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Promised land

Between the different Kashmirs that exist for India and Pakistan lies an unknown, unrecognised reality, writes Samrat.

india Updated: Sep 16, 2009 21:37 IST

There’s a truth about Kashmir most of India either doesn’t know or doesn’t acknowledge: that a large number of ordinary Kashmiris want independence, not India or Pakistan.

I went to Kashmir for the first time a month ago. In my head, I had the standard version of Kashmir, constructed from years of reading and watching news reports and the odd Bollywood movie. It was a beautiful place, with snow-capped mountains around, and green valley, and quaint houses. There were shikaras on the Dal Lake and, sadly, lots of soldiers. Evil terrorists from Pakistan lurked around waiting for a chance to blow something up. The local people, good, gentle folks, were caught in the crossfire.

That was what I thought.

My tryst with a different reality began the moment I emerged from the aircraft in Srinagar. It was sweltering hot, close to 35 degrees Celsius. But this is Srinagar, I told myself in surprise, and looked around for any sight of snow-capped mountains. There was not even a hill in sight.

The road back from the airport was lined with swank new bungalows that my very knowledgeable driver said were worth over Rs 1 crore each. There is no property to be had in Srinagar for less than Rs 25 lakh, he said. He was apparently right. Other people later confirmed this.

The city itself was bustling. Traffic moved slowly at many places, pedestrians rushed along the pavements of Lal Chowk, while shopkeepers did brisk business. I had only heard of Lal Chowk as a site for militant attacks. It seemed strange to find that many shops here stayed open till past 9 p.m. In North-east India, at least two state capitals — Imphal and Kohima — pretty much shut by six.

Srinagar looked like a normal town. There were football games between neighbourhoods at the local stadium, couples sat demurely in corners in restaurants and coffee shops, students streamed out from schools. The security presence was strangely heavy around government buildings, but otherwise no more visible than in Delhi.

I met Jaan at a coffee shop. He wore jeans and tees, a full Islamic beard, and a big smile. His friend, who I knew, had called him there. I was looking to interview young people in Srinagar who dated regularly. Jaan, a 27-year-old restaurant supervisor, was apparently one of those. “He has a beard, but he also has a girlfriend”, his friend joked.

We spoke about romance in Srinagar, though he was shy. Things were no different than in Delhi, he said. Yes, people dated, but discreetly. The conversation meandered, as it always does in Kashmir, into what they call the ‘Kashmir masla’ — the issue.

“Keep us this side or that side, how does it matter, we just want to get on with our lives,” said Wasim, a builder. No one responded to this. Sometime later, Jaan got up to go. He shook my hand warmly, smiled, and said, “I hope next time you come here, it is with a visa.”

For the rest of my four-day stay, I meet several young men, completely regular guys in every way, who do not believe Kashmir to be part of India.

There’s another truth about Kashmir a lot of Kashmiris and Pakistanis don’t acknowledge: that India is not going to simply walk away, and cannot be forced out by a few random acts of terrorist violence. If that had to happen, it would have happened by now.

In a room in Delhi’s South Block, whose door locked with a click and opened when the Army officer sitting across from me pressed a button, I heard this side of the story. It was told expertly in geographical and military terms, aided by maps and a PowerPoint presentation that bristled with abbreviations: LoC, LAC, AGPL, PoK…LAC is the Line of Actual Control, the 4,057 km-long effective (and disputed) border with China. AGPL is the Actual Ground Position Line, a 150-km stretch along the Siachen glacier where India and Pakistan haven’t agreed on where to draw the line.

They — Pakistan and the militants backed by them — had expected that ‘soft State’ India would take a beating in Kashmir and run, the soldier said. “By now, they know it will never happen.” The Indian-State had proved its hardness in Kashmir.

He showed me neat charts of casualties: civilian, security forces and terrorist deaths in separate columns. The numbers had fallen in the past two years, though there has been a spurt in violence in recent weeks. Terrorism has been eradicated from the cities, he said. There are a few terrorists in remote jungles and mountains. The official estimate is 600 to 800 of them, mostly Kashmiris rather than foreigners.

Some of the militant groups were facing a fund crunch, he added. They had also been badly mauled by loss of cadres.

He didn’t say so, but India can take the losses. The brutal fact is the country has a big enough population, and enough money. It will take the body bags for as long as needed, and stay put. It can’t be forced out by guns and bombs or chased away by stone-pelting mobs.

Anyone who’s ever bargained over anything, whether it’s a trouser or an auto fare, will know that there is no deal if both parties stick unbending to their stands. A deal can happen only when one side agrees to give more, and the other agrees to take less.

The future of Kashmir rests on this.