An Experience shared by Santhosh Prabhu, Bangalore on his visit to Jammu-Kashmir recently.
Recently I visited Kashmir Valley and got the opportunity to spend time and interact with Kashmiris staying in a remote village called Larnoo as well as few days in Srinagar city. It gave me a good insight into the Kashmir imbroglio and challenges that we as Indians have in front of us as a Nation which has its roots in plurality, diversity, democracy and mutual acceptance. My previous visit to Kashmir valley was in 2010, when the Separatist movement was at its peak with large scale violence, stone pelting, and firing happening almost every day in different parts of the Valley. This time there was relative peace all over, though few days ago, 8 Army men were killed in an ambush by terrorists near Srinagar.
One of the main purpose of the visit was to attend my friend Sandeep Bhat’s wedding in Anantnag. It was a great occasion meeting my friend after so many years. Sandeep Bhats family like hundreds of other Kashmiri Hindu families were forced to leave Kashmir Valley in 1989-1990, when separatists selectively targeted Kashmiri Hindus and created an atmosphere in which they had no option other than to leave the valley. But still there are few Hindu families in Kashmir Valley who did not leave during that time. And Sandeeps wedding happening in Kashmir is a welcome sign and an indication that there is a strong urge in hundreds of Kashmiri Hindu families who are right now settled in Jammu and Delhi to return back to their homes in Kashmir Valley. I was glad to attend the wedding and meet all his family members.
At around 5:30 in the evening, Mohammed Faizal, a School teacher, came to receive me in Anantnag. We both boarded a Sumo (the most used vehicle for public transport in Kashmir Valley) to Larnoo. Larnoo is a small village which is a one and half hour drive from Anantnag. The journey was very scenic and soothing with mountains, valleys, rivers, and streams on the way. I then started thinking about the turbulence that Kashmir has been going through the past few decades. But I felt that all these beautiful mountains and rivers were in peace with itself, unaffected by any external disturbance created by human interference. We reached Larnoo at around 7:30 and from there we had to go further up in the mountains to reach Lessoo. We reached the residence of Faizal at around 8 in the night. After having some refreshing Kashmiri tea (majority of Kashmiris drink salty tea) and snacks, I sat informally with all the family members of Faizal. There were 14 members who were staying in the house and were very glad to have me as their guest and every one of them made sure that I was feeling comfortable. After an hour or so we had our dinner. Like majority of south India and states such as Orissa, Bengal, and Assam, rice is the staple food in Kashmir. Chicken, Mutton, Paneer, Rajma are the major constituents of Kashmiri Cuisine. After dinner I spent some time with Faizal and discussed about the present situation in Kashmir and went to bed since we both were tired after the journey.
After having out tea and Kashmiri rotis (made of corn) the next morning, we went up to explore the mountains and valleys. It was an amazing feeling to walk through the valleys, and Faizal told me that at the peak of militancy all those places used to be the hideouts of terrorists. The terrorists moved freely in those areas as was a sign of bravery to be a militant. Faizal said his own uncle
had gone to Pakistan and received training in a Terrorist training camp during the 90s. While talking to Faizal, I felt a strong feeling of alienation exists amongst Kashmiri Muslims, they are really fed up of Militancy. Pro-Pakistan and Separatist rhetoric have reached to a critical point where they feel that their future lies with India. Even the villagers say that in all these 23 years we have lost everything as part of these agitations for Azaadi and we have gained nothing. One generation has gone without proper education because of which now we are suffering. They feel left behind when they go to places such as Jammu and Delhi. Many villagers also said that when their children go to other cities in India they are viewed with suspicion. School teachers feel they don’t even have access to information about the options that they have for higher education. While talking to them, it became clear to me that because of the misinformation campaign and lack of exposure to other cultures, there are a lot of stereotypes and bias against India and Hindus. Before I stayed and ate with them, they felt that as a Hindu it was not possible for me to do these things.
