Thursday, July 22, 2010

Songs of the Snows silenced by the Wails of Women- Kashmir Diary in 3 parts (9th to the 13th of July, 2010)

Part I, which is all about Kashmir's famous beguiling charm.

There were many such fields of Iris on the way to and all around Gangbal, an exquisite lake at 11,800 ft, in the NE of blighted Kashmir Valley.

And I was bowled over by views like these:


and this too


I am hurling these sense impressions at you to show that Kashmir's fabled natural splendour is still intact

So here are a few more








Gangbal is about 22 kms from Naranag on the Wangat river, which emerges from Gangbal. It meets the Sind river near Kangan. Naranag is about a 90 minutes drive away from Srinagar. There are a couple of good hotels there. And if there is no curfew there is good food to be had. There ia an old and very impressive 10th C temple complex here.

During my trek (9th to the 12th of July, 2010) I saw many Gujars, Shepherds, Kashmiri and foreign trekkers going up to Gangbal. There was no one from the Indian plains except for me. A guide accompanying some Americans was surprised when I told him that I was from Delhi. He wished that there were more from the mainland visiting this Paradise on Earth, as the inscription in one of the Mughal pavillions in Shalimar Garden says. These pictures will show more than my words that Kashmir's hinterland is peaceful and that life goes on as it has always done for centuries. Except in the urban areas, where all kinds of mischievous stratagems are executed.
Shepherds take up their flocks in May and June and come back in September. There was one horrible instance of thougtlessness. A big forest fire that was caused by Gujars from Rajouri in September 2005. It destroyed thousands of hectares of handsome firs. All the villages helped in putting off the fire by raising huge mud walls, which were pummelled to the ground by the next season's heavy snow.

Gangbal is at the SE foot of Mt. Harmukh (16,872')- the 2nd highest mountain in Kashmir Valley. From this minnow of mountains most of the giants of the Karakorams were first seen. Harmukh ("The Face that can be seen from everywhere").

Capt. TG Montgomerie was lucky to first see the giants of the distant Karkoram from this peak in 1856. Month unknown. Harmukh has its head almost always in clouds from just a bit after sunrise till a short time before sunset. Montgomerie saw "two fine peaks very high above the general range" and markled them as K 1 and K 2. K1 later turned out to have a local name- Masherbrum. K2 is the second highest peak in the world. And still without a name. In 1857 from a lower summit (1600 ft) his friend G. Shelverton took the first observations of the Karakorams. Shelverton camped for a week on the lower cummit waiting for the weather to clear. In 1911 Kenneth Mason, former Superintendent of the Survey of India and author of the most definitive book on the Himlaaya and beyond revisited that station and "found his raised platform, 14ft square, still intact with his finely chiselled markstone firmly in position."

This peak, which does not look easy from this side, has been climbed many times. Its first recorded ascents were in 1899 by Dr. E. Neve and <r. GW Milai. These were followed by CG Bruce and AL Mumm in 1907. All the five sukmmits- Station, Western, Northern, Middle and Eastern have been climbed. In picture can be seen the Eastern and highest summit at the right and the Middle on to the left.

Before Gangbal is an another lake- Narbal. Its a smaller one and is at the S foot of Harmukh. The Wangat river flows out of Gangbal and thru Narbal to continue its breathtaking way towards the Sind.

And this spot is just one of the many in Kashmir that are worth visiting. Vishensar, Nichnai, Erin valley (from Bandipore),Tatkutti and so on.

Part II-

The Mess:


The next three photographs are shocking. It happens all over India all the time. True. What is astonishing is the fact that this happens every day in many places all over the frightened Valley with much more determination, organisation and heartlessness than it happens anywhere else in India. Such instances of petty and compulsive theft take discontent to nearly every doorstep in that blighted Valley.






This Indian para military soldier is whacking in broad daylight some vegetables that he does not need. For, he gets his meals at his mess. Yet, he must for this plunder is simply the habit of his ilk. These pictures were taken by me on the Foreshore Road that skirts the Dal after Bren-Nishat Basti towards the University. Without exaggeration I estimate that there may be at least a thousand such instances of petty extortion experienced daily. Yes, daily. Multiply it by years and you will understand why the people of Kashmir are fed up. I do not deliberately mention the thousands of innocents, who have been maimed, tortured or killed and shown as insurgents in order to show that the uniformed forces are doing their dastardly job well. The horror stories of Alpha Mess, which is now going to be a luxury hotel above the Dal are too well known.

This Indian soldier is certainly NOT a Pakistani insurgent. Yet, the Government repeatedly accuses Pakistan of stoking the fires of violence in this lovely Valley. With such help Pakistan has only to sit back and say thank you. With our soldiers behaving like occupying forces the Pakistanis don't have to exert too much to cause trouble.

Do not the Intelligence Agencies report the truth? Is there any one who does?

