Impact Of Kashmir Conflict On Public Places
18 December 2007
Jammu: For a Kashmiri mother, the uncanny apprehension about the safe return of her son or daughter during the last 17 years of conflict has never abandoned her while seeing them off in the morning for the day's work. Kashmiri mothers have a typical style of seeing off their wards. Prayers gush out in abundance when a son or daughter leaves the home in the morning by asking the mother: Mouji Bahai Narai (Mom, I am leaving). Those thousands of mothers, grand mothers and spouses, who had to come to terms with the most agonizing experience of receiving the dead bodies of their loved ones, have unfortunately seen their apprehensions turning to be a reality. Public places in Kashmir like open fields, bus terminals, roadsides, residential areas and recreational spots have witnessed the dance of death over these years caused by variegated ogres in the form of cross-firing incidents, grenade attacks, bomb blasts and landmine explosions. The official records reveal that 5615 IED blasts, 11660 grenade explosions, 786 rocket attacks, 14826 random firing incidents and 21309 cross firing incidents have occurred over the last 17 years of unceasing conflict. Kashmiris have seen their public places shrinking for them with meshes of barbed wire crisscrossing on the roads, bunkers erupting everywhere and security men flaunting their weapons at every possible place; roadsides, check-posts, streets, street- crossings, pavements, traffic junctions, near schools, hospitals, shrines, tourist spots, in and around rice-fields, maize fields, vegetable fields, orchards and where not. Kashmir watchers say that in the initial years after the inception of turmoil, thousands of buildings and other public places were under the occupation of security forces. Gradually, many of these buildings were vacated, but not all of them. Till November 2007, as many as 1623 government and private buildings including 27 school buildings, 11 hospital buildings and a temple were under the use of security forces in ten districts of the Kashmir valley as per the official records whereas 20902 Kanals of orchard land were under their occupation in nine districts of Kashmir. It is an undeclared norm in Kashmir that when army convoys pass through a road, the rest of the traffic plying on the road has to stop till the convoy passes through, no matter if it requires them to wait for hours together. Over these years of turmoil, the Srinagar-bound passengers from Kupwara always avoid travelling between 9:00 am and 11:00 am on Kupwara-Srinagar highway for this is the time for hundreds of army vehicles to proceed in either of the directions at Drugmulla army cantonment. Newspaper reports reveal that bus or truck drivers had to face the wrath of the army personnel on duty outside the army camps and different places along the roads for ensuring the smooth run of army convoys. A Journalist from outside Kashmir, wrote in an article in news magazine Hardtalk recently: 'Young Jawans with guns, from remote places of India, culturally alienated in this paradise of a completely different culture, always on guard, erect and alert, forever tense, guiding traffic sometimes, telling buses to move, unsmiling, tenuous, tentative, nervous and determined: the visible and omnipresent symbols of Indian armed power versus jehadi militancy, their hands on their trigger.' Being an outsider, the curious Journalist recorded his encounter with a Kashmiri college girl. 'Do you feel normal in crossing the street with all those guns and eyes chasing you, I ask a student. She laughs, as if it's a joke. 'We have got used to it,' she says, and then she laughs again, as if the sound of the laughter can eliminate the silence of her discomfort in public spaces.' The turmoil in Kashmir laid a terrible impact on the tourist places of the valley. All the hot spots of tourism in valley like Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Dal Lake and Mughal gardens, which used to witness thousand of tourists, all of a sudden turned into not less than any ghost places. the previous two years, before the turmoil started in 1989, had respectively recorded an overwhelming number 7,21,650 and 7,22,30 tourists. This number came down to 5,57,980 in 1989 and in year 1990, it came down to a dismal figure of 10,720 and later continued to remain below 10,000 till year 1996 (source, Tourism department.) Mohammad Azim Tuman is the president of the Houseboat Owners Association. He recalls: 'Those were the years which saw our tourism related business crashing down. it is only for the last few years that we have again started making bucks out of this business.' Hundreds of hotel owners, about, 1500 boat owners and thousands tradesmen at the Kashmir's tourist destinations were left twiddling their thumbs as the tourism business freaked off in and the rest of the tourist. A number of western countries issued travel advisories for their citizens and advised them not to visit Kashmir. A few of them are yet to ease these restrictions though the tourism business has again picked up in Kashmir. The big screens in all the cinema halls across the Kashmir valley had to see the curtain rolling over them with militants placing a blanket ban on this business. Only one of these cinema halls, Neelum, could reopen where only a few people mostly outsiders, visit. Almost all other cinema halls are under the use of security forces now. Cultural activities in Kashmir were the other casualty. The Academy of Art Culture and Languages, which used to organized cultural programmes in the valley, had to cease its operations. Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, who has since long been associated with the Academy and has now become the Additional Secretary of the organization, says that the bomb explosion in 1990 in Tagore Hall, where the Academy used to hold theatre shows, created fear psychosis among the artists. 'Apart from causing heavy damage to the Tagore Hall, the explosion created scare among the artists and they hesitated to come forward for participating in activities like theatre shows, district drama festivals etc. the field activities of the Academy came to a nought. Some activities could be held in border areas of Uri and Tangdar only', recalls Manhas. According to Manhas, the Cultural Academy had just got restricted to drawing salary for its employees who had hardly anything to do. 'Everything came to halt. not to talk of the yearly conferences, we could not even hold the routine programmes like music festivals, Nataks at public places. the then Secretary of the Cultural Academy, Mohammad Yousuf Taing had to migrate to Jammu he had to operate from Jammu', says the present Additional Secretary of the Academy. He opines that a wrong perception about Cultural Academy had spread around. 'Almost 98 percent of the people in Kashmir had a strange notion about the Cultural Academy. they were of the view that the activities of the Cultural Academy are anti-Islamic. This exposed the Academy and its employees to a threat perception. I exactly remember that the employees of the academy would hesitate to disclose that they were working with the Academy.' Manhas says that the misconception about the Academy was there despite the fact that it used to do a lot of good work about the cultural history. 'Our work was even made the basis for further research in Kashmir University. the Academy was able to compose a voluminous Kashmiri dictionary. We have carried out research on Sufi saints like Sheikhul Aalum, Lal Ded Shah-e-Hamdan, Budshah and Kashmiri poets like Gani Kashmiri, Mehjoor etc' , observes Manhas whois also a well-known writer in Kashmir. Over the years of conlict in Kashmir, the public apperance at shrines also received a dent. Over these years in Kashmir two most important shrines - The Hazratbal Shrine and the Charar-e-Sharief Shrine witnessed direct impact on three occasions. In October 1993, a standoff between army and militants lasted for 33 days and ended peacefully. Later in March 1996, the shrine again came under siege and a bloody encounter later followed. In 1995, the shrine of Kashmir's patron saint Sheihk Noor-u-Din Noorani was after a three- month seige. After these episodes, frisking is done at most of the important shrines of Kashmir when people visit them. * The author is the staffer of Kashmir Times. This is the fifth and final article of a series of articles as part of Panos, South Asia fellowship.