Friday, June 28, 2013

Understanding Kashmiris’ sentiments

Sonia Gandhi’s assertion during her recent visit to Kashmir that New Delhi understands the Kashmiris’ sentiments amounts to sprinkling salt over the wounds of the suffering people! There cannot be more hypocritical statement than this! One can pose a simple question to her? If New Delhi understands Kashmiris’ sentiments then why it has not been honouring these for last 65 years or so? The sentiments of the Kashmiris were very well known even in 1947 itself. Nehru had said the same thing to Sheikh Abdullah who in turn put his body and soul in Pandit Ji’s hands. The first upholding of these sentiments came in 1953 when the Kashmir’s tallest leader was put body and soul in prison. He was incarcerated for over 22 years for his sentiments which were nothing more than desiring a place of honour and dignity for his oppressed people. Instead of honouring these sentiments, New Delhi ensured that the tallest leader turned into a pygmy by their machinations at character assassination. Even though the tallest leader is not so much revered in Kashmir now because of his many political somersaults and his grave is guarded by security forces round the clock, yet New Delhi has never honoured his memory by naming even a lane in the national capital after him!
Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad who like a loyal puppet did New Delhi’s bidding was suspected of having some sentiments for his people and was got rid through the well-known Kamraj Plan. There was a massive upheaval in 1963 after the theft of the holy relic from the Hazratbal mosque. The turmoil turned into a mass political movement for the right of self-determination. New Delhi again understood the sentiments of the people and to assuage these released Sheikh Abdullah. They did not at all consider honouring the sentiments.
Kashmiris thought of openly expressing their sentiments through what Sonia Gandhi calls, “the democratic means” in 1987 but New Delhi brazenly and ruthlessly suppressed these sentiments by massive rigging resulting in an armed uprising. Democracy was virtually butchered in Kashmir by New Delhi. It was to honour this rebellious sentiment that for last two decades Kashmir has been turned into a concentration camp making the BBC correspondent call it the highest militarised area in the world. The army was given a free hand with the most draconian powers to fully assuage the Kashmiris’ sentiments through the incidents like Kunan Poshpora, Gow Kadal, Soura, Bijbehara and so on! 
There are still 10,000 Kashmiris missing without a trace. There are thousands of Kashmiris buried in mass graves all over the valley. International Organisations like the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been urging New Delhi to honour the sentiments of Kashmiris by ordering DNA tests of the people buried in mass graves to end the misery of the people whose relations are missing. Again New Delhi understands the sentiments but does nothing democratically or otherwise! In recent times the worst example of truly understanding the sentiments of Kashmiris was to stealthily and in the most illegal manner hang Afzal Guru even without affording him the last opportunity to see his family. To top it off they flatly refused to hand over the last remains to his family.
New Delhi fully understood the sentiments of Kashmiris when it gave full support to an unregulated and uncontrolled 150 year old pilgrimage to Amarnath growing in geometric progression destroying Kashmir’s fragile mountain ecology. They fully ensured that this pilgrimage instead of a journey of faith performed by devout Hindus turned into a battle for Hindutva in a Muslim majority area by sounding the bugle of “Operation Shiva”!
Talking of the sentiments regarding the economic development, New Delhi robbed Kashmiris of their waters by handing these over lock, stock, and barrel to Pakistan through the Indus Water Treaty. They did not give a damn about Kashmir’s future needs in power. Instead, they sent their East India Company called the NHPC to rob whatever was left of these waters! There cannot be a worst situation than this in the entire world where a region with massive hydro-power potential is facing a power famine. Thanks to New Delhi fully understanding Kashmiris’ sentiments.
Sonia Gandhi would have been more to the point and technically right in saying that she rather than New Delhi understands the Kashmiris’ sentiments. It is historically true that many foreigners have understood Kashmiris better than anyone from the sub-continent. One of these foreigners namely Robert Thorp while pointing out the Kashmir mis-governance gave his life for voicing these sentiments during the Dogra rule. Sonia Gandhi should have had the boldness and the moral courage to say that even after fully understanding Kashmiris’ sentiments she has not been able to do anything through her emotionless Prime Minster devoid of all sentiments who does not even seem to bat an eyelid due to the mortal fear from persons like Modi and Advani!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Credit for defacement!

