Monday, September 30, 2013

The Missing High-End Tourism!

In spite of the tall claims regarding tourist figures, the real high end tourism from domestic markets as well as abroad still shies away from Kashmir

For last couple of years we have been repeatedly bombarded with tourist figures exceeding a million or even a million and a half. In fact, projections for the next year are aimed at over 2 million tourists. However, no one has been talking about the real status of the people visiting the valley! Mere figures do not convey the real story. Tourist arrivals which incidentally may include people working here do not make the difference. In reality, the class of tourists and the number of nights they stay in hotels and other accommodation tell the true story. There are many other myths about tourism touted by the very strong lobby it represents as well as by almost all the politicians from all the sides using it as the barometer of political normalcy. In real economic terms it is not at all the backbone of Kashmir’s economy but represents less than 10% of the GDP. The three most important sectors of Kashmir’s economy are agriculture, horticulture, and handicrafts exported all over the world. Tourism is an additional resource, basically an employment generator. Because of being a service oriented industry it generates thousands of seasonal jobs. The basic requirement for the development of tourism anywhere in the world is the “Peace”. Unfortunately, our part of the world has been in continuous turmoil and one never knows when the fuse will blow out? In spite of million or so tourists visiting Kashmir, the unsafe image of the destination refuses to go away especially because of the biased travel advisories of some western countries.
Even if we concede that due to somewhat settled conditions of last couple of years the tourism industry is booming, there is one important catch. The really paying high end tourism is still shying away from Kashmir. By high end tourism one does not mean the top class very rich tourists. It would mean the upper middle class. The really high end tourism of Monaco type will never come to Kashmir. Apart from the political situation, there are many other handicaps. For the domestic high end market it is the lack of high class infrastructure and the present day ease to travel abroad to better managed peaceful destinations. In fact right now more Indians travel abroad for holiday than the foreign visitors coming here! In the case of foreign high end tourism, the main handicap apart from the image of an unsafe destination is the lack of direct connectivity to international air routes. To visit Kashmir foreigners from all over the world have to pay an add-on fare from Delhi to Srinagar and back. The so called International airport at Srinagar is a practical joke played on Kashmiris by Sonia Gandhi and her government. If Srinagar had a real international air connection, the western travel advisories would be off in a matter of days as the people from all over could come and go easily and see for themselves the present safe travel situation. One of the most frequently asked questions in the foreign travel marts is about the accommodations where one can stay, the availability of luxury transport, and recreation and entertainment facilities apart from the natural beauty. At present we hardly have a couple of places which may somewhat compare with the high class staying facilities available in some of the top global tourism destinations. Regarding recreation and entertainment we are confused. People do not look for the things they get in Las Vegas or Bangkok in Kashmir. However, they need recreational facilities like clubs, golf courses, bowling alleys, restaurants, and so on. Even if we have some of these, but unfortunately the management and maintenance of these is very poor. The only saleable entertainment in Gulmarg we have is a gondola ride to the top of the mountain. Rest of the time, the poor tourists are held to ransom by the ponywallas and others! In addition, we have somehow become totally unconcerned about our own living environment. Srinagar is probably one of the dirtiest cities in the sub-continent. The same is the condition of our water bodies and the historical lifeline, the River Jhelum. No one wants to visit a filthy tourism destination!
If we sincerely and honestly want to promote high end tourism which will have an impact on the economy, we have to follow a three pronged strategy. Firstly we have to clean up our own act both physically and literally. We cannot invite tourists to filthy cities, over-crowded concrete jungle resorts teeming with all sorts of people tearing the visitor’s apparels! Kashmir is touted as “Paradise on Earth”. We have to at least make it look like a clean Paradise if nothing more! We need to clean up our environment not only for tourists but our own selves. Then we have to change the attitude of people coming in contact with the tourists. No doubt there are black sheep in almost all tourist destinations who spoil the reputation of the entire population but in our case the number is becoming uncontrollable in spite of the best legislation for the protection of the interests of the tourists. Both the government and the private players in the industry have to strictly adhere to basic ethics in dealing with the tourists. The violators need to be dealt with severely by both the sides.
