My first visit to the Kashmir Valley in year 2001 as an enthusiast intern journalist left a long lasting impression on my mind. The state was burning, there was no development, the roads were pathetic; medical and health facilities were abysmally poor. In short, the overall condition of valley was poor because of terrorism and a separatist political narrative. The worst still was the subdued mental state of the <em>awaam</em> as if peaceful living and development were not meant for them. Alas! this was not the Kashmir that poet Amir Khusrow had described as a ‘paradise’. It was as if god had blessed the Kashmir Valley and cursed its people at the same time.
The place had been in a state of unilateral ceasefire against terrorists from the preceding year. However, peaceful coexistence was against the nefarious designs of Pakistan. There were 781 attacks on security forces during the period, resulting in killing of 258 security personal and 535 civilians. With me on a journey to establish myself as a good investigative journalist, the closeness to ground realities was of utmost importance. When the rest of India was enjoying the fruits of economic development and the IT boom, the Valley was still fighting for its basic needs. With large number of suicide attacks in the preceding year, the security forces were left with no alternative but to scan every person, be it a young boy, aged individuals or women, with same lens and scrutiny. So, my first experience of Kashmir Valley was that of sympathy and not of appreciation of its national beauty.
With 20 years of experience in the field of journalism and after seeing a good amount of the ‘real’ world, my second visit to the Valley was in February 2020, this time as a tourist with my wife and two kids. When I first proposed the idea, it took me great effort to pacify my wife, who had been a victim of constant feeding of 'No Good News' from the Kashmir Valley. My colleagues were no different and suggested that this place is for journalism and not a family vacation due to its underlying problems. With little or no expectations, I and my family started our journey from the Srinagar Airport to Gulmarg.
The best part of the journey from the airport to Gulmarg was the driver! Yes, a talkative migrant from UP but a Kashmiri by his conduct. He needed no invitation to start the conversations with topics ranging from politics, terrorism to local cuisine. I could feel the excitement and happiness in his voice as he negated my wife’s fears. He elucidated that he had been in Kashmir for the last 12 years and things were changing for the better. The old ‘days’ and ‘ways’ are paving way for a new life with opportunities for everyone – be it improved education opportunities for his children, employment avenues, development works by government or be the optimistic outlook of locals.
We were halted at a security forces <em>naka</em> for checking which was a new thing for the children – uniformed personnel with AK-47s dangling from their necks, machine guns and what not. The security forces were polite and professional in conduct and even our driver who was a regular on this road had made some friends by now. All along the drive you could see construction/maintenance of roads, schools, bridges with lots of hustle bustle of people everywhere, as if someone has erased the memory of their dreadful past.
Our next stop was at a tea stall near a place called Kunzer for refreshments. My journalist personality was now trying to overpower my vacationist self. When I inquired about the changes behind these pleasant developments, the tea stall owner as well as other bystanders brought out that it was mainly the change in attitude and a ray of hope for better times ahead. The Valley was welcoming peace and tranquility after a longtime with everyone giving full support to this dream. The government had initiated a large number of development projects which were generating local employment avenues leading to upliftment of living standards. The culture of curfews and mobile connectivity snapping was less frequent with smart phones in almost every hand.
You could feel that the support from the <em>awaam</em> for terrorists was only by separatist leaders and not by the people on ground. Youth were dreaming to pursue higher education with aspirations ranging from medicine to engineering to the civil services and not only to earn money but to change the outlook of outsiders towards Kashmir. Outsiders like me and my wife. On the topic of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, the general feeling was that it should have been done many years ago to bring the Kashmiri people on equal status with the other states of India. What they wanted were jobs, value for their land and maintaining their cultural identity and not Article 370 and 35A. Women were happier on the removal of Article 35 A, as it gave them better opportunities for jobs and marriages.
My driver even brought forth his plans to buy a small apple orchard and settle permanently, once the domicile laws are amended. I again spoke to him few days back and he was delighted as he was hopeful of becoming a domicile resident of J&K now.
When I brought about issues of anti-terrorist operations by security forces and sometimes collateral damages on locals, I was conveyed by the locals that the professionalism in conduct of anti-terrorist operations has increased manifold wherein only the suspected houses are cordoned off and not the entire village. Few even brought out the changes in attitude of an entire village after recruitment of youth from their villages in Army/Police which was now more frequent.
Some people at the tea stall suggested that I visit the local Vocational Training Centre (VTC) being run by a RR Battalion en route to do some reasonable shopping. I made a point to take a halt at the VTC mentioned to have a first-hand experience. To my utter surprise, the same was being run by local women in local attire but not shy of explaining to me that this second income to their families was leading to a better house, nourished food, better education for children and overall a dream of better future. But for my kids the most exciting part was the photos with the army personnel near VTC and for my wife was the plethora of options in shawls and scarfs.
With a great start for my vacation, I could feel reservations in my wife’s mind dissipating. The positivity was everywhere. In my opinion the wheel of change is now in motion. If not me, at least I have now a hope that my kids will be able to see the paradise which Amir Khusrow must have described ages ago. To the youth of Kashmir, I must quote few lines in Hindi, <em>“Aao Mil Kar Ek Doosre Ko Sahi Rasta Dikhayein, Jisse Hum Mehnat Se Kashmir Ko Fhir Se Jannat Banae”.</em>.