The Richest Poor Man In The Valley Essays

It was late May, an idyllic rice planting time in Lolab valley; just a month before the killing of the local militant Burhan Wani – a “freedom fighter” for the Kashmiri, and a “terrorist” for the rest of India - that has sent Kashmir and India into a downward spiral out of which neither have come out of as I write this essay in January 2017.

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Ask a thinking Goan how burgeoning domestic tourism over the last decade has overwhelmed their limited infrastructure, destroyed pristine beaches, cut down decades old trees to expand main roads, splayed an unprecedented quantity of consumer plastic on hill sides, and created traffic chaos on narrow village roads; how tens of thousands of Indians from other states and other nationalities have settled down in what was once a languid backwaters with a certain pace of life.

Goa is now overcome by commerce that compromises even the wealthy who financially benefitted the most from mining, construction, hotels, restaurants and taxi services.

My driver and guide, Hashim, is in his early thirties with a gentle and friendly demeanor; like most people I met in my travels.

He was, as I realised over the visit, a Hurriyat supporter with deep-seated prejudices about the Indian nation state.

The once threatened minority became an oppressive majority.

We reached the Chandigam guesthouse by late afternoon, to find that the entire place was teeming with hundreds of men waiting upon their local MLA (a minister in the Kashmir cabinet) who had at short notice commandeered the entire guesthouse.Kashmir, ironically, has (mostly) kept these disruptive cultural forces of commerce and consumerism at bay only due to the extended decades of often-violent political unrest.This volatile political situation goes through phases of ‘normalcy’ and ‘militancy’, and organised tourism continues to mark time due to inadequate infrastructure outside the Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam circuits.Hashim told me, looking away from me as if not to hurt my Indian sensibilities, how the massive metal gates (which sit on the road) were shut at 8 pm till 6 am - one just couldn't cross Zangli no matter what the cause or emergency.Another army camp ahead is Duniwari where one just had to get off and walk, and those who the army suspected could be taken in for questioning for days, even weeks.Big private capital deeply dislikes uncertainty, and has not yet established a collaboration with modernity and ‘development’ in Kashmir. Kashmir, unlike any other region within the three successor states of British India, is specially burdened with the political complexity of the Partition of India and the communal Hindu-Muslim fires that bedeviled us then; and continues to deepen unbridgeable fault lines.The weak commercial force of mass tourism, an intransigent and aimless Kashmiri nationalism, the powerful influence of a popular Islamic leadership, meddling by the military-religious hands of the Pakistani state, and the shadow of a resurgent Hindu nationalism in India come together with poverty in the villages in a multitude of ways; as I experienced on a visit to the Lolab Valley, 115 kilometers north of Srinagar in May 2016.It came home to me, over the next week plus I spent here, that the name of this village arose from a distant memory when Kashmiri Pandit families thanked their Goddess Chandi for giving them their Gam in these stunningly beautiful, deeply forested meadows at 7,500 feet.Chandigam, now peopled only by Muslims castes (Pir, Ganai, Choupan, Dar, Lone, Mir, Khan and Sheikh) saw its last Pandit family leave at the height of militancy in 1990s.Was this slogan, I wondered, directed as a reassurance to tourists that they have come to the right place, to the nervous army jawans seeking comfort in a hostile environment, or to the suspicious locals who find neither in their daily lives?Life looked peaceful enough, though, as we winded our way in between sheep being herded on the tarred road by nomadic Bakarwals.


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