When we reached the top of the mountain, we had our tea which we had carried in a flask. There was no need to carry water bottles since there were several streams flowing through the mountain. Faizal told me that the name Anantnag has its origin from ’spring’. “Nag” in Kashmiri means ’spring’ and so Anantnag is “Endless Springs”. After spending some time in the mountains during the day in the evening we went to the banks of the river Brangi. It was serene, calm and peaceful. Faizals friend Zahoor also joined us and while walking we met 8-10 villagers who invited us for tea when they realized that I am Faizals guest. Kashmiri is the local language and not everyone speaks Hindi. Kashmiri is written in Arabic script, though I was told that there is an effort going on to re-embrace the original Kashmiri script. I also realized that many Kashmiri Muslims are also proud of their Hindu ancestry and personalities such as King Lalitaditya and Avantiverman, who ruled Kashmir, and historians such as Kalhana the author of “Rajatarangini” written in the 12th Century which gives a historical chronicle of Kashmir. Though I could see strong strains of Islamic fundamentalism in the youth, a sense of openness and eagerness for more exposure also existed. For instance, Faizal did not have any problem in me doing Surya Namaskar and Yogasan beside him while he did Namaaz;he also learnt few aasanas and pranayam from me later. In the villages, I found majority of women wearing traditional Kashmiri dress without burqa. We returned home in the night, after having dinner and an hour long chit-chat with other members of the family, and I went to bed.
The next morning Faisal and I visited Martand, a place near Anantnag where an ancient sun temple is situated. We reached Anantnag town at around 10 in the morning and took a bus to Mattan (the ancient name is Martand) and reached the Martand temple at around 11. The ancient Sun temple of Martand was built by King Lalitaditya in 500 AD. This temple was destroyed by the Islamic invader Sikander Butshikan and it is said that it took one whole year for him to destroy this temple completely. There is also a Gurudwara adjacent to the mandir and it is believed that Guru Nanak Dev had visited that site when he was returning from Tibet. Since that particular day was the birthday of Guru Hargobind, 6th Guru of Sikhs, there was a procession where hundreds of Sikhs were present. There is a spring nearby where water flows continuously to the pond in front of the Mandir, in the middle of which is a Shiv ling. After having darshan and spending some time in Mattan, we went to Nagdandi, another small town near Anantnag where there is an Ashram run by Vivekananda Kendra. I had visited this Ashram three years ago and I wanted to meet the Swamiji over there as he is not keeping well health wise. After meeting Swamiji, we had our lunch over there and spent some time in the Ashram. Several Kashmiri Hindu families have very strong ties with this Ashram, and during festivals and special occasions, hundreds of people come and stay over here. Swamiji of this Ashram has also developed good relationships with all the Muslim families of the Village. During my previous visit it was Nag Panchami day and there was Hawan, Pooja which was also attended by hundreds of Muslims of the locality. In this Ashram, there is a small temple dedicated to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at the foot of wooded hills and Samadhi of Swami Ashokananda (A Yogi who lived in this area 40 years ago) is also within the precincts of the Ashram.
We returned to Larnoo by 4 in the evening that day, and rest of the day I tried to capture the beauty of the village, mountains, and rivers in my camera. Also while talking to local Kashmiri youth and elders about the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus, it became clear to me that they sincerely believe the Separatist propaganda that the then Governor Jagmohan who asked Kashmiri Hindus to stay away from the Kashmir Valley, so that he can wipe out Kashmiri Muslims without any difficulty. We all now know that there was no element of truth in that statement. But when I asked them whether they would like to see Kashmiri Hindus back in Kashmir, they all replied in affirmative.
