As we landed at the Srinagar airport, I noticed one signboard: “Welcome to Jammu and Kashmir, the newest Union Territory”. I wondered what it meant to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Do they take pride in the fact that theirs is the “newest Union Territory”? How would Keralites have reacted if their state was declared a Union Territory?
This was my fourth visit to the state, now UT. The first time was when I visited the state as an “election observer”. We were advised not to venture out of the hotel, except when security was provided.
I did not care much for the advice when I took a morning walk on the footpath along the Dal Lake. It was one of the most enjoyable walks I ever had. I could see how the day was beginning for those residing on the houseboats.
No harm came to me or for any of us during the three-day visit to the state when we visited polling booth after polling booth from Srinagar to Baramulla. While the booths stood deserted in the Capital, there were stampede-like conditions in certain other booths, especially in Budgam.
It was difficult to assess the mood of the people in the state. It was my job to edit the reports filed by other observers so that the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi could publish a comprehensive report.
My second visit was in connection with the launching of the Srinagar edition of The Tribune. It was a brave attempt on the part of the management because it knew that there was little scope of the paper making waves in the Valley.
The real reason was, perhaps, the presence of NN Vohra as Governor of the state. He was a Trustee of the newspaper, one of the oldest, initially published from Lahore. Years later, I was disappointed to hear that the Srinagar edition was folded up. The Valley has many local newspapers, even in English like the Greater Kashmir.
My colleague Amin War accompanied me, as I visited the St. Joseph’s Hospital at Baramulla. Started by Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, it became a halting point for the raiders from Pakistan. They also raped a foreigner and nun.
Had they not halted there to loot the church property, the raiders could have reached Srinagar and captured the airport. As they were enjoying human flesh, Indian Army was landing at Srinagar and fortifying its position.
So, if the Valley remains a part of India, the atrocities the Catholics suffered at Baramulla on that night played a major role. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Patel used the attack to turn public opinion against the Pakistani tribes, who the world saw as rapacious rapists.
Another decade passed when my wife and I visited Kashmir as tourists. The situation in the state had not changed much but we had a very good experience as tourists. We were staying at the state guest house.
That night, we could hear monkeys jumping on the tin roof. They were also jumping down from the building. We did not know what actually was happening. It was in the morning that we realised that there were no monkeys and Srinagar had received a heavy snowfall.
The sound was that of lumps of snow falling off the roof. It was a wonderful sight for we could see snow accumulated everywhere. A local person scared us that our flight might not take off because of the snow. As we were rejoicing the snowfall, one of my former colleagues-turned-academic visited us.
She told us that while the snow was enjoyable for the tourists, the locals were fed up of it. Many people suffer fractures during the snowy season. As she was saying this, she lost her balance and fell down. Fortunately, she did not suffer any fracture.
For once I felt like correcting the idiom to mean that “what's sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander”. What is gorgeous for the visitor may be horrible for the local.
This time, I noticed certain changes in Srinagar. Yes, security forces continue to be present at all intersections and important installations. Army jawans were posted guarding the Children’s Park in the heart of the city. Yet, I did not find security men checking the people as was the practice earlier. The atmosphere was more relaxed.
This time when we visited the two famous gardens in Srinagar, I found a large number of people there. Most of them were not tourists but local people enjoying an afternoon in the bosom of nature. School children were being brought there by their teachers.
The gardens were blooming. The sunflowers I saw there were the largest I have ever seen. No plant was without flowers and I felt like quoting to my friend CG Daniel what Emperor Jahangir had said about Kashmir, "If there is paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here." He visited Kashmir eight times to savour its beauty.
Local tourists do not, however, bring much business to tourist guides, hoteliers, restauranteurs and taxi operators. We visited a South Indian restaurant where masala dosa was available. When we asked him whether he was a Malayali, he answered in the affirmative.
But when we asked him something in Malayalam and Tamil, he confessed that he had a South Indian cook who left for his native place when Corona hit the country.
He lamented that the market was empty. “My cook taught me how to cook South Indian stuff. If the situation improves, I will invite him back to Srinagar”.
Our driver was a Shia, who could easily explain why Shias were different from Sunnis. He also explained to us how the prayers of the two communities differed, though they believed in the Prophet Mohammed.
