Monday, August 11, 2008

March to Muzzafarabad

Day One

Kashmir has been precarious since the day I landed here. My itinerary was rather hectic this time around. I attended a string of fantastic weddings, drove around the famous Dal lake, boated around with pals high up in the hills, took in as much local gossip as possible and breathed in great fistfuls of cold pine air. But more on that later. I start my Kashmir dairy with a distressing note.

First things foremost. The Amarnath land row has completely consumed people here. It has become an emotive and nationalistic issue. The economic blockade of the valley by Jammu based groups has led to much bitterness in Kashmir. In reality the revocation of the land transfer order by the state government is largely perceived as a psychological defeat by the right-wing Hindu lunatic fringe in Jammu. And the mad horde has upped the ante. They have stoned and looted most of the supplies to Kashmir, leading to an acute shortage of essentials in the land-locked valley. Kashmir naturally felt blackmailed and arm-twisted.

Since fuel has run dangerously low in gas stations, cash has dried up in most ATM machines, weddings cancelled en masse, hospitals have gone low on life saving drugs and Kashmir’s famous apple has rotted in the wooden boxes for the lack of transportation, it was unanimously decided that on a pleasant Monday morning, the people of Kashmir shall march to Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistan Kashmir. Hurriyet, it was opined, would lead from the front. It would be Kashmir’s answer to Jammu’s blackjack. The argument was that it would be an alternative means to do business in a substitute market. It was also an extremely desperate and symbolic bid.

Though the move was fraught with much danger, the people of Kashmir marched in their thousands. The separatists had already set the tenor: Muzzafarabad Jayenge, Khooni Lakeer toodenge [We shall march onto Muzzafarabad; we shall breach the bloody border]. Incidentally I was away from the clamor, holidaying in Gulmarg but I kept getting regular updates since morning. Some of my acquaintances were in the procession. They kept calling me up from time to time. One of my kinsman was in the border town of Uri. He gave me live dispatches from ground zero. The grapevine was abuzz for the whole day. A hundred thousand people, two hundred thousand, five hundred thousand. It appeared that the entire valley had converged into one huge parade. The grand caravan was on its way to Muzzafarabad. Amidst conflicting reports we decided to drive back home.

Everyone I spoke to, rambled with a bated breath. My sister, my friends…everyone. People who formed part of the procession were naturally out of breath. While chatting with Raj over the cell I overheard someone talking about plucking fruit from one of the many orchards lining the picturesque way to Muzzafarabad. In between someone wanted to know the price tag of the latest I-Phone. Such talk often keeps spirits high when you are marching on in an important march. Meantime my own band had a tough time clearing small roads blocks -- felled trees and rocks -- as we neared home, criss-crossing small, idyllic, verdant but sluggish villages. Once we hit the national highway [the original route of the march], did the reality dawn upon me. Kashmir had really answered the call to march. All roads led to Muzzafarabad. We saw a lame man trundling on. An elderly woman was shouting at the top of her voice. I reckon the movement is mass based now while the momentum is clearly indigenous. This is dangerous maths.

By evening, as I post, bad news has started to trickle in. They didn’t let them breach the border, finally. On the contrary the march seems to have taken an ugly turn, as was anticipated. A confrontation between police and protestors ensued near the border. A prominent separatist leader -- leading one huge procession -- has been shot dead. Scores others have either been killed or injured. The strike, which has been continuing for the last six days, is now expected to go on. People seem resigned to it. They wait for some divine solution. I saw people squatting in little groups all the way from Gulmarg to my home, exchanging conspiracy theories in very hushed tones. They shot angry glances at our way-faring car. An unusual tension is palpable in the air. Everything is closed down. All one can feel is a deep and shrill sense of rancor.

Sloganeering often becomes both a source of strength and lament in a situation such as this. As I blog the day’s developments, I can hear people shouting outside. Call it Kashmir’s second uprising or an irrational exuberance.

I get a feeling it is going to exacerbate in the days to come. I pray it doesn’t.

Photo Credits: Raj