Kashmir: My Experience in Srinagar

By Stephen Knapp

            It had been several years since I had first wanted to go to Kashmir until I was finally able to visit in June of 2007. I had almost traveled to Srinagar and made arrangements to go once before, but then a few days later the Kargil war broke out, and that stopped that idea. The violence and terrorism in the area made it restricted or not recommended to foreigners for years, and most Indians stayed away as well. But things had changed since then, and though warnings were still posted by the U. S. State Department about entering the region, I made my way up into Kashmir.

            The trip up into Kashmir and seeing the landscape was enjoyable, the beauty of the hills and mountains was great. When I got to Srinagar, I was surprised to find the place was packed with Indian tourists. Of course, it was the hot season and temperatures had soared in the plains and cities like Delhi and Mumbai, so many Indian tourists were looking for places to escape the heat. The houseboats and hotels were filled except for a few. It seemed like India had rediscovered how nice Srinagar and the mountains and tourist spots of the area could be.

            I also wanted to see the sites of the area, such as drift on Dal Lake on a shikhara boat, or go to Gulmarg or Yusmarg, and other places in the mountains. Shankaracharya Hill and the Vedic Shiva temple on top is also an historical place of pilgrimage. In fact, numerous Hindus were walking up the final 270 steps and visiting the place to do puja there. It also provides excellent views over Srinagar and Dal Lake. But there is heavy security that you have to go through at the base of the hill before you can drive up to the final stairway. And no cameras are allowed around the temple.

            There are some important mosques in the area as well, and the Moghul gardens are some of the best Iíve seen in India. And the Rauzabal in the old section of town, the controversial place that is supposed to be the tomb of Jesus, was also on my list of places to see. And though the sign outside said no photography or videography, I took my chances anyway and took a number of shots of the place, both outside and in. Though I have to admit, it was smaller and less significant that I had imagined. There is really not that much to see. It is a small building, while inside is a smaller room with the grave of Jesus and the Islamic saint Syed Nasir-ud-Din. Through a small window inside you can see the real grave in an underground chamber, which is said to have sunk due to the ground giving way. A set of feet are carved into the cement next to the grave that are depicted as scarred the same way the feet would have been injured from the crucifixion. It was quite fascinating for me to see it after having read about it for so many years. To see where Jesus may be buried was not a boring occurrence for me. But more about this some other time.

            I also saw the Shri Pratap Singh Museum that included large rock sculpted deities of Vishnu and other Vedic divinities from the Verinag and Anantnag areas that date back to the 6th century A.D. This showed that this area was a significant part of Vedic culture since at least that time, and Islam entered only sometime later. In fact, the Shah Hamdan mosque is dedicated to Shah Hamdan who originally brought Islam to Kashmir from Iran in 1370. If not for him, the place may have likely remained primarily connected to Vedic culture.

            However, while in Srinagar I also wanted to do some serious investigation into the conditions of Kashmir. So I took the opportunity to talk with the local Muslims of the area to get their views on how things are, and what it has been like to have lived here with the terrorism and violence for so many years.

            A few such opportunities included when I talked with a shop keeper who makes his living by operating a carpet factory and selling Kashmiri crafts, such as carpets, shawls and other textiles that Kashmir is known for. In another case I was able to talk to a Muslim family who has been in the tourist business for years and owns a super deluxe houseboat, and also rents rooms of their home to foreign tourists. So to get their views on things was quite fascinating.

            The family actually reminisced about living in their neighborhood when people of all religions and cultures lived there, and they all lived together peacefully. Even now there were still Muslims, primarily Sunnis with about 25% Shiites in Srinagar, along with Christians who celebrate Christmas, and Sikhs who also celebrate their own holidays, all in the same neighborhood. And they also share such festivities with those of other faiths. The Muslims I talked to said that they did not mind it like that at all. It is not like all Muslims wanted all non-Muslims out of the area.

            Mr. Abdulla, who works in the tourist trade, said that it never mattered what a person was years ago. They all got along and worked together. But when the terrorism started, it affected everyone and stirred up tension between them. Mr. Abdulla also said that to add to the confusion, some of the tourist companies from other areas of India would hire people to create disturbances in Srinagar to scare people away from coming to Kashmir, thus increasing business in other tourist spots in India. I'm not sure if he had hard evidence of this, or if this was only his theory. But many times after various terrorist activities took place, whoever did it would not identify themselves as being responsible, so they were not always sure of who did what. And the press was always quick to make headlines of any such trouble, which further scared people from coming to Srinagar.

