Saturday, April 25, 2009

United Colors of Democracy

Your history gets in way of my memory
Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001)
Kashmiri-American poet and intellectual

It is election time in India. Can Kashmir be far behind? Since Kashmir is an integral [that misused, concubine smelling term] part of India, whether or not some people like it, polls are being held in the hills too. It is a completely democratic exercise, mind you. Only 700,000 troopers, equipped to the boot, watch over three million eligible voters. One soldier for every four Kashmiris. The highest civilian military ratio anywhere in the world. There shall be no coercion though. Rigging the ballot-boxes isn’t fashionable anymore. It is going to be one big democratic exercise.

Consequently all dissenting voices have been locked up and others imprisoned in their homes. They can till their sward gardens or watch cable TV while people queue up to cast their votes without any anti-poll noise pollution. That is mandatory, feels the Kashmir chief minister’s pontific dad. When he is not playing golf or talking in a theatrical, almost comical way, the old man likes to give free advices and address himself in third person singular: Farooq, Farooq.
If he had all his marbles, he would know that dissent, like debate, is part of a democratic polity. If you gag your opponents, and then sit back to enjoy free and fair elections on TV over endless sun-color cups of Kehva – it amounts to nothing.

There are blokes who think Elections are a solution to Kashmir.
Yet others enlighten that elections do no mean a solution but pave a surefire thoroughfare to progress. A large chunk however feel these elections only go on to legitimize India’s title in Kashmir. There is a little driblet of truth, perhaps, in all these stated positions and each party to the dispute is acutely aware of that. But herein lies the rub: there is a lot of double-dealing. You can’t give Lone II a free run with his band of rural volunteers in tow, gonging village after village, while old boy Geelani isn’t even allowed a short stroll to his brick-colored mosque.

One cannot have the cake and eat it too. While the mainstream media never runs out of ink, writing plaudits for democratic forces at work in the little valley, it carefully chooses to photo-shop the autocratic whip the same forces use to bully anyone who dares differ with them. Hence they go after those who ask people to resist from pressing the button on the voting pads. Ideally in any democracy it should be left to the people – after getting a fair chance to hear both sides – to decide whether to go dab their index finger or not. In Kashmir, alas, that is often not the case.

Is a frail, ailing old man or his ideas such a threat to the biggest democracy on the planet? Why should the pro-feedom camp not be allowed to run a counter campaign against elections? Why should the state claim to hold free, fair, fearless election while it imprisons, summarily locks up and puts out all dissenting notes? Why should the area going to polls on a particular day be sealed off, insulated and declared inaccessible to anyone from outside the district? Why the in-your-face hypocrisy? Why tom-tom democracy when you actually make a light-hearted mockery of it?

Blockading the political views of a group under the guise of security is such an absurdly tyrannical arguement. A society can't be free really unless it attunes itself to listen to dissent. Voltaire, the greatest of French thinkers once beautifully remarked, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'

So are we headed for the big breaking news, ready to be broken to us on May 16: Sajad Lone wins Kupwara/Democracy triumphs.
Do we have the two-bit mike-brandishing journos gearing up to run barefoot after him like those kids in the old tale [was it Pied Piper!] for their two-bytes?

Quite possible. United Colors of Democracy.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

The curious case of Sajad Lone

Vote for the man who promises least. He'll be the least disappointing
~Bernard Baruch (1870-1965)

Politics is a competing enterprise. People will often act lickerish to get to the top. Power, the general thinking goes, brings great clout. History, after all, gets written by conquerors. We have, I fear, confused power with greatness, I recall of Stewart Udall. The truth be told, it is the quest for power that brings out the endless spiel, the big promises, the empty rhetoric. These days no one comes to politics for public good. Kashmir ain't any exception.

Sajad Lone’s decision to run for Indian parliament didn’t come as a bolt from the blue. In our neck of woods, it was perceived as, another seasonal political jolt which we have grown so used to. Didn’t we all stand to attention -- like dazzled cavemen -- to a tall, nationalistic, Hadith quoting Sheikh? And the lion of Kashmir roared and growled and a frightened people clapped. And the confused Maharaja panicked. The lion rechristened his party to make it sound more secular. An Indian prince charming, who always kept a rose in his coat's third button hole, took a liking for the lion and made palsy overtures. The lion didn’t realize that the prince was going to be his master and not a friend. And the day he realized it, the poor thing was thrown into a moth-eaten cage. Only to be tamed forever. Thence he would only purr like a domesticated cat. His progeny continue to be relevant to Kashmir.