In every part of the world one sees huge hoardings on the highways, motorways and on internal roads in towns and cities advertising various goods and services. With the advent of modern technology most of the hoardings have gone high-tech. Quite often these hoardings and bill boards gel with the ambiance of a place. On highways these are placed in such a way that these do not jar but go with the landscape. However, in our case there is a total mess and these advertisements and sign boards create such a jumbling and displeasing impact that one’s mind goes crazy! Here, the only consideration of various civic organisations is to collect as much revenue as they can without bothering about the ambiance or the look of a place.
Advertising is now a colossal business. In fact, in their race to outdo each other the advertising companies go berserk and forget all norms of environment, ecology, and ambiance of a place. One sees walls and lamp posts painted over in most of the places. They have no consideration whether a landmark gets defaced or not. However, one would not expect same type of behaviour from the government agencies assigned the task of keeping various areas clean and presentable. In fact, they have to ensure that the private players follow some norms and regulations in regard to use of spaces for advertising. There are many civic laws allowing them to control these activities.
The only person who tried to bring some order in this disorder of advertising and display was the Governor Jagmohan. In his first tenure he really acted as a town planner and tried to bring some order in this mad rush of display and the chaos of bill boards and sign boards. He was also responsible for taking some positive steps as a town planner. He initiated the mechanised macadamization of some roads which lasted for more than 20 years. He set up walkways along Lidder in Pahalgam and also took many other measures for beautification of the landscape. It was his misfortune that he turned into an ardent follower of Hindutva during his second tenure and had an ungraceful exit. It would have been a positive step if our planners and custodians of civic facilities had followed his example given by him in his first tenure. They could still take on these measures but now things seem to have drastically changed because of an insatiable lust for money and power which has crept into our society. Morality, honesty, fair play, ethics and decency seem to have disappeared from this place! There is only one mantra followed by one and all: money, money, and money!
The most annoying aspect of the defacement is the eagerness of some government departments and officials to take individual credit for setting up or creating certain facilities and landmarks. One starkly visible instance is the putting up Victorian style lamp posts of cast iron along the Bund or on some posh area roads. These look very elegant reminding one of the days of the British Raj. However, every lamp post bears a small blue sign board to indicate that these were put up by the Tourism department. This has completely destroyed the Victorian ambiance of these lamp posts. Similar is the case with all the traffic lights. At each crossing there is a small sign to tell us that these were put up by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC). There are many other such instances where various government departs have put of small signs to take credit for these. Instead of giving credit, they should be hauled up for defacing these landmarks and destroying their ambiance. Incidentally, in some cases even individuals for planning and executing these landmarks are mentioned by name! Recently, some telecom companies went berserk and painted all shop shutters red with their ads. There is another aspect to this signage especially the glow sign type. It is big business. Putting these up costs quite a bit of money. In fact, the entire advertising field is full of money shared between various stakeholders.
Another aspect of defacing which one should not forget pertains to general landscape. The railways can take credit for destroying many hill features near the track from Qazigund to Baramulla. These hillocks were completely destroyed by taking earth filling for the track. This was done by the greedy locals against huge amounts of money. Same is the situation in regard to stone quarrying done in a number of places including in the mountains near the entry to the city of Srinagar at Pandhchok.
However, the mother of all defacements of the landscape was the slogans carved out by the army personnel on the hills above Badami Bagh Cantonment. They had earlier taken up a road to the top and put up quite a few constructions. One cannot question them for violating several norms involved in constructing a hill road and putting up constructions for “security reasons”. Well, security is the top most consideration. However, defacing the mountainside with slogans does not have any security value. Being experts in camouflage, one would have expected them to cover the scars of road and the buildings in green/yellow to blend with the landscape. On the contrary they had carved outthe slogans which should have been addressed to the Chinese. They were proudly taking credit for the defacement of the beautiful hills! The Divisional Administration, on Chief Minister’s bidding, is reported to have served them a notice for defacing the hill side so brazenly. It has now been reported that the slogans have been removed. Well done, local administration. However, could same prompt action be taken for other defacements?
Seeing this chaos and madness, one is reminded about the visit of a French journalist group to Kashmir sometime back. They were thrilled by the noise, chaos, and madness in the city of Srinagar. They remarked that it is the liveliest city they had seen! It has life and variety. Everything in their part of the world was calm and orderly. So chaos, disorder and noise may be our next USP (Unique selling proposition) for our tourism marketing bosses!