            The shop keeper said that he had lived in the area of the Moghul gardens years ago, which was an area where the militant Muslims would sometimes come down out of the hills and knock on the door of anyone they chose and demand food, water and money. When you have guns pointed at you, there is little else you can do. Or they would even separate the men and women and then rape the women. And this was to other Muslims. The militants would especially target those who had money, such as going to the wealthy homes, like doctors. But such people soon left Srinagar for other places. He said that many terrorists came in from Afghanistan and were paid by Pakistan to cause trouble in the area. Many still are, but now focus on rural regions outside and far from Srinagar where it is easier to get away with their dirty work. Thus, even the residents of Kashmir know that Pakistan is still the home or shelter of numerous terrorists that reside there, or assist them in creating trouble in places like Kashmir in hopes of assimilating that area into Pakistan.

            At the time, no one could speak out against the militants. You could not say anything to even your wife or children because if word got out in any manner that you were against the interest of the militants, you might be the one killed or missing the next day. You had to tolerate what was happening or die. You had to watch in silence what occurred to other Muslims, and especially what happened to the Hindus of the area, or even the Sikhs, or any other non-Muslims, many of whom were terrorized, mistreated, tortured in terrible ways, and even killed. Thus, fear tactics for ethnic cleansing of the area of all non-Muslims took place for several years.

            As many as 150,000 Kashmiris have been killed or disappeared during the 1992 to 1996 years because of the insurgent terrorists. However, more than 400,000 Kashmiri pandits have been driven out of Kashmir and into India, who are now living as refugees in squalid camps, due to ethnic cleansing by the Muslims.

            I had talked to one Hindu man when I was in Haridwar who came from Srinagar. He said that it was the greatest place in the world, a heaven on earth. But because of what he had been subjected to by the Muslims of the area, he had to take his family and leave his property and belongings to escape the area. And the final point he made about it was that because of the way he had been treated by the local Muslims, he would never go back.  

            Actually, the terrorism has drastically reduced from what it was and it is now much safer than it used to be. These days any terrorist attacks are generally directed toward the police or military. But that does not mean that civilians do not get in the way of such attacks and are also killed. If a tour bus is going by an attack on a police vehicle, then too bad for whoever is there. This no longer happens often, but it is still a chance you have to take. Any Kashmir newspaper or website will let you know.

            Many Indian tourists are returning to Srinagar for vacations and holidays, but you still do not see many tourists from outside India. Maybe a few young people or hippie-type travelers who think nothing of braving the area. But foreigners still have to be cautious if going into the old part of town where the locals sometimes still throw stones at westerners. So the shop keepers never advise their customers to go into the old section of town, at least not without an escort, even though some foreigners still go. They obviously are not aware of the potential danger, though this should also decrease with time.

            One of the reasons for the reduction in terrorism is the great military presence of the Indian Army. Sometimes it seems like itís too much, with a soldier every 50 feet along the roads, or even truckloads of soldiers at particular intersections that stop traffic or check the identification cards of the local people. But more than that is the change of policy in dealing with terrorists. First, it was to capture the terrorists and then put them in jail. But they found that after spending five years in prison and being released, the militant fanatics would go back to their old ways of terrorism and violence. Then the army seemed to change the strategy that if they found any terrorists, rather than taking prisoners, they fought to the death. Thus, the number of militants gradually began to decline, and they started to back away from situations in which they could be killed by the Army.

            The shop keeper that I talked to also said that this is what is necessary, that the militant Muslims be killed so that Srinagar could go back to being a peaceful place. I have to admit that this was the first time that I ever heard one Muslim recommending the death of another Muslim for any reason whatsoever. But he was adamant about it. I could see that he had experienced too much fear and trouble from the militant Muslims himself to have any pity for them.

            One thing to realize is that Kashmir does not really have particular products that they produce for their economic development. Most of what they depend on is tourism, and selling their crafts to tourists who visit, or shipping such items for others to sell in other places. So when the militant Muslims entered the area, it damaged and hurt everyoneís life because the tourism trade was drastically reduced. For several years, no one came to Srinagar. Plus, the militants not only intimidated the Hindus or the Kashmiri pandits to leave the area, or kill them and take possession of their property, the militants also burnt down places that were well known tourist spots. These included nice restaurants, hotels, or roads leading to known locations. Even the main tourist office was burnt down a few years ago. So when I went looking for it to get certain types of information, as listed in a recently published guide book I had, all that was in its place was a barren lot. Nor have many of these places been rebuilt or repaired yet. This will still take more time and more confidence in the situation there.