Next comes the infrastructure. This would involve not only the super structure in the form of accommodation, eating places, recreational avenues but also the basic infrastructure of roads, electricity, communications and so on. As already stated in the beginning, we should not expect high end or the up market foreign traffic without an international air connection. We should also not expect high end tourists to visit a destination beset with erratic power supply, strewn with dumps of garbage, pot-holed access roads to the resorts, and above everything else menaced by packs of ferocious stray dogs! The least one could do is to offer clean and hygienic places for stay and eating equal to similar places in different popular tourist destinations around the world. They could stay in comfort and enjoy the beauty of nature. The high end tourist will pay for these services but these should be worth paying for! People are now used to international chains of hotels for accommodation. They know the facilities and standards available in these. Unfortunately, we do not have in Kashmir any properties owned by various popular international hospitality chains. Some attempts were made in the past to improve the infrastructure for accommodation but the approach was flawed. The land is a sensitive issue in Kashmir. Instead of making local land available on lease to outsiders, it would be better to encourage collaborations between locals and the international chains. The joint venture, in which the land is owned by Kashmiri partners, is the best option. In fact, one can also stipulate about employees that 70% would be local and 30% outside experts in various fields. The same can hold good for restaurants and food outlets. Similarly, we need to have management contracts for our prestigious high end projects like the Golf Circuits, Cable Cars and so on. Quite a few of these after being set up with massive investments are in shambles because of mismanagent.There are many other options available to bring the infrastructure to the acceptable global level provided we have the political will to do so!
The third most important prong of the strategy is intensive marketing in the source markets both at the official level and at the industry level itself. Marketing does not mean only printing brochures, posters and calendars. It involves mounting print and electronic media campaigns not only for acquainting potential tourists in source markets about the destinations, and the facilities available there but also motivating them to travel to these destinations. Media campaigns are expensive and tourism marketing needs sizeable budgets. It is a pity that the Kashmir Tourism has the lowest budget earmarked for marketing. Chhattisgarh not a very well-known destination spends over 7 crores on advertising and marketing. They even got an award for that. The Kerala Tourism budget is 105 crores. They have earmarked 1 crore just for participation in travel marts! The J & K budget has been almost static for last few years at 5 crores or so. In mid-nineties when we restarted tourism campaigns we spent more than two crores on just Ladakh and Jammu campaigns called, “Ladakh, the land of endless discovery” and “Jammu, you won’t believe your eyes”. Recently the media had adversely reacted to the visit of a delegation of tourism officials led by the Minister to Europe and America. It seems they were not able to project and explain the purpose of their visit. In fact, they should be making a dozen such visits to foreign source markets not by themselves alone but should sponsor travel industry delegations to these areas if they are really interested in removing the adverse image of Kashmir. In reverse there should be dozens of visits by the foreign travel agents and travel media to correct the image which has been badly damaged due to turmoil of the nineties. The department should invariably participate in all the travel marts and conventions held from time to time within the country and abroad. Mere presence of a strong travel delegation from Kashmir reinforces the belief that it is safe to travel to Kashmir which is the first question asked everywhere. Instead of spending crores of rupees on a couple of dozen Tourism Development Authorities in every nook and corner of the state and creating environment destroying infrastructure, the money should be utilized in improving the basic infrastructure in existing resorts and on aggressive marketing. No doubt there is need to open new tourist areas to lessen pressure on the existing ones but these have to be taken up in a phased manner depending upon the basic criteria of tourism development, “potential, accessibility (political as well as physical), and infrastructure”. The worst handicap for high end foreign tourism has been the adverse travel advisories. Some of these may be genuine but some are also based on bias and prejudice. However, the removal of these needs intensive follow up at the consular level in Delhi and even with foreign offices of the countries issuing these in the first instance. Some years back 65 Britons were massacred in the Luxor area of Egypt. The British Foreign Office issued a very strong adverse travel advisory to its nationals regarding travel to Egypt. However, the Egyptian Foreign and Tourism Ministers camped in London for a week to assure the British Government about the safety of its nationals. The advisory was lifted only after 10 days or so. In order to avoid adverse reactions during some incidents, the Tourism Authorities have to be very active in damage control by feeding the correct information to the media. They should be having regular interaction with the media.