The next day morning I started for Srinagar from Larnoo and reached Srinagar at around 2 in the afternoon. Shri B.L. Khan and his son Zaheer had come to receive me at Lal Chowk. Lal Chowk is the place where separatists hold their anti-India and pro-Pakistan rally every year when they try to show their strength hoisting Pakistani flag and burning Indian tri color. This is the same place where Murali Manohar Joshi of BJP had hoisted the tricolor in 1992. We reached B.L. Khan’s home at around 3. B.L. Khan is a well known and influential person in Srinagar, who was working previously in Civil Secretariat and was also actively involved in Trade Union. A staunch nationalist, B.L. Khan has always been a strong proponent of complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India. It was a great experience listening to B.L. Khan who is born and brought up in Srinagar and has witnessed all the major events in Kashmir firsthand . Khan explained to me how vested interests, including international forces, are working in Kashmir, and want to keep this issue alive for their own benefits. He further added that all the main stream political parties in Kashmir like National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Congress are working as semi-separatists trying their best to keep Kashmir burning and doing nothing towards integration of Kashmir with the rest of India. Khan also talked about his past background when he used to work for the Communist Party and the reason for which he left Communism. He told me that in the early 90s a meeting was convened by the Communist Party, presided by Comrade Surjeet, which primarily focused on Kashmiri Muslims. In that meeting, Surjeet asked all Kashmiri Muslims to join hands with Militants and reiterated that the Communist Party stands for Self Determination of Jammu and Kashmir. Hearing this B.L. Khan got agitated and walked out from the meeting. After that incident, I came to know about the true colors of Communists, Khan added. That day I took some rest as I had sprained my leg the previous day. I also spent some time talking with Zaheer, who has just completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce from Kashmir University. Zaheer shared his experience in the University where classes getting suspended is a usual norm because of the whole unrest and how education of thousands of Kashmiris is getting affected. University students are also lost because of lack of exposure and employment as there are hardly any companies in Kashmir Valley who can offer jobs to graduates. Because of all these factors, there is high level of frustration amongst youth. After having lengthy discussions on this topic with Zaheer, I went to bed that day night as my leg was still paining because of the sprain.
After breakfast the next morning, Zaheer and I went to Karan Nagar in Srinagar where Ramkrishna Mission Ashram is located. I had emailed Swami ji who is in charge of the Ashram, and had requested for his time. Swamiji was very happy to receive us, and when I introduced myself and Zaheer, he was pleasantly surprised and puzzled on how come a Sangh Pracharak has come along with a Muslim youth, that too in Kashmir Valley. Swami ji is native of Kerala, and is stationed in Srinagar center since last 5 years. He explained about the Dispensary and Coaching classes run by the Mission for the local people there. I also updated Swamiji about our Sangh activity, which is happening all over the country including Jammu and Kashmir. After having tea and spending some time with Swamiji, we returned back home. On our way back Zaheer took me to Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta area in Srinagar, where Mirwaiz Umar Farooq , Leader of Hurriyat Conference (M) gives his sermons every week after Friday prayers.
In the afternoon B. L. Khan, Zaheer and I went to have darshan at Mata Kheer Bhavani temple in Tula Mula, 25 kms north of Srinagar in Ganderbal District. Kheer Bhavani Mandir is a very important holy site for Kashmiri Hindus. It is called as Ksheer (which means milk) or Kheer Bhawani because thousands of devotees who come there offer milk and kheer (rice pudding) to the sacred spring on which the deity is worshipped. The legend associated with the temple goes that Lord Rama worshipped Ragnya Devi during his exile. After the exile period, Rama asked Hanuman to shift the seat of goddess . The seat of the goddess was brought by Hanuman first to Shadipora and later to the site where the temple is situated today. It is believed that it was the wish of mother Ragnya that her seat be placed in Kheer Bhavani Mandir in Kashmir. Another interesting thing I came to know was it is said that color of the spring goes on changing and if it becomes black, it is an indication of inauspicious time for Kashmir.
