KASHMIR PAST AND PRESENT, Hindustan Times
 

Sorting out some papers, I came across an old essay in an obscure periodical on a topic of contemporary relevance. Published in December 1973 in the Sarvodaya journal Bhoodan-Yagya, it was written (in Hindi) by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, the pioneer of the Chipko Andolan and, arguably, of modern Indian environmentalism itself. I have known Bhatt for many years, and have come to greatly admire his understanding of agrarian issues, and at the same time to greatly deplore the neglect of his work by the media and the public at large. However, the essay I speak of was not about his chosen themes, environmentalism and sustainable development—rather, it dealt with politics and society in what was then, and what is now, a very troubled part of India.

It was in April 1973 that the Chipko movement began in the Alakananda valley under Bhatt’s leadership. In November of that year, he went with a fellow Garhwali named Karim Khan to Kashmir, ostensibly to study the condition of the forests and the rights of villagers in their produce. As it turned out, the account of his journeys did not mention forests at all. For he had entered the Valley at a time of deep discontent, with students protesting in the streets against the policies of an unpopular state government. In the bus that Khan and Bhatt took to Srinagar, they were advised to sit in the aisles, lest a stone thrown by an angry demonstrator break the windows and injure them. It was also suggested that, as a Hindu and a Muslim respectively, they eat in separate restaurants.

No sooner had they entered the capital of Jammu and Kashmir that the Garhwali travellers came across a crowd shouting pro-Pakistan slogans. This is how Chandi Prasad Bhatt described (in my inadequate English translation) the scene in Sringar’s Lal Chowk:

‘Taxis, cars and buses lay stalled on the road, their tyres punctured or their windows shattered. The police were there in force but they looked on idly, perhaps not wanting to mess with the demonstrators. As the day proceeded the violence intensified. At about four in the afternoon the crowd decided to attack and destroy a hotel as well as a printing press. Scattering a hail of stones this crowd then proceeded to the Amir Kadal crossing. As they walked they shouted slogans in favour of Pakistan. When they reached Amir Kadal they tried to set a bridge on fire. They were prevented from doing so by the arrival of a platoon of the Central Reserve Police Force, which also succeeded in dispersing the protesters’.

Later in the evening, while walking through the mohalla of Ganpatiyar, the visitor came across what he sardonically described as a ‘majedar tamasha’, namely, women standing on roof-tops raining down stones on the police.

Bhatt titled his travelogue ‘Kashmir Ke Do Roop: Ek Ashant aur Ek Shant’ (The Two Faces of Kashmir—One Troubled, the Other Peaceful). For there was indeed another side to the Valley, this manifest in the industry and enterprise of peasants and craftspeople. Travelling through the countryside, Bhatt met kesar (safron) farmers who made a good living from the cultivation and export of the spice. Other landholders profitably grew fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, his fellow Gandhians were actively promoting silk cultivation and sheep rearing. One outfit of the Khadi and Gramadyog Commission claimed an annual turn-over of Rs 20 lakhs (a considerable sum back in 1973, and not a trifling amount now either). Then there were the cottage industries—carpentry, the making of cricket bats, shawl weaving, etc.—all of which seemed to be in fine shape.

‘Where the scene in Srinagar was characterized by daily fights and processions’, remarked Bhatt, ‘on the other hand the atmosphere in these villages was marked by peace and tranquility’. Where ‘in one Kashmir stones were being thrown and bullets being fired’, he continued, ‘in the other Kashmir exquisite pashmina and jamawar shawls were being made and sold’.

What has changed in Kashmir since this essay was published thirty-five years ago? Urban discontent remains, expressed as before by young men as well as middle-aged women. But the villages are not as placid and peaceful as they might once have been. Peasants and artisans seem to be as disenchanted as the townsfolk. Among a wide swathe of the population, there exists a deep yearning for greater political freedom. These sentiments are assiduously stoked by Pakistan; still, one would be foolish to ascribe them wholly or even principally to the designs of our neighbour. Increasingly, the pro-Pakistani slogans that Chandi Prasad Bhatt heard in 1973 have been replaced by pro-azadi ones.

On the security side, the police and the CRPF that Bhatt saw in operation have been augmented in massive numbers by detachments of the Army. For all this, there remain two sides to Kashmir—thus, in between periods of protest, the people have voted energetically in state and national elections. The desire for political freedom is sometimes superseded by the desire for dignified emmployment—as in the hero’s welcome accorded the software entrepreneur N. R. Narayana Murty when he visited Kashmir University some years ago. The challenge, in 2009 as in 1973, remains the same: namely, the conversion of the currency of identity to that of interest, such that the people of the Kashmir Valley may come–in a political as well as economic sense—to acquire a real stake in the Republic of India.

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