TSC Reportage | The Imprisoned Vale | Part II (Final)

Kashmir Landscape by S. H. Raza via  http://autarmota.blogspot.com/

Unable to find a way to reach Downtown the next day, I walk along the street next to the Dal Lake. In front of a half-open photo studio, a large sized photograph catches my eye. In black and white, the photograph shows Sheikh Abdullah, the greatest leader of Kashmir of all times, welcoming N. Gopalswamy Ayyangar to Srinagar airport. Abdullah and Ayyangar are surrounded by cheerful onlookers. Ayyangar, a former bureaucrat who was entrusted by Nehru to draft article 370, looks slightly flustered at the welcome, his diminutive frame weighed down with many large garlands. Sheikh Abdullah has an expansive expression on his face; he seems pleased and welcoming.

The photograph is misleading and conceals more than it reveals. In a few months, Nehru would dismiss Abdullah’s government and jail him – on Ayyangar’s advice. Abdullah’s insistence on deciding the fate of the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, who signed the Treaty of Accession with India, led to his downfall, as narrated by A.G. Noorani in his book Article 370, A Constitutional History. The year was 1953. Years later, after being released from jail, he would write to Indira Gandhi, then PM, to start negotiations about the future of Kashmir, by taking ’53 as the year of status-quo. Indira would respond, haughtily, that it was impossible to set the clock back. That turned out to be the end of the discussion. Indira Gandhi told Sheikh Abdullah that she was too busy to see him right away as a new session of the Parliament was starting. Taking it as a snub, and rightly so, Abdullah deferred the meeting indefinitely and it never happened.

The photographer who has opened the shop after several days, hesitatingly, the shutter half-down, does not have a copy of that photograph. He has opened the shop only because the machines need to be kept functional, he tells me. I spot a bunch of newspapers on his desk – they are all from before 5th August.

I manage to find an auto-rickshaw to take me downtown after some waiting. I have to meet more Pandits – I found a family to speak to earlier at Indra Nagar, where many Pandits live. I remember from my last trip that in Habba Kadal, there is a temple which is managed by a Pandit family.  


Habba Kadal is risky to go to, the auto-driver tells me, refusing to go there. It is in the Downtown area where the curfew is much stricter – I know that and do not press. 

I find another auto-rickshaw to take me to Jehangir Chowk, in the Centre of the city. He too does not want to go to Habba Kadal. I walk down to the area, whose entry is manned by a posse of security personnel, armed to the teeth, keeping a close watch on everyone passing by. Only pedestrians are allowed. An armoured Vajra vehicle, designed to control riots, is stationed at the entry. It is my fourth day in the city, which has been under two weeks of curfew and I can see the fatigue of the soldiers, with several of them sitting down, their gaze wandering.

The streets are deserted and all the shops are closed. At some street corners, small groups of men huddle together. I cross paths with an elderly Muslim man walking by. We chat briefly. He is worried there will be a war involving India, Pakistan and China over Kashmir, a nuclear war that will wipe out everything. I tell him I am looking for the temple. He offers to take me there, after some hesitation. He walks me to the gate of the temple and leaves. I walk up to it and knock.

Two men appear on the terrace of the house adjacent to the temple, and direct a servant to open the door.

I tell them the purpose of my visit when they come down. I am asked to come in. The leaner of the two, with his fine aquiline nose, and crisp English asks me if I would like to visit the temple first and pay my obeisance. I agree.

After we are done with the darshan, he offers to put a tilak on my forehead. “I hope it won’t cause you any trouble,” he says amicably. I am not sure of that, but I keep quiet and let him. He tells me that both Hindus and Muslims visit the temple.

Later, we sit in the courtyard and chat about article 370.

Amit Munshi, in his mid-30’s, is here in Srinagar as his elderly father is sick and cannot bear the heat of the Jammu plains. “I will take him back when the temperature cools down, in the month of September or October.” He used to work in a private bank but being his father’s caregiver means he cannot work full-time anymore due to the traveling involved. He would like the government to provide jobs to pandits in the valley itself so he can take care of his father and work. “This situation is terrible for everyone, old and young alike.”

Like many other Kashmiri pandits, his family also left when the insurgency began in the valley three decades ago. “We were thrown out like sheep,” Munshi says, his voice rising in indignation suddenly, as opposed to his otherwise soft-spoken demeanour.

The house we are sitting in belongs to the Trust established in Bapuji’s name, his grandfather, and a local godman, he tells me.  “My own house was burnt down. It will take fifteen minutes to walk to it. But in all these years since we left, I have never had the courage to visit it. I don’t know if the land has been encroached upon.” On the other side of the Jhelum next to which the temple stands are a row of desolate looking houses, abandoned for all intents and purposes- they used to belong to the pandits.

“This whole area used to be a pandit-dominated locality. But only three-four families live here now,” he tells me.

Munshi is not euphoric about the Centre abrogating article 370. “It did not rescue me when I was forced to leave my motherland. Nor is it doing me any good when it is not there. It hardly makes a difference whether it is there or not,” he states in a matter-of-fact tone.  He is also not sure about any future benefits. “Only time will tell.”

