the ever-present danger from their zealous and fanatical neighbor.  The jingoism is hard to miss. Moreover, from watching these films you come away with the unfailing impression that without the constant vigilance from characters played by Hindu hunks like Akshay Kumar or Hrithik Roshan, or even the occasional Muslim interloper (the ever present Shah Rukh Khan), India would be engulfed by Islamic invaders yet again, the perennial menace from the Northwest.

But then again, since India has lost a good chunk of the northern and western regions of the state—mountainous and sparsely inhabited areas that have been difficult to control since before the British tried to keep them sublimated, areas famous from Kipling’s time and before with names like Chitral, Gilgit, Swat and the Baltoro—they clearly feel the need to vigorously defend what they have left, no matter how the Kashmiris feel. Now that the politically convenient illusion of a unified “India” is over 60 years old, to start ceding chunks of it away would only encourage similar movements already long active elsewhere in the country.

I visited the Kashmir valley and surrounding areas near the end of its longest spell of peace since the violence escalated in the late 1980s, having no idea that the idyll would be over just days after I left.  The last serious outbreaks of violence, with the ensuing curfews and martial law, had occurred almost three years ago.  In the meantime tourists had rediscovered the valley, business had staged a noticeable comeback, and trekkers were beginning to venture back into the mountains.  The memory of the group of trekkers who had been abducted in 1995, with one beheaded and the others never found, had faded. There was talk of expanding tourist facilities in the highlands, especially in the Sonamarg Meadow area, on the main highway that leads to Kargil and eventually extending them to Leh, the capital of Ladakh in the Tibetan Buddhist region of India.  Hawkers, touts and sellers welcomed back tourists with their effusive friendliness and relentless sales pitches.  Shikaras, long narrow boats with canopies, plied the placid water of Dal Lake, ferrying visitors and locals alike by paddle from the shores of the lake to the houseboats laid out in well organized rows. 

Even when there an abundance of boat traffic, the lake is resplendently magnificent —large and calm, interspersed with reed marshes, hydroponic gardens and surrounded by glaciated peaks rising to almost 20,000 feet.  The air is pleasantly warm and dry but not too hot—a welcomed escape from the heat and dust of the plains of India in the pre-monsoon and monsoon months.

This was no secret to rulers of Mughal India.  Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, also constructed as part of his summer residence the Shalimar Garden, a beautiful, fragrant, leafy refuge with gurgling waters descending in terraces to the shore of Dal Lake with the western ramparts of the Himalaya as a backdrop.  Other gardens line the lake. The ornate Victorian houseboats bob on the lake like a flotilla of refugees from the Haight Ashbury.  Beautiful mosques dot the city of Srinagar. 


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