Thus, we should not be asking why we are missing the high end foreign and domestic traffic to Kashmir but rather whether we are doing enough to make these people feel it worth coming and be comfortable and at home in the so called “Paradise on Earth”!   
The author is former Director General Tourism, J & K.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Covert Operations!

The revelations about a covert operation to overthrow Omar Abdullah Government in 2010 seem to have come out straight from Kautilya’s Arthashastra.


 These days the whole media is abuzz with the revelations in a national newspaper about a plot having been hatched by the former Army Chief to overthrow the State Government in 2010 by bribing a cabinet minister. Allegations and counter allegations are galore in this controversy. However, covert operations in Kashmir are not a big surprise or a new discovery. For the last 65 years or so, Kashmir has been turned into a hotbed of conspiracies and covert operations. In fact, the very first covert operation has been the conversion of Muslim Conference into National Conference in 1938 and the subsequent motivating of the Lion of Kashmir to follow the Indian line of action by supporting the signing of the instrument of accession by the erstwhile Maharaja Hari Singh. Many books have been written on the subject and some even deny the very existence of the said document!
The next most important covert operation has been the dethroning of the Lion and his long incarceration. B.N. Mullick, the then Director of the Intelligence Bureau says in his book that it took him two years to convince Pandit Nehru that it was essential to remove Sheikh Abdullah from the scene to allow complete integration of the State of Jammu & Kashmir in the Indian Union! The starting of the Parija Parishad agitation in Jammu called, “Ek Nishan, Ek Vidhan, Ek Pradhan”, for total integration of the state which turned Sheikh Abdullah against India giving the Indian Government an opportunity to detain him, was part of the same covert operation. Then happened what can be called the mystery of the century which no one has been able to unearth so far. That was the removal of the holy relic from the Hazratbal mosque in December, 1963. This operation not only removed Bakhshi Ghulam Muhammad and his entire dynasty who had completely overshadowed everything in Kashmir for almost 11 years, from the scene but also revived Kashmir’s movement for the right of self-determination. Kashmir suddenly popped up on the international radar once again. How and by whom the holy relic was removed and how it came back is the greatest puzzle of our times. Will this mystery be ever solved? That is a million dollar question! The other side too had started their covert operations right from 1947 with the first one being the tribal raid to thwart the Indian annexation of Kashmir. In fifties after the dethroning of the Lion of Kashmir, their covert operations were mostly confined to sending sacks full of currency notes to the leaders of the Kashmir’s popular movement and their families. One Jehangir used to be their king pin for these operations.
After the turmoil of nineties, such operations became a routine. In fact, everything turned murky and one could not distinguish between the real freedom fighters and the imposters roaming all over the valley. The security forces floated their own clandestine outfits and there were so many violent incidents and no one has been so far able to pin point the real perpetrators of these. The skeletons have now started tumbling from the Army cupboard and there must be dozens of such cupboards! One of the most talked about and notorious operation has been the “Al Farhan” story described in detail in the book “Meadows”! Tom Clancy has even written a novel about these covert operations in Kashmir. It is called the “Line of Control”! In this very interesting and exciting novel, an Indian agent of the paramilitary forces exposes the conspiracy to start an Indo-Pak war by attacking the Amarnath Pilgrims near the Tourist Centre in Srinagar! The possible Armageddon is averted by American intervention.
One is reminded about some interesting quotes of Kautilya in his treatise the Arthashastra. “A king shall have his agents in the courts of the enemy, the ally, the Middle and the Neutral kings to spy on the kings as well as their eighteen types of high officials”. “Miraculous results can be achieved by practising the methods of subversion”. “A single assassin can achieve, with weapons, fire or poison, more than a fully mobilised army”. In fact, it is said that Pandit Nehru used to keep a copy of this famous treatise, which is an equivalent of the Machiavelli’s Prince, by his bedside! His Kashmir strategy appears definitely to have been influenced by his minute study of the Arthashastra!
The Arthashastra is used as a text book in the Indian Military Academy from which General V.K.Singh has graduated. Thus, the covert operation conducted by the Technical Services Division of the Military Intelligence in 2010 is only the tip of the iceberg in regard to dozens of such clandestine activities being conducted in Kashmir by various agencies and outfits including the Armies from both the countries. In fact, the timing of the exposure of this operation itself may be another sophisticated operation to benefit certain quarters in view of the forthcoming elections?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Zubin turns Kheer Bhawani RED?