“It will help the Buddhists and Shia population in Ladakh to protect their identities, our Muslim brothers in the valley and Dogras in Jammu. But Kashmiri Pandits are nowhere. We are scattered everywhere. What is my identity? Will renouncing article 370 give me my identity back? That is the biggest question. Forget about jobs, shelter or any other damn thing!” he spits out the last words in anger. “Does it give any assurance that we will not be uprooted again. Like it has happened over centuries?”

Does he feel safe? I ask him. “Yes, I can roam about on the streets but not as freely as before. There is tension and we can sense it.”

About the conflict itself, he is more philosophical. “Thousands of reasons have become attached to that one reason. Now you can’t go back and identify that one reason.”  


More than three lakh Kashmiri pandits lived in the valley before the exodus began in the early ‘90s.  Today, only over 3000 of them are left behind, settled all over Kashmir.

I see several nameplates of Hindu residents in Indra Nagar when I visit it. It is one of the colonies where the pandits live in Srinagar. The headquarters of an army regiment is nearby.  

Usha Ganhar, a professor of political science, also lives here with her husband. In her 50s, Ganhar has been unable to go to work since Indian government cut off communications in the valley. She appears listless, staying cooped inside the house with her husband and nephew, when we meet in the afternoon. Although schools opened last week, colleges remain shut.

She bears no ill-will towards Muslims, she tells me. “Some of the locals are also trapped between following the diktats of the militants and the government’s orders,” she tells me with a resigned air. “We have never faced any trouble from the Muslims. Individually, they are all very nice.”

She blames the Congress and the National Conference for the ‘mess.’ “Their policies spoiled everything here.” In particular, she blames the local leaders for ‘favouring’ Pakistan. “Initially, they showed that they favoured india but their heart was always with Pakistan. It is the politicians who make us fight.”

She is happy that article 370 is gone. “It never allowed Kashmir to be part of India. “ But she has other worries and remains doubtful about the future for pandits. “There will be more competition for local jobs now,” she says. She does not believe Kashmir can be industrialised like other states. “There are no raw materials, or cheap labour. The winters last for three months, making transportation difficult. Narendra Modi must be having a plan.”  Her nephew chimes in that call-centres can be opened in the valley to give jobs to the youth. But he is also worried about the ecology of the state getting affected with an influx of migrants from the plains and increased economic activity. The fear of moneybags from outside buying prime land is also there, they add.


Back at the boat, I decide to relax in the afternoon, having finished my assignment for the newspaper. After lunch, I have a siesta. At around 4 pm I am up again. I go and sit in the front part of the houseboat, from where I can see the lake. I see the younger brother of Rumi and Parvez (whom my wife and I know from before) ready to dive in. “Do you know how to swim?” he asks me. I tell him that I don’t. He tells me that he was taught by Parvez, the eldest brother. “When we were young, Parvez would throw us in the water. We would struggle to stay afloat and he would ask us to keep our head and hands above water. That’s how we learnt it.”

In order to demonstrate his expertise, he does a somersault and lands perfectly on his back on the water. I marvel at his felicity. 

(The family remains out of touch with Parvez. I learn from Rumi the next day that despite many attempts to make a phone call from  a police station, he never managed to beat the queue. So it would fall upon me to call him once I reach Delhi.)

The evening passes slowly. The golden light of the late afternoon recedes and darker hues take its place. You can feel the heaviness of time and you cannot shake away the feeling, as if it has entered your bones and made them heavy too.

Later in the evening, I hear, a sermon from the mosque on the other side of the Lake. The Imam narrates a story which involves a  master and his slave. The master, he says, is allowed to hit the slave in case of incompetence or disobedience. But he can not hit him more than what the slave deserves. If the  punishment meted out by the master is excessive, he will have to account for it on Judgment Day. I wonder if it has something to do with the current situation. 

Next day, after the visit to the Lake early morning, which was planned and postponed a couple of times, and before I have to leave for the airport, I catch a smoke sitting in the same place on the boat from where I saw the teenage brother of Rumi and Parvez swim yesterday.

A Shikara passes by. Inside, I see a Sikh man and his companion. The Sikh man sits expansively, looking regal in his turban. The boatman is also accompanied by a friend.

The Sikh man asks the boatman how much it would cost to buy a houseboat. It is evident he is considering buying one for business or investment purposes. The boatman says they can be expensive and the really good ones can cost in crores. This seems to deflate him and he goes quiet. I can not help feeling the boatman probably inflated the price, just to show the man his place.


At the Srinagar airport, I see birds – pigeons, and common sparrows. They amble in the waiting area and over the food court where KFC and Pizza Hut outlets are. The birds move about freely, even making small sorties over the heads of people sometimes but no one seems bothered. Their presence inside a heavily secured area makes me wonder if it is a metaphor for the Kashmiri desire for freedom.

I get some coffee and write my notes down. Around me, I see everyone is watching cartoons on the TV at the airport. The ludicrousness of the situation strikes me. Cartoons have to be offered to the public when the news is too disturbing. I see a poster in front of me. It has the predictable bland visuals of snow-capped mountains and states a cliché – Kashmir, Paradise on Earth.

I don’t know what will happen in Kashmir in the days to come, if the warnings I heard would indeed come true. But in general, I think Albert Camus spoke the truth in the concluding lines of his classic novel The Outsider, when he wrote that with time, one got used to everything.   

Read Part I of The Imprisoned Vale here

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