Friday, June 21, 2013


Just before the start of the annual pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath, popularly considered being the “Abode of Lord Shiva”, the top Army brass made a declaration that they have launched “Operation Shiva” to protect the pilgrims coming from all over India against the alleged threat to them from Kashmiri militants. According to the Northern Army Commander, intelligence reports had been received by him that the militants were going to attack the pilgrimage. His apprehensions were confirmed by no less a person than the Union Home Minister. The Army Commander announced an elaborate plan for protecting the Yatra. It involves multi-layered security of the track by paramilitary forces. Deployment of Army in Pahalgam Golf Course. Aerial surveillance of the track by UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and so on. This perceived threat has been discounted by no less a person than the State Chief Minister from the government side and has been decried by most of the leaders of the popular movement in Kashmir. The raising of the hype at this juncture when the tourism season is at its peak is going to discourage many intended visitors to Kashmir during the period of the pilgrimage.
Sometime back, the well-known activist and civil society member, Swami Agnivesh had called the Amarnath Yatra as a manifestation of Hindu terrorism in Kashmir. One must appreciate the boldness and the matter of fact declaration of truth as perceived by the famous person regardless of the consequences. This is not the first time that he has drawn attention towards the destructive effects of an uncontrolled and unregulated pilgrimage on the local ecology. Earlier he was in 2011 scolded by the Supreme Court of India for calling the Yatra a “Pakhand” (Hypocrisy). In fact, Haryana and Punjab High Courts had issued arrest warrants against him for his remarks about the Yatra! He had severely criticized the state government for not doing anything in regard to controlling the numbers and the duration of the pilgrimage. He alleges that the Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir is not concerned about the environmental hazards and has given free hand to SASB for unknown reasons. The Swami had further said that, “When the Uthrakhand Government can limit the duration and number of pilgrims then what is the problem in Jammu and Kashmir”. Severely Criticizing Hindu extremists for sowing the seeds of hatred and animosity between Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims, he feels that the time has come to limit the duration of the Yatra so that the rise of religious terrorism could be curbed.
The unnecessary hype to the alleged threat to the pilgrimage is on one hand going to discourage the devout Hindus from coming here and on the other it is going to boost the resolve of the young fiery members of the Hindutva Brigade especially the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and RSS to come in large numbers to counter the supposed challenge of the militants. One fails to understand why Indians instead of accepting Kashmir as a Muslim majority area of great Sufi Saints in a secular country, try to revive ancient Hindu connections of the valley? If we take Hinduism as the basis of integration then Kashmir has absolutely no connection to India. The pilgrimage to Amarnath is being used by the Hindutva elements to demonstrate Hindu connection of Kashmir. For last 150 years or so since when the Amarnath Pilgrimage started, it used to be only for a week or so and the largest number of pilgrims never exceeded 15 or 20 thousand.
The unchecked growth of the yatra and the off and on proposals for permanent structures as well as a road to the holy cave have alarmed the common Kashmiris. They are becoming apprehensive that thousands of Trishul wielding Hindus may one day swamp them away from their feet! People probably fear that if the number of yatris and the period of yatra go on increasing necessitating permanent structures, it may change the majority Muslim character of the valley. The recent disaster in Uttrakhand has starkly demonstrated the ill effects of the uncontrolled pilgrimages into fragile mountain areas. The age old pilgrimage area has been turned into a grave yard of mud and slush precisely by the same reasons which are prevalent here also. Kashmir could also face a similar situation someday if the pilgrimage is not controlled and regulated as regards the numbers of the pilgrims and its duration. We have the earlier example of 1996 when hundreds of pilgrims perished in a snow blizzard.
The pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath discovered by the Malik family of Pahalgam, the village of shepherds, has been a journey of faith and brotherhood. It should be allowed to remain the same. This can be done only by limiting the duration of the yatra and the number of pilgrims on one side and on the other hand by stopping unnecessary hype about the threats to a “Hindu” yatra by Muslim militants. Any attempt at turning the yatra into a battle for Hindutva is not only going to damage the fragile mountain ecology of Kashmir but also its centuries old composite culture!

“Operation Shiva”, pilgrimage or battle!

Preparations have been in full swing for the forthcoming Amarnath Pilgrimage. In spite of many apprehensions about the ecological and environmental damage, there has been no curtailment in the numbers of pilgrims or in the duration of the pilgrimage. About 15,000 pilgrims are expected to trek the route from both the sides every day for 45 days or so. Taking into account the unregistered pilgrims and the families and relatives of security personnel on duty, the numbers may touch a million. The recent announcements from the security agencies including the starting of “Operation Shiva” and the preparations being made by the Hindutva parties in different parts of India for sending young trishul wielding pilgrimsmakes it appear that they are coming for waging a “Battle of Amarnath” rather than for a journey of faith! It is reported that there would be layers of security provided by various agencies on the two sides of the track. In addition, troops would be camping in Pahalgam Golf Course for any eventuality. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will provide aerial surveillance of the route. As announced by the senior Army officers, there have also allegedly been intelligence reports about possible militant attacks on the pilgrimage.