The spring of Kheerbhawani located in present day Tulmul about 25 kilometers from Srinagar is quite large and is supposed to be very sacred to Maharajni, a form of Durga and has always been held in veneration by the Brahmans of Kashmir. The spring is said to exhibit from time to time miraculous changes in the colour of its water, which are ascribed to different manifestations of the goddess. Turning of the colour into shades of black is supposed to signal approaching bad times. In 1886, Walter Lawrence, the-then British settlement commissioner for land, during his visit to the spring, reported the water of the spring to have a violet tinge. Kashmiris claim to have observed a darkish or murky tinge to the water just before the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the 1989 insurgency in the valley. Some people say that before the exodus of the Pandits from Kashmir the colour had turned completely black in 1990!
The legend has it that there were 360 springs surrounding the main spring but all of these seem to have disappeared as the land has become marshy all around. In the last half century the pilgrimage had become the most important for Kashmiri Brahmans who used to come here from all over the State and even from outside. Kheerbhawani is considered to be the Presiding Deity of most of the Kashmiri Brahmans. The Kashmiri devotees often say this mantra in their morning prayer, "I owe my full gratitude to the great goddess Sharada who lives in Kashmir I request you to fill in my mind with utmost power of concentration and studies" The annual festival held here on Zetha Ashtami (usually in May) has been declared a public holiday for the Kashmir province by the State Government. In recent times the pilgrimage has once again assumed great importance and a large number of migrant Kashmiri Pandits come here from all over the world.
It has been reported that the water in the spring has turned RED. The recent concert given by the Bavarian Orchestra and conducted by the world famous maestro Zubin Mehta in the romantic Mughal garden of Shalimar during the course of which blood of some innocent locals freely flowed does not seem to be a good omen for Kashmir. The maestro had come with a message of PEACE but unfortunately he went back by not only causing a disturbance to the temporal PEACE but most probably even to the SPIRITUAL PEACE in the valley. This change of colour in the water to RED has taken place in last few days and has happened after a very long time. There are no two opinions that the concert in the Shalimar Garden not only became a raging controversy but gave a fillip to the dormant popular political movement which had been simmering under a deceptively calm surface.
Vice-Chairman of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority says that the change in colour of water especially in marshy lands is due to growth of some algae and has happened in the Dal Lake area a number of times. The phenomenon known as Red Algae Bloom can be easily taken care of. It could also be due to increase in sulphur content in the water. He is investigating the phenomenon in the Kheer Bhawani spring. However, the traditional Kashmiri belief especially of the Kashmiri Pandits about the colour of water in this holy spring seems to be stronger than the scientific explanation. Even the 52 year old Pujari says that it is for the first time he has seen RED colour of water. According to him, the water did sometimes go murky or dark but never so far RED! He says the colour became RED on the next day of Janam Ashtami. According to him the water had been tested and it was revealed that no outside stuff had been put in but the water had naturally turned RED. Kashmir known as the bowl of saints and Sufis has a strong spiritual basis. The news about the change in the colour of Kheer Bhawani spring water may cause apprehensions all over especially among the Kashmiri Pandits. They may have to undertake some yagna and engage in prayers to forestall any bad happening in Kashmir. We may also have to keep our fingers crossed and pray for the wellbeing of all. In the meantime, it may be advisable to restrain likes of Zubin Mehta from disturbing the temporal as well as spiritual peace in the valley in future!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The phenomenon of terror

There is no justification for any terrorist acts from whatever quarter these emanate regardless of the so called higher and sublime motives attributed for undertaking these. The most deplorable is the “State Terrorism” as the “State” is expected to stop the terrorist acts and not to indulge in this itself. The ghastly and bloody Gool massacre in Ramban, the Kishtwar upheaval including the killings prompted by VDCs of a particular community armed by the state and many fake encounters is just a tip of the iceberg of the state sponsored/instigated violence in Kashmir in recent years. No doubt there have been many terrorist acts from various outfits claiming to be fighting for ultimate freedom which usually happens in all such movements due to some rogue elements joining these for vested interests but the terrorist acts committed by state agencies under the garb of counterinsurgency have exceeded all limits. In fact, counterinsurgency has become a big business not only in Kashmir and North East but in entire India.
