A pall of despair hung over Srinagar when I was there in May just days before the election results. It should have been high season with houseboats and hotels bursting with visitors, pleasure boats on the Dal Lake and shops filled with the noise of eager shoppers. Instead, on this perfect summer’s day, the city was empty.
And, there was a tension. I felt it even before landing. For the first time in the many times that I have flown into Srinagar, I was ordered by a nervous Vistara flight attendant to pull the window shades down as we landed. She pulled them down for me but I had already seen why. From the air, the airport looks like a military base. Not even at the height of the militancy in the Nineties have I seen it so militarised. On the drive into the city, I noticed that shops on the airport road have been screened off by a thick metal net so they looked as if they were caged.
I drove through eerily empty streets to the hotel in which I was staying and found it almost empty. When I asked why, since this was high season, I was told by the hotel manager that people had stopped coming after the Pulwama attack. Before that, he said, there were so many tourists in Srinagar that it was hard to find an empty hotel room or houseboat. Later that day, I met friends and political leaders and everyone confirmed that it was the Pulwama attack and the Balakot strike that had driven visitors away. What saddened me most was that every taxi driver I hired asked if I could find his son a job. The story they told was the same. “I have spent whatever I earned on my son’s computer course.but there are no jobs. He sits at home all day with nothing to do.” So, another lost season is something Srinagar can ill afford.
This was my first visit back since Burhan Wani was killed. The reason why I did not go back, frankly, was because I lost sympathy with Kashmiris when they fell under the thrall of a young man who was so openly a jihadist and whose cause was religious and not political. After Wani was killed, I watched carefully the recruitment videos he posted of himself in military fatigues with other young men in similar uniform carrying automatic weapons. In these videos, this commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen made it absolutely clear that the single purpose of his armed struggle was to turn Kashmir into an Islamic state. I have no sympathy for religious causes. And so, stayed away from Srinagar in those long, horrible months when children and masked men took to the streets to throw stones at our security personnel.
If they had done this for a political cause, I would have gone back to understand it better. I sympathised so completely with the political reasons for Kashmiris to be angry with Delhi that I wrote a book on their struggle for basic democratic rights. It came out in 1995 and was called Kashmir: a tragedy of errors. The case that I made in this book was that the insurgency that became manifest with the kidnapping of Mehbooba Mufti’s sister in December 1989 had nothing to do with the historical problem in Kashmir. The historical problem died, in my view, in the Seventies when Bangladesh was created and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hanged. Pakistan lost its allure for most Kashmiris. The seal on the end of the historical problem was the peace pact that Indira Gandhi signed with Sheikh Abdullah in 1975. Sadly, it was Mrs Gandhi’s crucial mistake in 1984 that created Kashmir’s current political problem.
My first visit to Srinagar as a reporter was in the summer of 1981 when Sheikh Abdullah made his son Farooq his heir. It was the only time I met the old Sheikh. I did not get a chance to interview him but stood beside him on a hotel balcony in Lal Chowk from where he watched his son standing in an open truck in a procession so huge it seemed that all of Kashmir had come to Srinagar. The procession culminated in Iqbal Park, where the Sheikh declared to thunderous applause from the vast gathering that Farooq would be his heir. I still remember his words. “The crown I place on your head Farooq Abdullah is a crown of thorns.”
Sheikh Abdullah died just months later and in 1983, I was sent to cover this election by M J Akbar who was then editor of The Telegraph. It was the first election I covered on my own so I made it a point to travel to every constituency except, for some reason, Uri. Everywhere, people said they were voting as Indians for the first time. And, voting for the National Conference. They seemed to believe they owed Sheikh Abdullah their vote. So Farooq won in a completely fair election but this was not how it was reported in the national press.
The reporters who came from Delhi spent most of their time in the Congress Party office in Nedou’s Hotel in Srinagar. If they traveled at all, they went to Congress meetings and the impression they created in the national newspapers was that Congress would do well. They fooled Mrs Gandhi. So she got rid of Farooq Abdullah’s government in the summer of 1984.
Farooq became a hero. He would have won again easily if he had not been forced into an alliance with Congress in the election that came in 1987. The alliance was a mistake because the opposition space came to be occupied by the Muslim United Front whose candidates believed they lost unfairly. Many were secessionists. Now, they crossed into Pakistan for help and came back as armed insurgents. The militancy began and Delhi’s mistakes continued. In the Eighties and Nineties, I went to Srinagar almost every month. I was there when the Pandits were driven out, when violent jihadists forced cinemas and bars to close and saw first hand how the movement for “azadi” became a jihad.
When Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, he could have started with a clean slate. But, he seemed undecided about whether to use the jackboot or turn to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s formula of “insaniyat, jamhooriyat, kashmiriyat”. Now, it appears that he had a plan all along and it was to get rid of Kashmir’s special status. Will this turn out to be yet another mistake? Personally, I believe that it could prevent Kashmir from becoming the Islamic state that the jihadist groups dream of. But, Modi will have to have a strategy ready to win the peace now that he seems to have won the war.
When I was last in Srinagar, I noticed a real weariness with the jihadists. I noticed a real longing for peace and prosperity, and among young men, for jobs. If these things happen it will not be long before Kashmiris lose interest in Article 370. The special status that it supposedly guaranteed was in any case eroded long,long ago.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express