The valley of Kashmir situated in the bosom of high Himalaya has always been an ideal place for spiritual meditation. It is popularly called in Kashmiri, the “Reshiweur” or the bowl of saints! Being in absolute majority, the Kashmiri Muslims were not so much concerned about their religion till 1947. No doubt it was the Muslim majority of Kashmiris that suffered at the hands of the Dogra rulers yet Kashmiris did not develop hatred against the Hindu religion but only against the feudal set up which had deprived them of the basic human rights. It was only after the events of partition and the machinations of the two neighbouring countries that religion came into the forefront. Pakistan which came into being on the basis of religion did not hold much attraction for Kashmiris as they had suffered at the hands of Muslims also in the past. Punjabi Muslims used to look down upon Kashmiris during their stay in the erstwhile Punjab where they used to go for work especially as manual labourers. Even the nickname “Hathow” was given to them by the Punjabi Muslims.
Kashmiris have been exhorted right from 1947 to be part of the secular republic of India instead of the fundamentalist Islamic republic of Pakistan. The ideological conflict between the two artificially created nations has found Kashmiris as ideal guinea pigs for experimentation. Historically Kashmiris have seen a multiplicity of religious faiths. The Saivite Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Islam have given way to each other in succession without any inter-religious conflict. The transition has always been smooth. This has helped Kashmiris to develop a much broader and tolerant religious outlook than other places in the sub-continent. While as on one side some of the Pakistanis have taken Jihad in Islam to extremes, on the other side some Indians have taken Hinduism to the extreme brand of Hindutva. In spite of a blood bath in the sub-continent during the partition days, Kashmir preserved its age old amity and tolerance among various religious faiths.
On the Indian side even though it claimed itself to be a secular republic, the Hindu domination came into being immediately after partition. The contention of being secular after accepting the division of the country on religious lines is nothing but shear hypocrisy! It is the typical dual policy described by Kautaliya in Arthshastra. Kashmiris had the first taste of Hindutva through the agitation of Parja Parshad in Jammu under the banner of “Ek Nishan, Ek Vidhan, Ek Pradhan”. This agitation was started by the Jammu based Parja Parshad on the inspiration of the erstwhile Jana Sangh (present BJP) and the RSS for total merger of the state with the Indian Union against the complete State Autonomy bordering on virtual independence, advocated by Sheikh Abdullah. This very agitation created grave and serious apprehensions in the minds of the Kashmiri Muslims regarding the intentions of the Indian government. In fact, it was the turning point in the thinking of Sheikh Abdullah regarding the secularism promised to him by Pandit Nehru.
For last 65 years Kashmiris have been starkly presented mainly the extremist Hindu face of India. In spite of incitements and provocations from Pakistan, they have refused to give up their centuries old religious tolerance. Even though the Indian state presents itself as a secular entity, yet the overwhelming stance from India has been the ugly face of violent Hindutva. After having failed to convince the Muslim majority about the authenticity of its secular credentials, the Indian government itself has been presenting and promoting Hindutva in regard to Kashmir. The starkest example of this has been the pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath in the Kashmir Himalaya.
Kashmir has been an important seat of Saivite Hindu philosophy in the past. In fact, Buddhism also once flourished here. The fourth Buddhist Council was held here and the Mahayana Philosophy of Buddhism was postulated here by a conclave of great Buddhist Scholars and Philosophers and was spread all over by Bhikshus from here. However, subsequently Kashmir became a Muslim majority state after the peaceful advent of Islam here. Most of the religious transitions in Kashmir have been voluntary and peaceful. Kashmir became home to Muslim mystics who introduced the Sufi philosophy. In fact, every hillock in Kashmir has a shrine of one or the other Muslim spiritual preacher who used to meditate in the serenity of this valley.