In regard to the acts of terrorism committed by the governments of some countries themselves in other countries, there are innumerable instances but these have mostly happened in times of war. When two countries are at war, then the governments of these countries authorise sabotage and other terrorist acts as part of their war effort. Normally, in peace time the state governments do not indulge in acts of sabotage or terrorism. However, in the case of India and Pakistan, the mutual mistrust has put these two countries in a state of perpetual war by proxy. They deliberately indulge in acts of terrorism in each other’s territory. While as Pakistanis feel that they have to keep India on the boil as stable India is a threat to their existence, the Indians want unstable Pakistan engaged in internal strife to give them relief on their western front. A stable, settled and strong Pakistan can pose a serious threat to them in Kashmir. Interestingly, the Inter-Services Intelligence sends operatives to this side paying them heavily to indulge in acts of sabotage. Sometimes, the Research and Analysis Wing catches hold of these operatives and returns them to cause similar damage in that country by doubling or trebling the price! There is big unaccountable money involved in these operations from both the sides. One never knows how much has really been spent and how much has been pocketed?
The worst form of “State Terrorism” is the one which a State conducts against its own citizens. Even the most advanced and developed countries have been alleged to be resorting to state terrorism against their own citizens. Some of the former agents of the Central Intelligence Agency have exposed many instances where the state has been using its own citizens to test biological and psychological weapons without their knowledge. There are numerous instances of state terrorism in Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia and many other countries in the region. In the case of our sub-continent, the two neighbours perennially in a situation of conflict inflict state terrorism on their own citizens. Violence from both the state and non-state actors is taken quite normal and usual in Pakistan. In fact, there is hardly any day when one does not hear about a violent incident in some part of that country. Be it a drone strike or a suicide bombing or targeted killing.
In India the State Terrorism is extensively prevalent in Kashmir, North East and some of the Naxalite infested states. Some of these areas including Jammu & Kashmir have draconian legislations such as AFSPA, Disturbed Areas Act and Public Safety Act in force which give total immunity to the perpetrators of the terrorist acts from the state side. With Security Forces having absolute freedom to commit all sorts of extra-constitutional acts without any fear of accountability or prosecution, these areas have virtually turned into occupied territories. This totalitarian power with total lack of accountability has made the state actors convert their actions into profitable business deals and a channel to earn promotions. Fake encounters have quite often been indulged into to claim some sort of trophies. The living examples of these fake encounters are the ones in Pathribal, Machail, and Ganderbal. Some of these cases are stuck in both the civil and military courts for prosecution because of the immunity provided to perpetrators under AFSPA. 
The worst form of terrorist business deals was starkly evident during the early days of the turmoil of nineties. On one hand some people patronised militants and used their services to settle scores with others and sometimes blackmailed people to get monetary and other benefits. While on the other hand the security forces started the cordon and search operations to catch suspected militants with the help of gypsy borne informers almost as a daily routine. Hundreds of youth were picked up on mere suspicion. Immediately after a cordon and search operation involving picking up of youth at random, a lot of middlemen would get into action. They would contact the parents or guardians of the youth and offer to get them freed for a price which would range from few thousand rupees to sometimes to couple of lakhs or so depending upon the status of the family. It was the most lucrative business for the security forces personnel and it is alleged that there was also a price in the Ministry of Home Affairs for getting a posting in Kashmir! Apart from this, the entire business of security during the counter-insurgency operations would cost millions and the expenditure was debited to the head, “Security Related Expenditure” also known as “SRE”. All types of expenditures were debited to this head. Sometimes the cost of stay and entertainment of the Home Ministry officials and their families would be debited to “SRE”. The repairs, renovation and furnishing of VIP residences were also debited to this “popular” head of expenditure, “SRE”!
