Kashmir now: a throwback to the early 1990s (First Person)

August 17th, 2008 - 12:32 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sarwar Kashani
Srinagar, Aug 17 (IANS) It was quiet as I walked out of Srinagar airport, basking in pleasant sunshine after a hot and humid Delhi on a special assignment to cover the current crisis in the Kashmir Valley. But it was the uneasy quiet of a graveyard. The city looked dead amid the simmering Amarnath land dispute, which has done what years of militant violence failed to do - created a major divide between Muslims of the valley and the Hindu populace of Jammu. Besides, it has added to the separatist sentiments of certain sections of the people here.

At least 40 people have died in the state during the last two months in protests over the issue that has also meant a huge setback to peace measures by India in Kashmir.

A Kashmiri stationed in Delhi, I wanted to hire a taxi home. The driver was aghast. “You want to go to Gojwara (in old Srinagar, near Jamia Masjid)!” he asked amazed.

“Nobody is going to put his life and his vehicle in danger to go to that risky area,” he said, laughing at me. He obviously thought I was an outsider.

I broke into Kashmiri. “You are a Kashmiri and you don’t know what is happening here?” he answered. “People are dying. Everybody is on the roads. It is 1990 again.”

He was referring to the huge pro-separatist processions in the valley at that time.

“Look I can take you out of the airport and from there you will have to make your own arrangement,” he said.

I rejected the offer hesitantly, knowing I would have to walk at least 15 km to reach the old city, which is referred to as the downtown of Srinagar.

Luckily I met a friend at the airport, who gave me a lift to city centre Lal Chowk.

Unlike my last visit to the valley in May-June this year when Kashmir was fast becoming a place for peace and fun once again, this time Srinagar looked like a city of ghosts, notwithstanding the life size hoarding outside the airport greeting every visitor with “Welcome to Happy Valley”.

The blues were only too obvious on the lifeless streets with heavy presence of alert and ready-to-battle security forces.

Roads were dotted with half-burnt tyres and bricks and stones, apparently thrown by some protesters at the police during clashes in the last few days.

Shops, including chemists, which are otherwise spared during shutdowns, were shut as my friend - fear evident on his face - drove carefully and kept looking all around.

“Are you looking for somebody?” I asked.

“No, I am being careful. People throw stones at vehicles irrespective of anything,” he said.

But why!

“Vehicles are banned on roads and nobody is allowed to break the rule. Everybody has to observe the shutdown,” he said.

But who has set the rule? “Mobs … Uncontrolled,” he replied.

I thanked him for the tense drive. My first look at the city centre made me nostalgic about the not too distant happy times here, now robbed by the Amarnath land row.

Lal Chowk, the business hub of Srinagar, was empty.

I started my trek home - still six kilometres away. I saw a mob of around 200 people charging towards nobody in particular, shouting pro-freedom slogans. As they moved on, fear also started catching up with me.

As I walked into downtown Srinagar, what was once a hub of militancy and pro-freedom sentiments, demonstrations and slogan shouting became more frequent.

At Bohri Kadal, in the heart of old Srinagar, a huge mob reminded me of mass celebrations in 1989 when five militants of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) were set free in exchange for the release of Rubaiya, daughter of then home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.

As I continued walking, I saw paramilitary troopers standing in the corner … in battle mode.

Surprisingly, the entire downtown area did not have a single police or paramilitary bunker - a common sight otherwise. Then I saw them - but just rubble of what the bunkers had been. They had all been brought down by protesters, a police official confirmed later.

Somehow I reached home, but only to be scolded by my mother, whom I wanted to surprise by my sudden arrival.

“Why have you come during these days?” she asked after a hug. “Go back. I won’t allow you to visit places to cover the trouble. It is dangerous.”

Her words reminded me of my childhood. As kids, we were locked inside our houses with fear of violence ruling the roost in the early 1990s.

(Sarwar Kashani is an IANS correspondent. He can be reached at s.kashani@ians.in)

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