One fails to understand why Indians instead of accepting Kashmir as a Muslim majority area of great Sufi Saints in a secular country, try to revive ancient Hindu connections of the valley? If we take Hinduism as the basis of integration then Kashmir has absolutely no connection to India. The pilgrimage to Amarnath is being used by the Hindutva elements to demonstrate Hindu connection of Kashmir. For last 150 years or so since when the Amarnath Pilgrimage started, it used to be only for a week or so and the largest number of pilgrims never exceeded 15 or 20 thousand. This used to be the pattern till early nineties. In fact, in 1990 there was hardly any pilgrimage due to disturbed conditions in the valley. However, in 1993, a militant organisation consisting of foreign militants called the “Harkat-ul-Ansar” imposed a ban on the pilgrimage. This was the beginning of the politicization of the yatra. The ban gave a strong affront to the Hindutva parties all over India and it was taken as a challenge. After this incident the yatra became more an assertion of Hindu India’s control over Muslim Kashmir than a journey of faith. Most of the pilgrims were young members of Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, RSS, and similar other parties and would be shouting slogans all along the route. Subsequently there were also some incidents which drew more attention towards this pilgrimage. The first one occurred in 1996 when hundreds of yatris perished in an untimely blizzard on the route. More than 70,000 pilgrims were all along the route when the weather turned bad and there was a severe blizzard in Sheshnag area. Officially 200 yatris perished while as the unofficial estimates were much higher. Thousands were saved by local villagers who gave them clothing, shelter and food. Dr. Nitish Sen Gupta was appointed as an inquiry officer to ascertain the causes of the tragedy. The main finding was that the yatra had been totally uncontrolled and unregulated. He recommended only 5,000 yatris per day from both the routes and limited the duration of yatra only for one month. The second incident was a militant attack in Pahalgam during the yatra. In this incident about 30 persons mostly locals died due to indiscriminate firing by the security personnel. Again an inquiry was instituted. General Mukharjee, the 15 corps commander conducted the inquiry and held the security personnel responsible for indiscriminate firing. He also recommended adhering to the recommendations of Dr. Nitish Sen Gupta for controlling and regulating the yatra. Another factor in making the Pilgrimage uncontrollable has been the regular opening of Baltal route. Traditionally, the yatra used to follow the Pahalgam route with stops en route at Mattan and Pahalgam. However, the Army detachments stationed in Sonamarg area went to the cave through Baltal. It was a very quick route to the cave. In the beginning, this route remained restricted to Army officers and their families. In fact, the yatra management through the earlier Dharmarth Trust used to completely close this route during the actual yatra period. However, subsequently it was converted into a regular route against the wishes of the Mahant and other members of the Trust.
The things ran smoothly as long as the Government directly controlled the Yatra. It was Dr. Farooq Abdullah, who set up a Shrine Board to better control and manage the Pilgrimage through Hindus themselves. However, he probably did not know what an unmanageable mammoth he was creating. The Shrine Board functioned smoothly during the time of General Rao as the Governor and he did not take upon himself the task of setting up a virtual Amarnath Nagar. In fact, during his tenure the total involvement of the Board was limited to the Shrine area from Sangam to Cave, hardly a distance of about 2 kilometres. It was with the coming of General Sinha as the Governor that the Board became rather unwieldy and started grabbing the entire Pilgrimage along with the land en route right from Pahalgam on one side and Baltal on the other side. He seemed to have come with a total Hindutva agenda to Kashmir. His aim was to somehow get Kashmir connected to India. Instead of accepting the Muslim majority connection to a “Secular” state, he chose to get Kashmir connected through its Hindu past. He helped the Hindutva parties in mobilising the youth all over India and also persuaded people to set up free langars en route. The aim was to convert Kashmir into a Hindu Pilgrimage centre. Religion being the most emotive factor in Indian politics, this became a readymade handle for Hindu votes. The goal has been to convince the Hindu majority in India that Kashmir is the most pious Hindu pilgrimage centre and it has to be retained at all costs regardless of the status of its present population. The youth are being prepared to offer any sacrifice to keep Kashmir as part of India. This process has been termed by Swami Agnivesh as “Hindu Terrorism” who has been boldly bringing out the impact of this pilgrimage on the people of Kashmir as well as its environment.
The most disturbing fall out of this virtual “Battle for Amarnath” has been the ecological and environmental damage to this once serene and clean mountain area. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims trekking in fragile mountain areas has a tremendous impact. First is the scattering of garbage including non-biodegradable items like plastic bottles, tins and so on. The accumulation after every yatra is in tons! Then comes the human excreta and all the muck seeping/going into the flowing water. This water is used for drinking by people living downstream throughout the valley. Apart from the water getting polluted, the massive human intrusion has resulted in the accelerated melting of glaciers, the main source of this water.