The only way to end this big business of terrorism is to restore peace. On one hand the leaders of the popular movement have to realise that violence will lead nowhere. On the other hand the State can lessen violent acts by revoking all draconian legislations, and introducing accountability for all state forces, Police, Paramilitary and Army. However, these beneficiaries of conflict will never allow return of normal peaceful conditions because of their lucrative vested interests. The vicious circle can only be broken by an honest, just and a strong ruler who values basic human rights above every thing else. There is an extreme scarcity of such rulers in the entire sub-continent and most of the politicians use these extra-constitutional means to further their own interests. We may have to live with the big business of terrorism for quite some time unless there is some unforeseen but welcome divine intervention!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Kashmir’s State Animal, Sheep or Hangul?


The world famous Hangul (Kashmir Stag) in the Dachigam National Park, faces a mortal threat because of the tussle between two government departments.

The Dachigam National Park which has been the traditional sanctuary of Hangul is more than a century old. It has an area of 141 square kilometres. This National Park had received worldwide acclaim and recognition for the efforts made by the Wild Life Department to preserve this rare species. In fact, in early eighties the population of Hangul which had been reduced to almost 100 or so was restored to about 800 or so. The sanctuary has natural barriers on three sides in the form of high wooded mountains. Only one side is open by closing which it had become a safe place for Hangul. The Sanctuary had been set up in Maharaja’s time. During those days nobody was allowed inside except the Maharaja himself who had constructed a small rest house in Drapahama to observe the rare animal. However, after 1947, the “New Maharajas” of Kashmir converted the Drapahama rest house into a VVIP jaunt which caused a lot of interference to the Hangul population. The second intrusion was the setting up of a Fisheries Trout Farm at Laribal. However, this farm too was in a way a conservation and propagation effort for the rare trout obtained by the Maharaja from Scotland. Moreover, the trout don’t walk on the ground or graze in the meadows. Even though this farm created a disturbance yet the Hangul continued to thrive in spite of it.
The real dangerous threat came when the State Government permitted the raring of sheep within the sanctuary by giving the Animal Husbandry Department 2000 kannals of land. This must be the only sheep breeding farm within a National Park anywhere in the world! One fails to understand why government knowing all the facts about the traditional habitat of the Kashmir Stag allowed a sheep farm to be located inside the sanctuary? The disturbance to Hangul is because of the fact that these animals descend in winters to lower flat grounds in search of food which is provided by the Wild Life Department. Some salt slicks are also provided at different spots on their route in lower flat grounds. On being informed of the threat posed by this farm to the Hangul population by the Wild Life Trust and many experts, the Government decided to shift the sheep farm to some place outside the sanctuary. However, the decision remained in limbo because of the dithering on the part of the government and lobbying by some vested interests. The plea that the sheep rearing is an important economic activity and should be above conservation does not really gel. There are umpteen places in the valley where sheep can be reared but there is only one place where Hangul have been living for more than a century. It is not a big deal to find an alternate pasture and rearing ground for just 800 or so sheep! Ridiculously, the Animal Husbandry department has been pleading for de-notifying the part of the National Park to accommodate their imported sheep!
Dithering in shifting the farm has been classic. In 2005, the State Cabinet took a decision to shift the farm out of the sanctuary to some other suitable pasture of which there are plenty in the valley. However, the decision remained unimplemented. In fact, a committee was constituted to get the decision implemented. The Union Environment Minister even felicitated the State Government through a letter addressed to the Chief Minister for having taken the decision to safe guard the Hangul habitat. Still there was no action on the ground. Finally, the Chief Minister ordered in 2012 that the shifting of the farm be completed before the Durbar move. But the Sheep Husbandry authorities remained unmoved. On the contrary they demanded that the 2000 kannals of land occupied by them should be de-notified as the part of the National Park. There can be nothing more ridiculous than this. The Hangul has a century old habitat while the sheep can be put anywhere for grazing and raring. In fact, there is already a big farm set up by the department in Daksum area. This farm can easily house the 800 or so sheep which are in the sheep farm in the Dachigam National Park.
