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Metamorphosis & other stories

‘After 19 years’ is the phrase in the J&K capital that expresses popular relief with the return to normalcy after years of militant terror and State counter-terror, writes Ajit Bhattacharjea.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2007 23:50 IST
Ajit Bhattacharjea

If Srinagar is any indicator, Kashmir is changing. ‘After 19 years’ is the phrase in the J&K capital that expresses popular relief with the return to normalcy after years of militant terror and State counter-terror.

Walking along Residency Road, the fashionable shopping area of Srinagar, last week, I saw an unexpected notice pasted beside the entrance to an alley. It invited people of all communities to join in a march through the city to celebrate Janmashtami. Three days had passed since the Hindu festival had been celebrated. I learnt that the march had been held peacefully and Muslims had participated.

The iron gates of the alley had the customary small side door for visitors. I entered and found an ancient Hindu temple being reconstructed there. Below a chinar tree, from which the temple took its name, workers were cementing the damaged prayer hall.

The raised platform around the giant tree trunk had been freshly painted. Flowers were placed before a small stone idol, replaced after being hidden for years. New idols, in colourful dresses, brought from Jaipur, had been placed inside a repaired section of the temple along with a stone lingam.

The bearded mahant of the temple, clad in ochre robes, told me the reconstruction had begun before Janmashtami and was nearly complete. The ancient Chinar Temple was damaged by militants in 1990. Pandits, now returning to Srinagar, had been gathering contributions to repair the many damaged temples in the valley. Money had flowed in from people of all communities and worship had revived.

Returning to the temple the next day, I found Sudarshan Das, a young Krishna devotee, singing at the foot of the chinar. He was from Bengal and had been asked to lead the services at the repaired temples. He showed me newspaper cuttings on the revival of Janmashtami celebrations, treasuring particularly a picture published in the Hindustan Times on September 3. It showed the procession walking through Lal Chowk, the political heart of Srinagar, with women smiling at the procession from their houses.

Das insisted on taking me to another reconstructed temple in a lane on the other side of Lal Chowk. The entrance to the temple was newly whitewashed, with pieces of broken furniture still lying around. The prayer hall, however, had been reconstructed in five days. Idols were in place and durries laid on the ground. Worshippers and onlookers had begun trickling in. One was a bearded Muslim. With a tabla player in attendance, Das led the first service after 19 years.

‘After 19 years’ was a phrase I heard frequently to express relief with the return of normalcy after the militant terror campaign, and State counter-terror, had brought the city to a virtual halt. The process of recovery had gone beyond revival. Srinagar was never so crowded and prosperous, as seen, among other things, by new glass-fronted buildings and frequent traffic jams. Banks had begun to offer loans to finance purchase of vehicles. As a result, the roads were filled with new cars and motorcycles.

An old houseboat on the Jhelum, whose owner had complained to me on a previous visit that the boat was empty, had been painted and bore the sign of a broadband TV service provider. Other houseboats had become floating offices since building rents had soared. The young owner of one of the many shops on Residency Road proudly told me that the electric blankets he was selling were made in Kashmir. I bought one. This year saw the highest number of tourists visit the valley.

The flood of new books on Kashmir on sale provide an insight into the roots of the transformation. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad released a long list of titles during the week. They include My Land, My People by Yasar Muhammad Baba, Crisis of a Kashmiri Muslim by Muhammad Ishaq Khan, Kashmir in War and Diplomacy and Icons of Kashmir Identity by Zahid G. Muhammad, Socio-Economic History of Kashmir by P.N.K. Bamzai, Lalla Rookh, the Glorious Heritage by G.L. Kalla, The Untold Story of Kashmiri Politics; Democracy through Intimidation and Terror by Prem Nath Bazaz and a reissue of Stein’s translation of Kalhana’s famous Rajatarangini, A Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, reintroduced by Ishaq Khan. The books reflect the renewal of a sense of Kashmiri identity forged in its 3,000-year history.

However, the prosperity and security seen in Srinagar should not be interpreted as fostering a desire for closer integration with India. On the contrary, any renewed move to further erode the special status given to the state in the Constitution is bound to revive militancy. The demand for azadi made by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1947 has been re-awakened. It was the steady erosion of the state’s autonomy by the central government over the years that aroused increasing resentment, making it possible for Pakistan to stoke the discontent into armed revolt.

Popular feelings were expressed clearly by the three-month Safar-e-Azadi (freedom march) organised by Muhammad Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. It concluded in Srinagar on September 8 with a torchlight procession. Malik was cheered as he proclaimed that the fight for freedom was still alive. another expression of the demand for autonomy came on the same day. Thousands gathered at Sheikh Abdullah’s mausoleum in Hazratbal to observe his 25th death anniversary. His son, Farooq, recalled his commitment to autonomy. The message was clear.

Ajit Bhattacharjea is former Director, Press Institute of India