One of the most eerie experiences I have ever had was being driven in a car through the streets of the city at around 10.30 at night and finding them utterly deserted. Srinagar had turned into a ghost town. The city shuts its doors soon after nightfall.
The inside lights of the car had been kept on, that being the regulation laid down by the Indian security forces that patrol the streets night and day. A darkened car runs the risk of being fired on. There was no sound at all except the noise the tyres made on the metalled road and the dogs which barked dementedly.
When I went to Srinagar in 1983, which was six years before the uprising, even then the city was practically crawling with Indian soldiers. There were bunker-like structures everywhere. You couldn’t walk a hundred yards without running into Indian military presence.
This alone, it occurred to me then, was enough to debunk the myth that the Kashmiris had reconciled themselves to living under Indian rule or being an integral part of India.
It is not true, as India maintains, that but for Pakistani interference, the Kashmiris would be happily living as happy Indian citizens. Srinagar is a ravaged city. It is also one of the most dusty cities that I have been to, which makes no sense because it is a city that lies beside one of the world’s most beautiful lakes and on either side of the meandering Jhelum river. But the city has crumbled. Fifty-seven years of conflict have taken their toll.
What is sold on the streets of a city tells you a great deal about that city and its people. In Srinagar I found seller after seller of second-hand clothing, their none-too-attractive wares placed on the footpath. Most people you see on the street look harried, ill-at-ease and tense.
There are few signs of prosperity. Unemployment, especially among the educated, is said to be high. The shops are poorly stocked and what they stock is of poor quality. The two main bookshops of the city have more old books than new.
The old houses, of which Srinagar is full, look as if they are about to fall. Anywhere else they would have been pronounced unfit for human habitation. The once picturesque bridges over Jhelum look ramshackle. Srinagar no longer is a city of gardens. The trees of Wazir Bagh and Gol Bagh have made way for urban ugliness. The Nagin Lake, one of the world’s most beautiful, is a cesspool.
The grand maples of Nasim Bagh still stand but there used to be far more of them than there are today.
Kashmiris are deeply suspicious of the India-Pakistan peace process. They are not sure where it will leave them. They feel that some kind of an understanding or arrangement has been made between the two countries over their heads and, once again, as in their long and sad history, they are going to be bartered away without being asked.
The alienation with India is total. No Kashmiri sees himself as an Indian. When I say Kashmiri, I mean the Muslims of the Valley. Nor do they want union with Pakistan as they once did. There is great disillusionment with the policies followed by Pakistan at their expense.
As you stand on the streets of what was once a paradise on earth, you wonder if that would ever come to pass. The reality of Kashmir today is the graveyard of the martyrs where almost all graves are those of young men cut down in the first flower of their youth. It is a shattering experience. (To read the full story please click on the title)