 In one of the meetings of the State Wild Life Board, Mr. M.K.Ranjit Singh, the President of the Wild Life Trust of India sarcastically observed that the Jammu & Kashmir Government needs to take a decision about its State Animal. The observation was prompted by the refusal of the Animal Husbandry Department in shifting the Sheep Farm from the World famous Dachigam National Park to some other suitable pasture in spite of the cabinet decision and specific orders of the Chief Minister. Mr. Ranjit Singh stated that the Government should decide whether the Sheep or the Hangul is Kashmir’s State Animal as the decision to shift the farm has been pending for almost 8 years now. The world famous Kashmir Stag also known as Hangul is facing a threat of extinction not so much from poachers and exploiters but from the Sheep being reared by the State Government’s Animal Husbandry Department in its traditional sanctuary.
The World Wild Life Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) may soon take note of this deliberate attempt to harm one of the rarest species of the wild animals in the world and both the State and the Central government may face unnecessary embarrassment on this account. The Chief Minister needs to take the matter directly in his hands to safeguard the rare species for which Kashmir is known all over the world. It may be mentioned that Kashmir is home to two rarest species, the Snow Leopard in Ladakh and the Hangul (Kashmir Stag) in Kashmir. These are not only our precious possessions but a great tourist attraction especially for the nature lovers from all over the world. One hopes that as suggested by M.K. Ranjit Singh, there should be no need for the state government to decide whether Sheep or Hangul is our State Animal. The Hangul has been and should continue to be the State Animal of Kashmir if good sense prevails among the rival departments!


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Zubin Breaks “Peace” in Kashmir!


Instead of taking the feelings of Kashmir to the world to bring “Peace”, Zubin’s musical concert has rather broken the “Peace” here!

In my last column, “The Beautiful Prison Concert” I had mentioned about a popular saying, “Man proposes, God disposes”. Quite often the events take such turns that the result is diametrically opposite to what the planners had intended to achieve from it! This is exactly what has happened during the much hyped Zubin Mehta concert. He had declared that he has come to take the feelings of Kashmir (Ehsaas-e-Kashmir) to the world and it would be a concert for Peace. Whatever may have been his genuine and true intentions, he has succeeded in taking the reality of Kashmir (Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir) to the entire world through the freely flowing blood of Kashmiris. Interestingly, Michael Steiner, the German Ambassador, already known for creating many controversies in the past, has landed himself in yet another controversy! In fact, as reported by New York Times, Nikolaus Bachler, the General Manager of the Bavarian State Opera, whose Orchestra performed in Shalimar, in a written statement said, “We were expecting to play for the people of Kashmir in the spirit of brotherhood and humanity, but the Organisers turned this concert into an exclusive, elitist event for a selected, invited crowd and this understandably became a political issue, which is a pity and against the aim of art.”
The concert itself instead of being lively and warm had a tinge of melancholy over it. Zubin appeared quite tense and not in his real jovial and warm self. Perhaps the tension all round was weighing on his mind? Most of the guests seemed distraught and solemn faced as if instead of a concert, they were sitting in a funeral! The other reason probably was total lack of knowledge and experience about the western classical music among the major portion of the invitees. The grimmest looking were the ministers and bureaucrats sitting in the VIP area. Some of them were restless and some were dozing. A few were rocking in their chairs. A few with Karakul caps and beards were looking quite funny sitting in a western classical music concert. The music appeared total Greek to them even though they may have enjoyed the strains from time to time. They may have never heard the names of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Hayden! Even the Chief Minister and the Governor appeared quite subdued as they may have been getting reports of the shutdown and the brewing trouble in different parts of the valley.
The start and finish of the concert with the combination of a Kashmiri and a Bavarian Orchestra did not gel. Probably they did not have enough practice in combining the two different strains? It would have been better if the Kashmiris had been allowed to play independently short pieces at the start and the finish to welcome and say good-bye to the Bavarian guests. The music in the romantic garden of Kashmir is an ultimate thing in what the Chief Minister quoting a famous poet, called the Paradise on Earth. The most important ingredient for the show had been the Peace which in the real sense has been missing from the valley notwithstanding the superficial calm. Unfortunately, the show was being held in an imprisoned valley. Apart from the shutdown called by various parties, the government itself had blocked most of the routes not only as a precautionary security measure but to thwart the attendance of youth and civil society members to the parallel show, the reality of Kashmir (Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir) being held at the same time in the municipal park. According to eye witnesses the parallel show was well attended in spite of barricades and hurdles put up by the state authorities and was quite a success. Many were in tears while watching various performances by the youth about the reality of oppression and cruelty being inflicted on Kashmiris for past few decades.