After having darshan at Kheer Bhavani, , we also visited Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar city which is the holiest Muslim shrine in Kashmir. It contains a relic which is believed by Muslims in Kashmir as hair of Mohammed, founder of Islam. This is the same masjid where terrorists were hiding in 1993, making it as their base. The Army cordoned off the whole area, but unfortunately all the terrorists who were hiding inside were given free passage by Congress Party led Central Government at that time. In the evening while having our tea, I asked B.L. Khan about the alleged Human Rights violations and excesses in Kashmir by Indian Armed forces. His replied back saying that such cases happen very rarely, but it is reported out of proportion and is used as a propaganda material by Separatists. He also added that when terrorists in civilian dress attack armed forces, public property, and plant bombs, strong action is required by the Army so that the situation is under control. That evening Zaheer and I went on his motor bike to enjoy the beauty of Srinagar City and Dal lake in the night. Shankaracharya mandir was standing majestically on the top of the hill, as if it was conveying a message of cultural unity of whole of India from Kerala to Kashmir, which is challenged by the terrorist and separatist forces. After enjoying the night ride we returned back home by 10.
The next morning we went to Dal lake to meet Sangh Karyakartas from Punjab who had come to Kashmir for sightseeing. After spending some time with them, we met Jayesh Kapoor, who owns a Cloth store in Srinagar. Jayesh is Swayamsevak from Punjab and was really glad to see us. In the afternoon I spent time with B.L. Khan. Spending time with Khan was indeed an enriching experience for me as many of my questions and doubts about Kashmir got cleared, and I also got a nationalist perspective of things happening in Kashmir. After bidding good bye to Khan, I went to Rajesh Kouls home. Rajesh, a Kashmiri Hindu from Shopian, is working in Civil Secretariat in Srinagar. Rajesh’s family had to move out of Kashmir Valley in the early 90s during the rise of Militancy and they are settled in Jammu now. Rajesh narrated his experiences in Kashmir on his perspective on how the Kashmir issue can be addressed. One incident he mentioned, was last year as he was returning from Anantnag to Kashmir along with his wife and daughter. There was a shutdown call that day by Separatists and on the way, his car was stopped by a mob. As they forced him to say slogans such as ” Naree Taqbir- Allaho Akbar” and ” hum kya chahte hain, azaadi” the tension was building up.His wife and daughter asked him to say the slogan, but he refused. But somehow he was allowed to go, though his windows got damaged as they threw stones at the car.
The next day morning was my flight from Srinagar. The previous day night, I was contemplating on my experience that I had in Kashmir, and I felt that one possible solution to this problem is people through people interaction and relationship. If Kashmiris get more and more exposure with the rest of India, like having education in other cities and meeting people of different backgrounds, this can widen their horizons and remove the negative notions and biases that they have about the rest of India and Indians. At the same time, people of rest of India also have a big role to play such as finding ways to build relationships with families in Kashmir and spending time interacting and living together, instead of just visiting as tourists. Unfortunately mainstream political parties are not doing this and in addition to that they are adding fuel to the fire. Similarly our Armed forces have a role to play, and they are doing an exemplary job by maintaining peace and countering terrorism in the Valley. But this person-to-person interaction, I feel, can address the issue of separatism, alienation as well as strengthen the nationalist forces in the Kashmir valley which will help in the complete integration of whole of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India.
Here I remember the quote of Ronald Reagan “I’ve always believed that a lot of troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other .” Many NGOs like Sewa Bharati, Ekal Viyalaya, Ramkrishna Mission, Vivekananda Kendra are doing an excellent work in Jammu and Kashmir by carrying out service activities and running schools serving the people of the State and it became very clear from my experience that Majority of people in Majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir are strongly with India, and the question is about that part of Jammu and Kashmir which is under the illegal occupation of Pakistan ( Gilgit, Baltistan, Muzzafarabad) and China ( Aksai Chin ). Also it is a fact that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir became an integral part of India, when Raja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession on October 26th, 1947 and India as a nation has the strength to defeat the nefarious designs of Pakistan and Separatist forces.