A very damaging fall out of the uncontrolled pilgrimage has been on the political side. The unchecked growth of the yatra and the off and on proposals for permanent structures as well as a road to the holy cave have alarmed the common Kashmiris. They are becoming apprehensive that thousands of Trishul wielding Hindus may one day swamp them away from their feet! People probably fear that if the number of yatris and the period of yatra go on increasing necessitating permanent structures, it may change the majority Muslim character of the valley. Already there have been rumours on the same subject mentioning even Israeli settlements in the Palestinian area! Just a strong rumour that the land was being transferred to outsiders created a massive upheaval in 2008. The last year’s Supreme Court direction for constructing a road to the cave and permanent settlements provoked strong reactions among the local people. In fact, one has to seriously and strictly enforce regulations as is done in other environmentally fragile parts of the Himalaya. Kashmiris have to be assured that they are welcome as a Muslim majority part of the country rather than as a colonised part conquered by Hindu India. The most visible characteristic of the composite culture of Kashmir is the fact, that the formation of an ice lingam considered to be a form of Lord Shiva in the Holy Cave of Amarnath was discovered by a Kashmiri Muslim belonging to Malik family of Pahalgam. This family was involved with the yatra till the formation of the Shrine Board. Even now a large number of Muslims such as horsemen, porters, camping agents, hoteliers and officials on duty are totally involved in the organisation of the pilgrimage. It has been a journey of faith and should be allowed to remain the same. This can be done only by controlling the number of pilgrims and the duration of the pilgrimage. Any attempt at turning the pilgrimage into a battle for Hindutva is bound to boomerang. It is not only going to damage the composite culture of Kashmir but also convince Kashmiris that behind the secular mask of India there is a strong and violent “Hindu Terrorism” lurking impatiently to grab them!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is Kashmir for Tourists only?

Recently there was an incident when a lady owning a show room on Gulmarg road refused to allow some Kashmiris to enter it. There was uproar from various organisations including the Chamber of Commerce about this colonial attitude of the lady. Well, it may be a stark incident of discrimination and all of us may feel outraged but it is just a tip of the iceberg of what has crept into our daily thinking about Tourism. There is always an unending refrain from politicians supported by a very vocal lobby about Tourism being the back bone of Kashmir’s economy. This myth created by politicians has been shattered many a time by expert economists who have clearly demonstrated that Tourism does not even contribute 8% of the Gross Domestic Product of the State. No doubt being a service oriented industry, it provides employment to not more than 2% of the population and that too on a seasonal basis. No one can deny its role in generating employment even though on a temporary basis. As stated in these columns, the primary requirement for development of tourism is permanent “Peace” which has been eluding us for a long time now! The brief spells of calm and serenity off and on cannot be taken as permanent peace. Kashmir continues to be a conflict zone and in spite of our best efforts, Tourism will continue to have an uncertain future.
Even if we concede that it is most essential for the well-being and economic development of the state to give priority to Tourism sector, it must be made clear that for our own good, we should not tag all our activities to it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in all our developmental sectors and other activities. Every time people talk about conservation and protection of environment like restoring Dal Lake, the Tourism angle comes in. The concerned departments also make it a point to have the Lake cleaned along the most frequented Boulevard Road as it is used by tourists. The Lake may appear shinning and clean from the Boulevard to tourists but its real health depends upon the status deep inside where over 50,000 people live in permanent houses built on islands reclaimed from the Lake. The miles upon miles of floating vegetable gardens and the sewers going directly into the Lake have to be dealt with severely rather than the portion adjacent to the Boulevard. Tourists may come or not come but the people of Srinagar have no choice but to live around the Lake which has been the throbbing heart of not only the city but of entire Kashmir.
The same is the case with roads, drains, and garbage collection in the city. All the areas frequented by tourists are given preference in regard to civic facilities. The local population gets second preference. It has been observed that our planners while preparing plans for various facilities always take a plea in support of these being used by tourists. This has created a slave mentality and we act as serfs for the hospitality and entertainment of outsiders at the cost of our own people. There is lot of hullabaloo regarding recreation facilities. Take for instance the Tulip Garden. We have scores of Gardens including famous Mughal Gardens. Almost 20 crores were invested in setting up the Tulip Garden for the recreation of tourists even though it is next only to the stinking and dying Dal Lake. The bloom hardly lasts two weeks or so. It was fancy of a former Chief Minister who dedicated it to his mentor! The same money could have been channelled into development of commercial floriculture which would provide gainful employment to our youth.
