Kashmir – A Ground Report
One of the nice things about travel is you get to meet people and listen to them talk about their lives and what they are going through. This is much better than watching or reading mainstream media whose business model includes selling bad news and fear. My 15 year old son Russell and I spent last week exploring Kashmir. We had previously discussed the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir and its implications. Russell keeps himself updated with the news and he often asks me things about current affairs. So as a father, I decided to use our vacation in Kashmir as an opportunity to teach him a lesson that travel has taught me. I decided to ask local Kashmiris about their situation post abrogation of Article 370 and hear directly from the horse’s mouth without any mainstream media filter in between.
The cab driver who transferred us from the airport to our hotel said to me, “Sir, all we want is to be able to earn a livelihood. After 370 the situation has greatly improved. Stone pelting has completely stopped. The separatist’s shop has been shut down in Kashmir. They are finished. The military is everywhere. But they don’t interfere. Only the J&K police sometimes stop us to check. But that’s to be expected given what has been happening here.“
We hired an Innova for the entire week. Our driver was a soft spoken 43 year old Muslim man who had been driving tourists around Kashmir since 2004. He was quite surprised when I told him our destination for the first day – the Kaman Aman Sethu bridge at the Kaman post beyond Uri, right on the LOC. The Army recently opened the Kaman post to civilians as part of the border tourism initiative. I had visited the Kaman Aman Sethu bridge a couple of years ago along with a friend in the Indian Army and I had promised my friend that I would bring my kids to the LOC one day. I didn’t know that it would be so soon.
As we drove past Baramulla and through the gorgeous valleys of the Uri sector, I got talking to our driver with Russell keenly listening to the conversation. I noticed that the windshield of the Innova was cracked in the corner. I asked the driver if this was the result of stone pelting. “Five times“, he replied. “Five times my windshield and windows have been completely smashed. This last time was a minor incident and I didn’t need to replace the windshield. I was waiting for it to get completely smashed. This happened before 370 was removed. Not a single stone pelting incident after 370. Earlier there were strikes every now and then. I didn’t know whether I could earn a living properly or not. Now I know that I can earn a living. That’s all I want to do. Earn a decent living and provide for my family.“
Turns out that even though my driver had been taking tourists around Kashmir for 19 years, he had never taken anyone to Uri. In fact, he had never been past Baramulla. He was as excited as Russell to see what the LOC looked like. “Will they allow me?“, he asked. “Why not?“, I asked back. “You are as much of an Indian as my son and me. It’s now your right to visit the LOC. All you need is the permission, which I have already arranged for.” I added, “You know what? Today a tourist from Goa is going to show you a part of Kashmir you have never seen.” He smiled at me, his excitement clearly showing on his face.
As we drove towards the LOC I said to him, “Look at all this natural beauty around us. But not one tourist. This place is as beautiful as Gulmarg, Sonamarg or Pahalgam. Why shouldn’t tourists enjoy Uri the same way? Why shouldn’t the people of Uri benefit from tourism as well? There are military bases every few kilometres on this road. I know that looks scary. But the ceasefire with Pakistan has held up for two years now. The big guns have fallen silent. Whatever the Indian and other probably other governments have done to Pakistan seems to be working. I think it’s truly amazing that the Indian Army has opened this part of Kashmir to tourists. Over time this place will also see tourists. I’m sure of it.“
We stopped for tea and girdha, a local bread, at a roadside dhaba. The locals were quite surprised to see Russell and me. The looks on their faces made it evident that they didn’t come across tourists often. As Russell munched on his girdha, I asked a local about tourists in this part of Kashmir. “Hardly any“, was the answer. “Please take pictures and post on Facebook. Let people know that Uri is beautiful as well“. I promised that I would.
We reached the Kaman post and the driver parked the Innova outside the gate. I asked him to follow us. He hesitated, “Inside?“, he asked me. “Yes“, I replied. “I want you to see the Kaman Aman Sethu bridge. Half of it lies in India and half of it lies in POK.” He obediently followed us. Once inside, we were greeted by a young handsome Kashmiri man dressed in a black suit vest. He took us around the complex, showed us the Kaman Aman Sethu bridge and explained the history behind it. At the end of the tour, I got talking to the young host. I learned that he hailed from a nearby village. He had studied engineering and couldn’t find a job in Kashmir. So he and twenty others like him had to compete in an examination held by the Indian Army to get the job of a host at the Kaman Aman Sethu complex. Out of the twenty, five of them were selected. I asked him about 370. “I hope that after 370 companies will start investing in Kashmir and people like me will get jobs.” I told him that this will take time and he agreed, saying, “Yes, we are waiting.“
The next day we drove to Sonamarg to do the actual tourist stuff – play in the snow. We were hauled up small hillocks on sleds and then rode them down. Along the way, we stopped at a tent erected by two local men serving tea, coffee and Maggi noodles. I struck up a conversation with one of them and brought up the topic of 370. One of them said, “Nothing much has changed after 370. But things haven’t gotten worse, as some people said they would. I wish things improved faster. The government says that a lot is happening. But we can’t see it.” I asked him why he thought that progress was slow. My question hit a raw nerve and he snapped, “The media. They put out all kinds of stories to increase their TRP rating. They sell fear to people. That’s why many tourists get scared to come to Kashmir“. Russell and I looked at each other. This is exactly what I had said to Russell when we were discussing why one should not blindly believe the mainstream media. He continued, “Tell me, Sir. Do you feel unsafe here?“. I told him that we had visited the LOC the previous day. Turns out even he had never been past Baramulla. I said to him, “So to answer your question, I feel safe not only in Kashmir, but I feel safe at the LOC as well.“
