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A town square, a story of changing Kashmir

Jammu & Kashmir insurgency completes 20 years this month. Hindustan Times catches a state on the mend, in a series about hope, dreams and change. Neelesh Misra undertakes this special journey. Special: Kashmir moves on
By Neelesh Misra | Hindustan Times, Srinagar
UPDATED ON JUL 25, 2008 01:03 PM IST

Beyond the clock tower, along the bullet-ridden walls: Lal Chowk, the main square in Srinagar, is Kashmir’s most eloquent storyteller.

A few metres to the right is the first military bunker in Kashmir Valley. Splinter marks are splattered across the large blue sign board of the radio shop. And there -- the spot where the fisherwoman fell years ago to an unexpected bullet, without even a gasp, her catch strewn on the cold concrete.

But Lal Chowk, perhaps the world’s most violent town centre, is now telling a story of how Kashmir itself is changing.

People don’t suddenly fall dead here anymore to the grenade and bullet. The chatter of scarf-and-sari-clad Tamil tourists and Bihari migrants selling “imported” clothes merges into the smooth tongue-twists of Kashmiri memento and stationery sellers. The soldier in the bulletproof seems relaxed, less nervous and less rude. The son of the shop clerk at Allied Motors is desperate and jobless. The store that sold traditional herbal medicine shut down; it now stocks lakh-rupee LCD screen TVs. The multitude of pigeons is back. And the famous old clock at the clock tower – which rarely showed the correct time – now has a digital version.

“I have seen everything change here, right here,” says a 50-year-old man with a push cart. This is Nazir Ahmed Quereshi, the famous dahi bhalle seller of Lal Chowk. He watched his grandfather and then his father make and sell out the snack – just the way they used to make them in Pakistan’s Rawalpindi town, from where they migrated here before independence.

Lal Chowk was where Jawaharlal Nehru promised Kashmiris they would decide their own destiny. This was the town square where iconic Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah held political meetings in a gurudwara – and, decades later, young Kashmiri men sat in tea shops in the late 1980s and plotted an insurgency that would wrack the Himalayan region.

In many ways, Srinagar was still a small town, a calm retreat where people knew each other, a city sustained by the seasonal flocks of tourists, where people bought shoes from the lone Bata shop.

In the summer of 1988, the first graduates of rebellion – young Kashmiri men trained in guns and guerrilla attacks across the border in Pakistan – had already started to return. Many of them had run away from home riding the heady wave of secessionism, often telling parents they were going to college or the market and then boarding a bus from the Batmaloo station to the border town of Uri.

Many of Kashmir’s future militant icons sat in tea shops here at Lal Chowk, coming from the headquarters of discontent – the stormy neighbourhood of Maisuma – just across the adjacent bridge.

On July 30, 1988, the first major blasts rang out – one at the Central Telegraph Office behind Lal Chowk, another outside the buzzing Srinagar Club, and a third at the M.S. Petrol Pump near the Golf Club. Then three alcohol shops at Lal Chowk – Raina Wine Shop, Chaurasia and Nishat, were targeted with multiple blasts.

Unknowingly, Lal Chowk residents say, separatists and Intelligence Bureau operatives often shared the same coffee shop at the same time – the Kailash Cafetaria.

Suddenly tens of thousands of new visitors began pouring into the valley: soldiers.

People getting off buses and coming to shop began to be frisked at Lal Chowk for the first time. Shopkeepers here began to stock some items they never did – like bidis and the Simco hair fixer, for the soldier customers. The Valley’s first security bunker came up a hundred metres away from Quereshi, outside the Palladium cinema hall.

The cinema hall itself soon shut down. Two panwallahs who played very loud music to the irritation of neighbours turned down their tape recorders and wound up business. The Pakistani flag was waved frequently. Bombings began at Lal Chowk.

In 1990, Border Security Force men took over the square. Their first week began disastrously. A blast by suspected militants set the Karna Building on fire, and jittery BSF men panicked and fired in all directions. Several civilians died – including the owner of Diamond Motors, two sons of the owner of Qazi Cycles, and the son of Shyam Lal the willow basket seller.

“This is the spot where we used to have three-four grenades per day. People stopped coming to Lal Chowk,” said Kuldeep Singh, 52, owner of London Radio House next to the bunker. He grew up in Kashmir and stayed back through the two decades, though most other non-Muslim shop owners at Lal Chowk slowly began to sell their shops and leave the valley.

On January 26, 1991, the town square was empty and guarded by hundreds of soldiers as Bharatiya Janata Party leader Murli Manohar Joshi audaciously hoisted the national flag there on Republic Day.

“There were so many grenade attacks and security crackdowns. It happened before my eyes many times. People would run for their lives, screaming,” said Quereshi.

They took shelter in shops at the oval Lal Chowk shops as gunfights raged outside. The terrified ones got water; the wounded got sketchy medical attention.

On April 10, 1993, security forces suddenly vacated the building that housed London Radio House and it soon went up in flames. Singh’s shop was destroyed – it remained a wreck for four years until he renovated it.

But Singh never brought down the shop’s blue signboard, strewn with splinter and bullet marks.

“I didn’t remove it. I wanted to keep it as a souvenir,” he said.

Then, some years ago, change began to set in. Violence abated. The square began to document Kashmir’s other social changes. Internet access, mobile phones and cable TV came to Kashmir. Social mores changed.

Shoppers returned. Multinational companies began setting up stores. You could buy Swiss watches and Reebok shoes at Lal Chowk. There were so many expensive cars there was no place to park. Travel agents sold air tickets to faraway business and holiday destinations.

“Until three years ago, we used to shut shop at three in the afternoon and go home. Now we close at seven,” said Allied Motors owner Krishan Lal Koul, 76, lifting his yellow shirt to show a bullet wound he received from militants at his shop on the other end of Lal Chowk. He survived only after a surgery in London.

To the right of his shop, the security bunker was renovated – soldiers are hidden inside it, peeping from latticed walls in marble walls.

But the relative peace peeled off the veil from what administrators had long kept hidden in times of insurgency: the poor governance.

“There are no roads, no cleanliness – god alone knows where all the money goes,” Koul said. “Today there was no water, even for tea. I got some in a thermos.”

Koul’s assistant, Ghulam Rasool, looks up wearily from the ledgers. His son is a graduate, unemployed for years like tens of thousands of other victims of Kashmir’s crippling joblessness.

“Ever since Kashmir’s destiny changed, there is a lot of unemployment. I don’t have that much work now,” said Quereshi, who hopes he can send his two daughters, 12 and 16, to college and find them good husbands.

“Twenty years ago, my father and I used to use three quintals (300 kilograms) of milk – we began selling at 3 pm and by 6:30, we had sold everything,” Quereshi said. “Now I sell from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. and cannot use even sell curd from 30 kilograms of milk.”

But tourism is not the mainstay anymore, and the new rich – including those trying out businesses from information technology to floriculture – are living it up with everything available in Srinagar.

Behind Quereshi the dahi bhalla seller, the Hamdard shop selling Unani traditional medicine has changed hands. Two shops side by side now sell expensive watches and electronics goods.

“There are customers for high-end watches costing up to Rs 70,000, or LCD television screens and sophisticated refrigerators costing close to a lakh rupees,” said Murad Farooq, 24, whose family owns both shops, and who grew up through Kashmir’s two turbulent decades.

“Kashmir is changing around me. I can feel it,” he said.

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