For past sometime there is a craze about setting up of Golf Courses and Cable Cars. Again hundreds of crores have been spent on setting up of Golf Courses in different parts of the state. One would like to question these planners whether any survey has been done about the clientele expected to use these facilities and contribute substantially to our economy or it is again a fancy of some of our young politicians? Cable Cars are announced to be built in every nook and corner of the valley. Basically the aerial transportation is meant to be used for accessing remote places at higher altitudes not approachable through normal means. These are also used during winter to approach higher altitude to allow skiers to use different types of ski slopes. Here, these are being planned and set up in all places as tourist attractions. These do not improve or enhance the environment and ambiance of a place but rather denigrate it due to setting up of steel towers and drive stations. Again one would like to ask if any requirement survey has been done or its utility for a particular area has been established. Or these are again fancies of the politicians to placate their vote banks? Here, one is tempted to quote a saying about democracy. “Democracy is a balloon filled with hot air. When it rises, fools watch it and the clever pick their pockets”!
It is time that our politicians and the planners come out of the “Tourism Mania” and plan and execute the most essential things as per requirement of the general population and not as per the fancy of the tourists. This can be done without lowering the importance of tourism as an important supplement to the economy. If world class facilities are set up honestly and sincerely in all spheres of activity these would, apart from the local population be readily available to tourists also. It needs to be remembered that Kashmir is not only for the tourists but is a home to a lively and vibrant local population famed all over the world for their hospitality!

Sunday, June 9, 2013


For some time past a lot of noise is being made by all concerned from both the political streams in Kashmir for the revocation of the draconian legislation AFSPA. The campaign is being mounted in such a way that there is a feeling as if the ultimate demand of a Kashmiri is the revocation of AFSPA. It is only one of the totalitarian laws on the statute book for not only depriving the common people of their fundamental rights but for giving protection to the perpetrators of the wrongs in the interest of national security. Apart from AFSPA, there are numerous other laws which are completely totalitarian in nature. There is no doubt that the massive security apparatus in place in Kashmir is really stifling and chokes the common people. However, the revocation of the draconian legislation is not going to make the clamp down disappear overnight as the feeling is being created. It will only bring in the perpetrators under the gambit of normal laws for any excesses they commit. However, AFSPA is not the only draconian legislation in force in J & K. The worst law for the local people is Public Safety Act under which a person can be detained without any trial for years together. The Police use a revolving door policy to continue the detention after the expiry of the earlier order. Then there is the Disturbed Areas Act which again has been imposed by the state government. It is only because of an area being declared disturbed that the AFSPA comes into force there. There is dichotomy regarding revocation of AFSPA. On one hand it is claimed that Kashmir is under the control of India. If that be so, then there should be no complaint against AFSPA or any other draconian legislation as the coercing power will use everything under the sun to keep its hold on the territory. The people demanding “Azadi” or freedom do not seem to comprehend its full meaning. The very demand for freedom precludes that the people raising the same accept that they are not free. They have to decide whether they want more freedom in the existing set up or they want to be absolutely free on their own by ending their present status as part of India or Pakistan. If the choice is the latter, then to achieve absolute freedom they have to go through all the trials and tribulations. AFSPA or PSA are no issues. In the alternative, the real relief will only come when all the acts and not only AFSPA are revoked and the very strict and virtually choking security clamp down is totally dismantled and brought back to the level before the eruption of turmoil. Such a step could bring some temporary relaxation allowing people to breathe more freely. However, that breather would not be the permanent and the final solution of the political problem but the relief from security strangulation could possibly create an atmosphere to lessen the sufferings of the common people. Final solution will have to be evolved by a general consensus if it is meant to be a permanent one! The authorities at the helm have also to understand the fact that the revocation of these draconian legislations are not going to solve the main political problem but these would afford the much sought after relief to the people. In fact, it is often pointed out by some politicians including the Chief Minister that the Army is the main hurdle in revocation of the legislation called the AFSPA. He very conveniently forgets PSA! By saying this they are abdicating their political responsibility to the common people under the constitution. It is true that the Army top brass has been opposing the revocation of the legislation partially or completely for what they call the operational reasons. Sometime back the General posted in Srinagar had said in a press statement that if AFSPA is revoked then Kashmir may have to be given “Azadi” in 2016. In fact, the General was speaking the truth about the ground situation for the handling of which the Army needs extra-constitutional powers. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream politicians in Srinagar and the rulers in Delhi are trying to runway from the actual ground situation of total alienation of the people from the Indian mainstream. The authorities must face the stark truth that Kashmiris have neither given up their basic demand for the right of self-determination nor have they reconciled to status quo in spite of being willingly or unwillingly a part of the Indian Union for last 65 years or so! The debate should not be whether AFSPA should go fully or partially but how one can resolve the basic political issue hanging for last 65 years? The removal of security clamp down and revocation of the totalitarian legislations, both the central and the state ones is the first step and not the ultimate end.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Smooth entry, scary exit!