On the way back to Srinagar, we gave a lift to a young Kashmiri man to his village on the way to Srinagar. I struck up a conversation with him. He asked me how much I had paid the photographer who accompanied Russell and me taking pictures of us sledding. When I told him the amount, he said, “That’s a little extra. Didn’t you bargain?” I replied, “No, I didn’t bargain. Do you want to know why?” The man didn’t know whether my question was rhetorical or not. He stayed quiet. I explained, “Look. There is a numbering system at the snow activities counter. The sled owners and their photographer get their number called once in two or three days. This means tomorrow, and possibly the day after, they will have no work. There aren’t enough tourists for everyone even though it is peak season. If Kashmiri youth are kept busy with earning a decent living, they will not be easily swayed by our friends across the border. Do you understand what I’m trying to say here?” He did understand and gently nodded his head. My driver broke the silence that followed. “Sir, what you are saying is right. I wish others thought like you as well.” I clarified my position, “I’m not saying that tourists should be fleeced by locals. But if tourists can help Kashmiris who are visibly struggling to earn a living, I prefer we do that instead of bargaining and then liking and sharing posts on social media showing our support for Kashmir.“
Doodhpatri is a relatively new tourist point in Kashmir and we visited it. Russell and I chose to explore the place on horses. On the way to the river bank, I got talking to the local Kashmiri man leading my horse on foot. He told me that the popularity of Doodhpatri has been increasing with every passing year which has changed his life completely. “Earlier I had to find work in Srinagar and had to stay away from my family“, he said. “Now I can earn a living taking tourists on horse rides around Doodhpatri.” I asked him whether 370 had changed things. He replied, “Sir, I just want to earn a living and feed my family. I really don’t care about these political things. I look around and see people happier than they were before. That’s all that matters.”
The next day we explored Gulmarg. We again chose horses to ride to the gondola entry point. Much to my surprise, the local man leading our hoses was quite happy that I asked him about 370. “Yes Sir.” he said, “370 has changed everything. There is peace in the valley. Look around you. Tourists are coming to Gulmarg in large numbers. Covid hit us badly. But now the peace in Kashmir gives us a really good feeling about our future. I hope this continues forever.“
We hired a guide to take us up the gondola and explore Phase 1. When I asked the guide the same questions, he replied, “I don’t know about 370, but corruption has definitely come down because now a lot of things are online. Even gondola tickets can only be bought online. Earlier we had to bribe officials for each and everything. Now thanks to Aadhaar a lot of things are streamlined. Corruption isn’t gone. But its definitely reduced.”
As we were coming down the gondola, I finally met a Kashmiri who was unhappy that 370 was abrogated. He was a MA and BEd and the only job he could find was that of a guide in Gulmarg. “370 is our right,” he said curtly. “It was wrong for the government to take it away from us“. I asked him if his life had changed after 370 for the better or for the worse. He thought for a while and then replied, “Things haven’t gotten worse. But they haven’t gotten better either.” I asked him, “Why do you think companies are reluctant to set up operations in Kashmir?” He knew where I was going with this line of questioning. He replied, “But now that 370 is gone, why aren’t companies coming to Kashmir?” I told him about Jammu & Kashmir’s first foreign investment of $60 million from Dubai’s Emmar group involving a shopping and commercial complex. I spoke about the new industrial estates that are being set up in the state. I ended with, “These things take time. I have a strong feeling that things will improve as long as peace is allowed to prevail“. He paused for a while and then said, “Inshallah“.
On the way back from Gulmarg to Srinagar, I mentioned my conversation with the guide to our driver. He said, “Yes Sir. There are some people who still feel strongly about 370. These are mostly supporters of the local political parties. Give it some time. When these people realize that violence has drastically decreased, hartals and stone pelting have completely stopped, tourism is increasing and life, in general, has stabilized, and all this has happened with their parties being out of power, they will realize which people were the real cause of the problem all these years.“
Throughout the week I had full high-speed 4G data connectivity no matter where in Kashmir I went. In fact, I did a couple of important work calls on Microsoft Teams while travelling in the Innova. I don’t get such good data connectivity even back home in Goa. I also saw payment QR codes at every restaurant and shop I stepped into. I even tipped people who hauled our sleds high up in Sonamarg using Google Pay. I remember mainstream media talking about rampant shutdowns of internet services in Kashmir. So I asked my driver about this. He said, “Sir, the government shut down the internet in Kashmir for three months after 370 was removed to prevent troublemakers from causing problems. But after that internet hasn’t been shut down for even five minutes. You must have noticed everyone here is watching videos on their phones as they wait for their number to be called for work. Even when you and your son go for an activity and I wait in the car, I’m streaming stuff from the internet on my phone. We have absolutely no problem with the internet in Kashmir.“
I’m typing this as I sit in the lounge of the Srinagar airport waiting for my flight back home to Goa. I leave with wonderful memories of Kashmir with my son. I hope he learned the lesson I wanted to teach him.