In the third and final part of the series on the mood in Srinagar in the context of the G20 tourism summit which ends today, Stratnews Global’s Ramananda Sengupta meets Shikhara owner Jannat, who gives him a lesson in Kashmiri politics aboard his boat on the Dal Lake. And later in the day, he discovers it is lot easier to get into Srinagar than it is to get out.
SRINAGAR: It was a bright Friday morning, and I had a late evening flight back to New Delhi. No trip to Srinagar is complete without a visit to the Dal Lake, and I had kept my calendar free bar a lunch at Adhoos with a couple of local journalists, who had been extremely generous about sharing their contacts and their insights with me during my visit. The weather was made for walking, but Pervaiz Ahmad, the owner of the hotel I was staying in, suggested I take an auto to reach there to avoid the tourist rush, and walk back if I felt like.
He was right, because by the time I climbed out of the auto at Ghat 17, there were hordes of mostly Gujarati tourists haggling for rides on the intricately carved wooden shikharas. The ‘Bengali season,’ the auto driver told me helpfully, began in September-October, when their state shut down for Durga Puja.
Further down Boulevard Road which encircles Dal Lake was the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC), venue for the G20 Tourism meet, which explained the large number of police and paramilitary troopers and their vehicles parked along the road.
There were almost a hundred houseboats berthed along the banks of the lake, each having five or six rooms of varying levels of luxury and cost. The lake, barely six metres deep at best, spreads over 21 square km, including floating islands on which a few thousand families grow vegetables that are then sold in what are called floating markets before sunrise.
The lake is flanked by the Zabarwan mountain range which houses several Mughal gardens as well as the recently built Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden spread over 12 hectares, making it biggest in Asia. And behind me was a road that led up to an ancient Shankaracharya temple. But I was on a different kind of a pilgrimage.
The moment I explained to the Shikhara owners that I was a journalist looking for their views on the tourism summit, and more importantly how things had changed since Article 370 was amended, they would just give me a suspicious look and clam up. It took me almost half an hour of coaxing, cajoling and convincing before I was asked to meet a young man Mohammad Rafiq, who was just docking his shikhara. “That’s my name, but my friends call me Jannat (paradise),” he said, as we walked back down towards his boat.
As we left the dock, he explained that the shikhara was a family business, and that he was also a state level athlete and photographer. A bike accident had broken his shoulder a year earlier, and today he actually found that paddling the boat gave his shoulder relief.
So, what had changed in his life post the amendment of Article 370 and the division of the state?
Things were pretty bad before, he said. Every day there was some agitation or the other, and hartals and boycotts were imposed by various outfits. On the few days that the schools and colleges would actually open, there would be no teachers. Then the pandemic hit.
Today, the record number of tourists meant the entire tourism ecosystem –not just shikhara owners, but hoteliers, taxi and bus owners, shopkeepers, those making handicrafts and a host of other ancillary businesses– was buzzing with people trying to revive and rebuild. The strict implementation of attendance by teachers using a biometric system meant children went to schools and colleges regularly. There were no strikes and hartals, or terrorist strikes. He had even forayed into politics, joining the PDP, but was not very active post his accident.
The only disruption, if one could call it that, was the plan to revive the lakes ecosystem by relocating people who lived inside or within 200 metres of the lake’s catchment, with even the construction of a toilet a ‘violation’ of new rules set by the Lakes and Water Development Authority (LAWDA). Most of these people lived off the lake, and needed to be there before sunrise to sell or buy vegetables or take tourists out for early morning boat rides.
Yes, some politicians had tried to provoke them citing rule by outsiders, but by and large, people were too busy rebuilding their lives to worry about such things. There was finally hope on the horizon, and the political stuff could be dealt with later, he felt. Besides, why could these politicians not do what this new administration had done during the time they were in power?
The number of shikaras overflowing with tourists kept growing over the morning, and we were often interrupted by fast moving boats with masked Marine Commandos armed to the teeth on board buzzing past us, rocking the shikara gently in their wake.
According to Rafiq, the new administration had delivered on most of its promises, although there had been a few reports of high-handedness and harassment of innocent people. And with the return to normalcy, there was also a clamour for jobs from fresh graduates coming out each year. But the tourism industry could only hire a limited number, and the handicrafts business had for some reason seen a major decline, perhaps due to the pandemic, he said.
Agriculture, the other main industry, was also reviving, but slowly. The government should now focus on providing more jobs for these youngsters, because an idle mind was a devil’s workshop, he said. They were suited for new ventures like adventure tourism which had taken off in a big way, and perhaps they could also be encouraged to launch their own businesses.
Also, the administration must also take strict measures against those fomenting religious divisions, which had never been a part of the valley’s culture until the Wahabi maulvis and maulanas started coming in from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with tales of religious persecution, he felt. Similarly, there were also Hindu right wingers who needed to tone down their rhetoric.
Asked about former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s complaint that she had been denied a passport, he said that that the law would take its course. Besides, why was it so urgent for her to leave the state anyway at a time like this, he asked. We returned to the dock shortly after, and I noticed that the numbers of tourists and security men had gone up.
“Once this G20 meeting gets over and the suffocating military presence eases, Kashmir, which has seen three generations of bloodshed and violence, is going to regain its glory, Inshallah,” said Rafiq, as we exchanged phone numbers and bid each other goodbye.
I was a bit late for lunch at Adhoos, but relished the meal before rushing back to the hotel to pick up my suitcase and head for the airport.
My cab driver after introducing himself, lifted up his left sleeve to show his upper arm was wrapped with a black plastic. He had been in the army, posted in Mumbai during 26/11, and was shot by a terrorist during his attempt to capture Ajmal Kasab at the railway station there.
If you are leaving Srinagar, there is a check post almost a kilometre away from the airport, where every bag is scanned and the cars searched before you are allowed to proceed. This is followed by several other checks at the airport, which still insists on tags for your handbags, despite it being scrapped across the country. But I wasn’t complaining.
I was, after all, leaving Jannat.