In a recently concluded Conclave on Tourism, a travel agent observed that the entry to the city of Srinagar is quite smooth for the tourists coming by air. However, their exit from the same airport is a nightmare! From the aircraft, the dome shaped structures of the so called International Airport seem quite impressive. The facilities inside are also reasonable though not up to international aviation standards. There are only two aerobridges even though there is provision for four. Even these two bridges are not sometimes used and the passengers have to walk in the falling rain. There have been some complaints about the hygiene of bath rooms, presence of the birds and cats inside the building, shortage of the conveyor belts for baggage during peak hours and so on. The virtual traffic jam at the airport is caused by clubbing of almost a dozen flights in the peak hour which sends airport facilities into a spin. One would not mind these deficiencies as there are no international flights and for all practical purposes it is a domestic airport. For the people who have been familiar with the air travel to Kashmir it is a dramatic change from the wooden sheds of the old airport of sixties or so when a Dakota used to land here! However, the most annoying thing in the present set up is the procedure for security clearance right from the first entry about a kilometre short of the terminal building for the departing passengers. The incoming passengers have only one hiccup and that is for foreign tourists who have to register again even after having completed all immigration formalities at the port of entry into India at Delhi or Mumbai. The second immigration formality is prevalent only at airports in J & K. No other domestic airports in other states have any such requirement. This procedure totally negates the contention that Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian Union. Most of the foreigners get the impression that they are landing in some other country or in a protected/restricted zone. This double immigration is not backed by any law including the Foreigners Act which governs the entry and movement of foreigners in the entire country. It is probably being done under the orders of the local interior ministry to keep track of foreigners entering Kashmir. Normally, under law all residential tourist places such as hotels, guest houses, and house-boats have to maintain registers for guests staying with them. They have also to fill up a form “C” to be given to Foreigners’ Registration Office so that they are able to keep track of foreign visitors. If this procedure is strictly maintained, there is no need of additional registration at the airport. In fact, during the tenure of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1975, the airport registration practice for foreigners was discontinued. The practice got re-introduced after the onset of militancy as the government wanted to keep a tag on the foreign journalists and diplomats visiting Kashmir. At one time the practice of issuing disembarkation cards inside the aircraft was also introduced but this too was discontinued after sometime. One interesting fact about this practice is that the forms to be filled up by the foreigners at Srinagar airport are more detailed and elaborate than the immigration cards given at the international airports! These forms even ask a traveller about the procedure of his booking of a tour even in his home country which seems totally irrelevant. In any case, one could put up with this additional burden but the main complaint is about one’s exit from Kashmir. In regard to airport security, the most elaborate but really annoying security procedure is supposed to be at the US airports because of 9/11. However, the Srinagar airport security even surpasses that! Srinagar Airport is probably unique in the sense that complete security check of the baggage as well as passengers is carried out on the road leading to the terminal building almost one kilometre short of it! This pre-airport check is a real bother. The usual security procedure which is everywhere followed before entering the airport terminal and boarding the aircraft in different airports in the country and abroad is replicated even before reaching the terminal. The annoying part is the wait for the check. Because of the rush of passengers there are mile long queues of vehicles and sometimes people have to wait in their cars for an hour or so. No doubt this pre-airport check has been necessitated by the attempted storming of the airport by armed persons some years back yet there is need to streamline the procedure to prevent harassment to outgoing passengers. It is reported that shortly vehicle scanners are being deployed at this point which would eliminate disembarking of passengers for individual personal search and scanning of their baggage. Tourism has been a very hot topic of discussion in the recent past. While the government claims arrival of over a million tourists yet many people point out that the real high end tourism is shying away from Kashmir. Apart from the lack of infrastructure of international standards, the other most important handicap has been the treatment of tourists both in the resorts and at the security check points especially the exit through Srinagar airport. The first and business class travelers are not ready to go through all the hassles and want a smooth passage everywhere. It is because of this that at almost all international airports the first and business class travelers have separate check in and security clearance areas. One needs to bear in mind the fact that adverse publicity by word of mouth is very damaging for a destination. A single dissatisfied tourist can negate all the million dollar publicity undertaken by the tourism department. Thus to ensure repeat tourism and that too from the high end side, both the entry and exit of these tourists has to be streamlined and made smooth and totally hassle-free! The sooner it is done, the better.