He did not know much about Christians and had not heard about Jesus. But when I told him that the Quran has more references to Mother Mary than the Bible, he knew about her. The first place he took us was the Shankaracharya temple on a hill.
It was my third visit to the temple, associated with Adi Sankara who lived in the eighth century. I told the driver with some pride that Sankara was from Kerala and he was the first Malayali to visit Srinagar and we were the last. I do not know whether he could appreciate the joke, if at all it was a joke.
I was not sure whether I should climb up the Shankaracharya Hill. We were in two minds when we saw two CRPF women constables helping an aged lady to put her back on the steps. In comparison, I had to carry only a camera.
So we ventured to climb the hill, of course, periodically taking rest. We did not know that there were 243 steps. We got the number from a CRPF constable whose duty was to carry food for eight of his colleagues posted at the temple.
He was taking rest on the way. He was from Assam and said he had to climb the hill 3-4 times a day. It was a tough assignment. When my friend asked for his permission to take a picture, he refused it on the ground that he was in uniform.
That is when I realised that I should not have taken the risk with three stents in my arteries. The thought that immediately struck me was based on the Biblical verse, “I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? No, my strength comes from God, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.” So, why should I bother about the stents?
Security was lax at the hill. The security personnel were satisfied with my reply that the bag contained my camera. They did not search it.
One thing should be said about the Kashmiris. They are very deferential to the tourists. They would go out of the way to help tourists, because they know that their bread and butter come from tourism.
One day I had a vomiting sensation while I was having breakfast at the hotel. The waiter rushed to the washroom as I threw up in the washbasin.
Periodically, he would inquire about my health. He sent Kichadi, specially made for me, to my room. The staff treated me in accordance with the Hindu concept of Atithi Devo Bhava (Guest is God). No, they did not know that I am a journalist and I would write about the hotel.
Recently, I wrote on Facebook that Keralites were obsessed with building large houses. Someone asked me whether I had visited Kashmir. This time, I noticed that Kashmiris also have a fondness for large houses.
Construction activity is no less in Srinagar. Newer and larger buildings have been coming up. However, there is a dichotomy in development. As our driver said, “There are fewer roads than cars in Kashmir”.
When my friend bought a few Pashmina shawls from a shop, the shopkeeper was thanking Allah profusely for sending him the customer, “I had not sold a single item since the shop was opened in the morning. You gave me my day’s work”.
I was keen to visit the St. Luke’s Church at the foot of the Shankaracharya Hills. One of my former colleagues in Srinagar had sent me pictures of the church and I did a post on it in my Facebook Timeline. The occasion was the restoration of the church after 30 years or so.
It is a Protestant Church. I told our driver to take us there. He took us, instead, to a CNI Church that belonged to the Amritsar diocese.
Finally, we had to seek the support of Google to reach there. Alas, both the front and the back gates were locked and there was no way I could go inside and take pictures of the altar and the frescoes.
Politically, people were discussing how Ghulam Nabi Azad leaving the Congress party would impact the grand old party. The fact is that the role of the Congress in Jammu and Kashmir politics ended in January 2015 when Omar Abdulla-led National Conference-Congress coalition government completed its full term.
The Congress was wiped out by the BJP in the 2014 elections. Incidentally, Azad was very much in the Congress when the party became a political nonentity in the state. His decision to form a new political party is unlikely to set the Jhelum on flames.
If his presence in the Congress could not help it to survive in the state, how could his departure affect the party? Everybody knows that Azad would have remained in the Congress if he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha when AK Antony retired from the Rajya Sabha.
People are watching how he would team up with Narendra Modi whom he is not tired of praising after he shed some crocodile tears when Azad was given a farewell from the Upper House.
The fact also remains that Azad could not oppose abrogation of Article 370 or the vivisection of the state into two Union Territories. True, the BJP’s stand on Article 370 was well-known. At no time did the party make a claim that the status of the state would be changed. Azad who talks about the greatness of Modi should have persuaded him to restore the status of the state. That is the least the Centre should do now.
It is also ironical that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who wants full state status to Delhi, was one of the first to welcome the division of Jammu and Kashmir. There is no reason to believe that the people of Jammu and Kashmir are happy with the changes. Nonetheless, there is, relatively speaking, better living conditions in the state now. And they were good for a tourist like me!