Sajad, in that respect, comes from a lesser tribe. He isn’t exactly a lion. His dad was a popular mainstream politician turned separatist leader. As a ninth standard student in Sopore high school Lone Sr was arrested in connection with the Zachaldara bomb blast case. He became a lawyer and later a cabinet minister twice [under Sadiq and BGM]. He joined the separatist bandwagon in the late 80s and was shot dead in 2002. Sajad is the youngest of the Lone sons, the eldest being a permanent fixture in the Mirwaiz court.

Sajad went for higher studies to London. At the time of his father’s death, he accused both India and Pakistan for Lone’s murder. Sajad is married to Asma, the daughter of Amanullah Khan, boss of the separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) the group credited with starting armed insurgency in Kashmir.

Sajad, a blunt bloke never got along well with the separatist leadership in Kashmir, who harbored doubts about his credibility. To his credit Lone II is the only leader to have come out with a comprehensive document ‘Achievable Nationhood’ that discusses various dynamics of the Kashmir issue. He perhaps understood, before anyone else in Kashmir, that the proverbial tide is turning and the last assembly election was the final clincher. Being part of the elite crew helps and Lone II's connections in Delhi proved helpful.

Sajad’s decision to run for Elections-2009 is a huge gamble which he must have thought over and over in his head. He might as well make it to India’s House of Commons and there will be people back home who wouldn’t like the sight of an erstwhile separatist sharing pews with right wing senators, the likes of whom pushed around and humiliated his late dad in Jammu long years back. Political expediency makes you forget things quickly. The problem is that you may like to give voice to your grievances at the altar of democracy but since democracy is all about numbers -- you are bound to be gradually piffled away. The bravado gets lost in the din.

In hindsight fighting for your rights is oft times toilsome. You could very well smirk at the relative impatience of Sajad’s arguments. Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary [made into a fashion icon by the MTV gen these days] was cut up in Bolivian jungles for daring to challenge the powers that be. Freedom is never ASAP. The mainstream Indian media is showering praise on Sajad not for nothing. The poster-boy of separatist camp has switched sides. Geelani and his old ilk can’t be trusted. Sajad can be!

Kashmir has had a trust deficit with India. Locals are more likely to tell you that they trusted India when the Indian troops landed in Srinagar for the first time in October 1947 [Kashmir was a princely state before Oct 47] but the much-promised plebiscite was never held. All elections were historically rigged. One gentleman who lost to an infamous rigged election result from Srinagar’s Habba-kadal constituency in 1987 went on to become the boss of United Jehad Council [an amalgamation of major militant outfits in Kashmir] and calls himself by his code-name Syed Sala-din. His polling agents, Yasin Malik, Javed Mir and Hamid Sheikh all became top militant commanders. While Sheikh was killed, Mir is in Hurriyet, while Yasin Malik, is a major separatist leader.

I’ve no doubt that Sajad is a bright fellow and sounds sincere, especially in the apologia that he wrote for the media the day he officially declared his candidature. He talks about delusions of grandeur, peddling of failed methods or escapism, and avoiding tendencies towards defeatism – nice psychology talk. It remains to be seen how he delivers on the floor of the house. He is going to take oath, if he ever gets elected with his hand on the constitution of India ~ a document that calls Kashmir an integral part of India.

The psychologist knows what the heart wants.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Water, water everywhere -- but not a drop to drink!

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. The rhyme of the ancient mariner sprang to my mind as I hopscotched through Kashmir during my last visit. Vale of my childhood, where water was the last thing people would possibly bother about. We used to throw water at each other in school and the fun was fondly called ‘Aab Jung’ [water war]. But those were innocent years, with only a few residential areas and a lot of farm land. The rivers were filled with fish. The lakes, I remember, meandered around hills and a golden kingfisher would dive in to catch a little trout in its cuspidate beak. In the years to come, that innocence was gradually lost. It was molested by indifferent times. The fish drowned in the waters. Then there was scarcity.

Kashmir in 2009 is headed for an entropy. No architectural planning, no policies for housing, no letup to rampant de-forestation and no respect for law of the land. To make things worse everyone wants a separate home with fencing, complete with gardens and flowers and bees in them. And a place for keeping that sparkling new car. This has lead to a steady shrinkage of agricultural land and a dip in the ground water table. Natural resources are -- naturally -- stretched thin. Construction is at an all time high – homes in all kinds of funny, concrete shapes are coming up. But everyone complains that winters are too cold now and you want to tell them: look when you use too much concrete and glass – trying to replicate Delhi -- you can’t expect the cosy warmth of a genuine Kashmiri home.

Talking of water I first noticed the desperation when we drove to the Manasbal Lake. There are tiny picaresque villages on the way. The narrow pot-holed road is lined with beautiful orchards full of pink blossom. At a bend in the road, near a hamlet called Poshwari [meaning flower meadow – no flowers though], we met with villagers, who were blocking the road. They told us that we cannot go further up because they are protesting the acute water shortage in their area. No mini-bus, car or scooter was allowed to pass. Only the occasional security vehicle whizzed past, because nobody dares stop the ‘military’. The villagers were pretty animated and no excuses worked. So we parked our car to one side and waited.