Interestingly, Zubin closed his concert with what he termed as “Thunder and Lightning”. Probably he had some intuition about the guns booming in Badshah Chowk and Shupian? Immediately, after the conclusion, the live telecast continued and one could hear the Azan (the call to prayer) from a local mosque! The Kashmiris need to be thankful to Zubin and Steiner for giving a boost to their movement. Incidentally, the movement in Kashmir has earlier too received a boost by people who never intended to do so. Jagmohan in nineties by ordering massacres including firing on a funeral procession; Sinha by converting the holy pilgrimage into a “Battle for Amarnath” and now Zubin, instead of bringing peace by breaking it!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The “Beautiful Prison” Concert!

The proposed concert by the Maestro Zubin Mehta is supposed to convey the “Ehsas-i-Kashmir” or the “Feelings of Kashmir” and also get worldwide recognition for Kashmir’s rich History and Culture. Kashmir’s rich History and Culture is already known world over. What need recognition are the real and true feelings of the majority of Kashmiris at the present moment. The ground reality of Kashmir was described by the European Union delegation some years back. They called it a “Beautiful Prison”! Kashmir has been given many other names and attributes in the recent times. A nuclear flashpoint. Most dangerous place on earth. A troubled paradise. South Asia’s hot spot. The most militarised place on earth. In fact, most of the western countries have been advising their nationals to avoid travel to Kashmir. They all believe that the ground situation in Kashmir is highly combustible notwithstanding the government claims of a tourism boom ushering in normalcy. Even the propagators of tourism normalcy refer to the volatility of the situation. One may not claim it to be a powder keg which would blow up by the lighting of a single match yet no one can dispute the discontent and alienation simmering under the calm surface.
 During the last elections, Chris Morris, the BBC correspondent had reported from Srinagar that he had never seen so many soldiers in civilian areas in any part of the world. The number of soldiers deployed in Kashmir was more than those deployed for elections in the entire length and breadth of Bangladesh at the same time! No one can dispute the fact that Kashmir is the highest militarised area in the world when one compares the number of uniformed people to the local population. There is army, paramilitary troops, and the local police. Even the number of local policemen exceeds a hundred thousand. Apart from massive cantonments housing headquarters of various corps and divisions, the entire area is dotted with army and security camps.
In the past whenever any VIP visits Kashmir, the entire route to the International Convention Centre and the State Guest House at Chashma Shahi where the VIPs usually stay, is closed for days. The whole area is “sanitised” to ensure that no disgruntled Kashmiris are around. The Security bosses take these extra-ordinary measures in view of what they called the “Threat Perception”! It has been reported that for the forthcoming Zubin Mehta Concert a three tier security set up has been envisaged. The whole area may be cordoned off well in advance and may remain so till all the VIPs leave. One wonders what feelings the live telecast of the event would convey to the world? A huge orchestra being conducted by one of the top conductors in the love garden of Shalimar watched by over 1500 invitees, reminiscent of the days of Mughal emperors Shah-i-Jahan and Jahangir conveys “Peace” and “Bonhomie” prevalent in Kashmir. So where is the problem? Shalimar resembles the famous French gardens of Versailles and the concert would be reminding us of Marie Antoinette who on being told that the crowds surrounding her palace did not have bread and water, asked “Why don’t they eat Cakes and drink Champagne?”!
There is one catch in the show. What happens if the dozens of TV teams and other journalists supposed to be covering the show decide to move around in the old city of Srinagar to know the “real” feelings of the people? Will they be allowed to do so or the arranged charter flights would not allow them time to wander around? Additionally, as usual SAS Geelani may save the embarrassment to the government by giving a shutdown call and Yasin Malik too may go for “Shalimar Chaloo” thereby ensuring a declared or undeclared curfew all over the city. Even though such a scenario may save the government from an uneasy media coverage but it may truly convert the event to the “Beautiful Prison” Concert! There is a popular saying, “Man proposes, God disposes”! Quite often the events take such turns that result is diametrically opposite to what the planners had intended to achieve from it! It would be very interesting to watch the concert and its aftermath.