I have been visiting Kashmir nearly every year since 1968. Every time I have been to Kashmir since 1987 I have seen these petty instances of theft in full view of people. I have seen soldiers take picture postcards from a helpless vendor in Char Chinari. I have seen soldiers take money from Hotels in Gulmarg and Pahalgam. I have seen soldiers and their officers calling traders from Kupwara to the Forest Rest House there and taking money from each of them. In Shopian these soldiers used to demand crates of apples from trucks carrying them. Sometime back, when a driver refused to give them this illegal tithe, he was killed and the familiar excuse that he was an insurgent trotted out. Their conscience is so dead, and their officers so involved, and supervision so lax, that they just don't care who sees them. This widespread extortion ranging from small thefts like these to taking blood money (claiming rewards for killing innocents is just one way) is turning the Kashmiris against the Governments of India and Kashmir.

Remember that this period of trouble started after the stolen elections of 1987, which were 'won' by Dr. Farooq Abdullah. In a prophetic editorial -Whose will in Kashmir?- The Statesman of the 7th of April, 1987 concluded thus: "Those who may have been inclined to turn a blind eye to what happened during the Kashmir elections on the premise that national security and secularism were therby strengthened would do well to reflect on the old and unfashionable adage about ends and means." Brutal oppression started after that. A situation tailor made for Pakistan to take advantage of. And they continue to do so.

If our uniformed personnel were to behave in a disciplined way there would be more peace than there is now. And the dreaded AFSPA would not be needed. Pakistan undoubtedly takes advantage of these disturbances and stokes the flames higher, but if there was no wide spread revulsion against the armed forces such agitations would be few and far between. I have not seen as much hatred and loathing for the armed forces as I have seen in Kashmir and in the North East- the other area afflicted by this draconian law. That aweful AFSPA is applied to only two areas. Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, and it is not a coincidence that in both these areas the armed forces are detested, and the people want the AFSPA to be trashed.

Peace in these conditions is impossible in our time.

Part III-

It is sad but true.

The Government is not the only one to blame. The Delhi based media, with the exception of a couple of papers, is equally responsible for pedalling one sided jingoistic accounts of insurgency gone wild and painting pictures of doom, which are then parlayed as intelligence. When innocents are shot- at Harwan in April, in Batmaloo on the 10th of July when along with 3 young boys watching a cricket match during curfew a young girl in her kitchen too was killed, in the Machil encounter where they were taken on the promise of jobs and then heartlessly shot, etc etc to name only a few, can one blame the just fury of the people? The law does not help them, the Army officers repsonsible for the Machil outrage have still not been handed to the police. And for each such case that has surfaced, many many screams are stifled. And then to make matters worse funerals of the victims are also fired upon. Firing on funerals is an old habit of the armed forces. The worst so far according to my memory has been the 22nd of October, 1993 Bijbehara Chowk firing by the trigger happy BSF that killed 37 people.

Our gentle Prime Minister had spoken fervently a couple of years ago of winning over "hearts and minds" and reducing the soldiers there. Hearts and minds are turned against us and there are more troops now than ever before. At a Press Conference on the 23rd of May, 2002, the then Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee said "Your pain and anguish is mine too. It is shared by all the people of India. We are with you in your sorrow and we will be with you in your joy."

".... I have instructed the security forces to be more mindful of human rights and be sensitive to the liberties and self respect of ordinary people.." Thus spoke our Prime Minister on the 25th of May, 2006 at Srinagar. On the 7th of June, 2010 Shri Manmohan Singh said at Srinagar " ... there are a handful of people who do not want any political process for empowering people to succeed. This is the reason that attempts to disturb the lives of the people in the Valley still continue from the across the line of control. Whenever such incidents happen, they spread terror and cause disruption in the life of the people. Our security agencies are forced to act in the wake of such incidents. During the process sometimes innocent civilians have to suffer, but whenever such incidents happen it becomes necessary to act against them. ... .. On this issue the Government policy is to protect the human rights of the people even when dealing with terrorism. The security forces in Jammu and Kashmir have been strictly instructed to respect the rights of the civilians..."

Ten years. Two Prime Ministers and nine visits later the pain is still there. Atrocities have increased and so have the troops. Apparently even the P M's directions are ignored.

I had been studying the cycle of ruthlessness in the North East and in Kashmir. I have noticed that whenever peace is returning an incident is created that raises mayhem and increases gunsmoke. More troops come in. And then more. Official ruthlessness provokes retaliation in which more innocents suffer.

On the 5th of July, when curfew was briefly lifted, a Kashmiri Sikh friend of mine was stuck (he was in an Innova) in a line of 15-20 cars. Some young boys came out suddenly and hammered only his car to pulp mercifully allowing him to get out. The other cars had Kashmiri Muslims and were not touched. Another innocent suffers for no other reason except that he is seen as a representative of the oppressive forces. How long will the assault on the innocents carry on?

This blood soaked cycle will continue unless firm and yet tolerant, imaginative and kind leadership emerges. Above all the intelligence system has to be revamped so that the truth is not hidden from the civilian policy makers. I have not till now mentioned the AFSPA, which is a refuge of scoundrels. There are enough laws to take care of insurgency here, but the armed forces want a license to kill. This umbrella has to be removed.

Is it too much to hope?

More people are being killed- not all because of the security forces- (on Sunday the 1st of August, 2010 eight were killed, some agitators died in an explosion in a police station at Khru that they had burnt) and it is now impossible to have a daily account of the dead.

I have a comparison to make though. In other parts of India when buses or trains are burnt and crowds go on a destructive rampage the operative word is restraint, but here it is shoot to kill. Without restraint.

Romesh Bhattacharji