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Incredible India's Beautiful Prison By M Ashraf

Kashmir has been advertised as the "Paradise on Earth". It used to be in the real sense a "Paradise on Earth". In seventies and mid eighties tourism to the valley was at the peak and over half a million tourists including thousands of foreigners came here to enjoy the beauty. The last two decades following an armed uprising witnessed unleashing of the worst kind of oppression. Still the people survived and continued their existence in spite of tremendous hardships. Tourism was the worst affected sector of the economy. However, it had started picking up after 2002 and was expected to surpass earlier records of arrivals.

But now the entire valley has been converted into a living hell for its inhabitants. The valley dwellers have been living for more than 100 days in the worst possible siege in the history of Kashmir. The entire valley has been turned into an oversized security camp. On any given day there are more uniformed security personnel visible on the roads than the local civilian population. The members of the travel trade and related infrastructure operators have probably forgotten whether they were ever in that business? Tourism is a dead horse now. The damage to the image of Kashmir once claimed to be a "Paradise" all over the world is extremely difficult to undo!

Srinagar had recently been proclaimed to be the fourth dirtiest city in India. Now it must be the dirtiest city due to piling of garbage, unkempt roads, wild growing shrubs in all parks, and the absence of a host of other civic amenities. As mentioned earlier the Tourism Department had advertised the year 2010 as the "Visit Kashmir Year" and had publicised the slogan, "Paradise Awaits You!" The slogan has now changed to, "Incredible India's Beautiful Prison Awaits You!" The valley had been termed "A Beautiful Prison" by the European Union Team some years back.

The main cause of this unprecedented siege is a battle of wits between the Central Government's Ministry of Home Affairs and the new unknown leadership of Kashmir consisting of angry youth who are the children of conflict. The traditional leadership heading the movement has become a visible fa‡ade as they are being led by the sentiment and the emotions of these uncompromising youth bent upon achieving their goal of freedom at all costs. The local government has already abdicated its authority at least in regard to maintenance of law and order to the Centre not withstanding the bold declarations of the Chief Executive!

Tourism may be a forgotten story but what is the present situation of the "Paradise" for the locals? Markets have been closed for almost 100 days. Schools, Colleges, and even Government Offices too have been closed for almost the same period. The traffic is off the roads. Srinagar had the worst traffic snarls. There are a million vehicles in Kashmir and Srinagar alone has over two hundred thousand. All these vehicles have suddenly disappeared from the roads. The only traffic jams one sees are on the "joint relaxation" days when both Geelani and the government agree to release the imprisoned population of the valley. Those days there is a mad rush. People run everywhere as if it is the last day of their life. They have no alternative but to madly replenish themselves especially in regard to medicine. Some people are not even lucky enough to have these relaxation days. In Singhpora and Palhalan no daylong relaxations have been reported! Marriage ceremonies have either totally disappeared or have been shortened to simple religious rituals. Worst is the inability to attend funerals of close friends and relatives. Even some funeral processions have been fired upon and the dead bodies desecrated!

Security forces seem to have gone berserk and take pleasure in breaking window panes of houses, cars, and even ransack houses and thrash inmates at their sweet will. People imprisoned in their own homes for days on end have become psychosomatic patients. The siege mentality is heavily weighing upon the minds of people of all ages. There appears no end to this siege due to a very unhealthy anti-people competition between the political stalwarts on two sides competing with each other in making peoples' life miserable! Normally, a government is supposed to be pro-people and makes every effort to alleviate the sufferings of the common citizens. Here, the reverse is happening. Any attempt by the agitating organisations to extend some relief to the suffering masses is scuttled by the government by enforcing extremely strict curfews.

There are rumours going around that the situation will continue till Kashmiris rub their noses on the ground and give up their struggle for "Azadi". The government is supposed to be waiting for the erstwhile Maharaja's "Durbar Move" and the valley dwellers would be left to their fate for the duration of winter as has been happening even in peace time. Already there has been sizeable "silent" migration of an appreciable number of Kashmiris to Jammu and different parts of India.

The most unfortunate part is the total insensitivity of world opinion to this state of affairs in Kashmir. The maximum reaction has been, "We are monitoring the situation!" There was a time when most of the western countries would be vying with each other in highlighting happenings in Kashmir. There would be hordes of foreign journalists and diplomats descending here. Not now. The world has become a huge market and trade has overtaken the finer qualities of freedom and liberty. Human Rights violations do not excite people now. There is an ominous lull in the agitation these days. One is not sure whether it is the fatigue caused by the actions of both the sides or it is just the proverbial lull before the storm. Keeping in view Kashmir's history especially the number of uprisings in the past, it appears that it may be the latter!

The problem at the moment is how to lessen the sufferings of the common people. This can only happen if both the sides give up their extreme stances for common good. If the agitators believe that endless shutdowns will get "Azadi" then they are in for a long haul. If the government continues to believe that it will break the will of the common people by their harsh methods, they are in for a shock. Kashmiris are great survivors and they never give up. The authorities need to be reminded of the saying of Kalhana, the most illustrious son of Kashmir, "The country of Kashmir may be conquered by the force of spiritual merit, but not by the force of soldiers!"

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