I knew all my media accreditations – that usually allow me an entry to the Prime ministers’ garden -- won’t work with these folks. So I warmed upto a few protesting guys. Why are you troubling people like this? I asked. “Jinab, they shot back [That native naïve way of addressing anyone dressed in city garb] we have resorted to this extreme step because we don’t have a drop of water to drink”. Our women walk five miles to fetch a pail of water and all we can do is sit and watch helplessly. “We couldn’t even take a bath on the Eid day,” a young man added for effect. I noticed dandruff on his shoulder; I guess he was not exaggerating. Do you think anyone will take notice of your peaceful sit-in? I questioned an old man who was snorting his tobacco. “We don’t know – Jinab – but what else can we do. We have tried everything possible,” he said with an exasperated expression.

We finally made our way through the melee but I felt bad for the poor guys. It is hard life for them. We live in a world of contrasts, I often tell myself. Zero-bacteria bottled water for some – me included – and nary a drop to drink for others. [My pals in the US drink Evian water. Direct from Évian-les-Bains, on the south shore of Lake Geneva, they tell me]. I broached the issue with a top tourism officer – incharge of Manasbal waterways. Though the guy was smart and knew quite a bit about water sports, he gave me that amused look as I raised the topic. You know Sam, he went on in an avuncular fashion, you are a financial journalist but you can’t understand this petty business. These villagers are illiterate and they won’t understand the water schemes that the government has launched for them. I didn’t buy his government-like argument. It was a typical passing-the-buck and blaming-the-aggrieved answer.

Back in the first world, as I sat covering an international event in a five star hotel days later, I asked for some water. As I waited for the maitre d'hotel to bring me water, I casually asked a second attendant for water. Two bottles of Himmelsberger arrived in the next one minute. German water. The extravagance of our lives. I thought about the peasants in that lovely flower meadow. I know no one ever took care of their necessity.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

Home is where the heart is

The plane begins to debark over Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, and as you look outside, a most beautiful mural appears and something suddenly shifts in you. Everything comes rushing back. Mustard in full bloom, little hutments happily piping up old smoke, beige hillocks. A million meadows in amber and jade look like nature naked in the dell, teasing you to un-strap. Raindrops began to cling to the window pane. As the airplane touches down the air-stewardess announces that the temperature outside was 8 degrees. You could almost smell the mustard, the rain on your nose, the patter of roofs. You know you are home.

The airplane’s doors were flung open to a glacial breeze. It was pouring like from a bucket. Every time I come home, it is raining.
I don’t mind at all. Frosty troopers wearing hooded military jackets -- guarding the airport -- looked on with cold eyes. The airport has been recently re-done and everything looks big and clean. Only people remain the same. They say it is an international airstrip now though only one flight operates to Dubai -- once in a fortnight. Suhail, my buddy, had come to collect me. As we drove on it was still raining boats and casks.

We headed for a coffee to ‘Sheesha’. It is an exotic coffee hut. Yes a hut, not a café’. It is all done up in broken shards of mirror including the couches and walls and it looks like a prismatic, avant garde watering hole. You get coconut cookies [coconut biscuits of the school] and for a while you want to drop all frigging pretences and wolf it down. Diet cokes and Atkins can go to hell when you are sequestered in such a cozy ambience, far from the maddening crowds while it rains outside. I felt like a shack boy drinking a shack juice.

I decided to drive home. It was damp and chilly but familiar. Perhaps the best thing about coming home is that everything – people speaking in the language of your childhood, the old man selling the hot alov-mung [potato wedges], the signposts, the smells, the ducklings marching behind the female duck, pistachio-colored eyes – have an intimate connection with you. Even the chill is usual. Your marrow knows it. Though I was only wearing a pair of jeans with a tee [the puma ultra light jacket made me look like a scouser from Liverpool] I think my glen bones, like most Kashmiris, are programmed to withstand the cold. We just can’t take heat.

It is the onset of spring in Kashmir. There were sprouts – thousands of them -- in orchards along the way. The flowers looked forlorn on the twigs while raindrops shook them in a naughty way. It kept getting darker and colder. People were rushing back to their homes in mini-buses [called matadors] and cars. Suddenly it dawned to me that Kashmir ceases to work by six -- around this time of the year.
I accelerated and was home in no time.

John Howard Payne was one of the most gifted American poets. He was born in New York and died in Tunis, Tunisia, where he lies buried. Payne – and I love his poetry – wrote 186 years ago:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam/Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

John, I agree.

More Kashmir posts to follow.