            As it stands now, about 85% of all Kashmiris want to stay with India and do not support the idea of the militants to separate from India. In fact, they never did, but for years they could not say anything. Only in the last few years have they felt secure enough to be able to start speaking out and expressing how they really feel, and participate in elections. Only about 10% of Kashmiris want to be independent, and 5% want to be with Pakistan. Those who do not want to stay with India also do not want to have elections. They do not want the means for the general Kashmiri populace to be able to express their preferences.

            However, the area of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has little facility, and the people have hardly enough to eat. Pakistan does not have the means to really take care of their area of Kashmir, so many of the people there are very poor. So, as the shop keeper asked, why would anyone want to stay with Pakistan? While in the Indian area of Kashmir, people have the freedom and opportunity to develop their businesses and enjoy life. Plus, India supplies the people with many of the facilities they need. Only those with a criminal mentality want to stay with Pakistan, because they get paid from their Pakistan connections to pose in that way. Yet, if you look at them, this is the only way by which they have the money to live in nice houses and send their children to college in England, or even the United States. They prepare them to leave Kashmir, not to remain there or stay with Pakistan. So the shop keeper felt that India has done so much for the Kashmiri people. Why change that?

            So most Kashmiris that I talked with felt that Srinagar is now safe for tourists, and foreigners, who could stay in any hotel. But not in the old town yet. That is why when I was visiting the Hazratbal Mosque and someone asked where I was from, I answered that I was from Canada rather than saying the United States. I just didnít know what the reaction would have been.

            All the Muslims that I talked to in Kashmir felt angry at Bush for attacking Iraq and thus putting American citizens at unnecessary risk while they travel in foreign countries. This was the big thing, not the invasion itself, but that there had been so much dislike developed toward Americans because of what Bush did. Yet they all loved Bill Clinton and talked nicely about him, but felt that Bush was just stupid.

            Most of the Muslims I talked to very much appreciated the American people. In fact, the shop keeper almost desperately wanted me to convey the message that he loved Americans. He felt they were Godís gift to the region since they are important to their survival in their participation in tourism. He pointed out clearly that not all Muslims feel like the militants but do indeed want to get along with all others and Americans especially. Indians are coming back to Srinagar, but they do not purchase much of the handicrafts like carpets, shawls, etc. So Kashmir is still dependent on foreigners for their livelihoods. If the peace continues, then as the Indians have returned to Kashmir, in time more foreigners will also begin to return to Srinagar.

            There was a time before 1989 when tourism was really high. You would not be able to find a houseboat or hotel room for weeks in the tourist season, which is the three to four months of the summer. But for years now that has not been the case. Only recently are things getting busier and numerous people are again crowding the area, renting houseboats on Dal Lake, or the quieter lakes, and occupying the hotels. Due to the terrorism of the militants they have all suffered so much, and also because of crooked politicians who want Kashmir for their own agenda. But now things are getting better.

            I do not know what this may mean for the thousands of Hindu Kashmiri pandits that have been forced out of Kashmir and are now living as refugees in India. Whether they will be able to return, or if they even want to, remains to be seen. They still may not have much to return to even if they did come back to see what was left of their property. That part of this episode has been a sad state of affairs, and I feel that India did not do enough to defend the people of that area, especially the Hindu Kashmiri pandits, from the terrorism of the militant Muslims when they could have done so.

            Even though most Kashmiris say that the military presence of the Indian Army is too much, and sometimes it seems that they harass more than protect, still it may be a necessity to make sure that terrorism does not raise its ugly head again in the region. Or until an ultimatum is given regarding Pakistan so that it is no longer an easy shelter for terrorists. Most everyone knows this, but it is treated favorably by the U.S. and a few other countries. This should not remain so, at least not until things change in a more positive manor and when the terrorists are really routed out of Pakistan.

            Each time when I left the people with whom I was conducting these conversations and interviews, they always asked that I return to Srinagar, and that I also carry this message to the Western world. They were touched by my interest and my involvement in the issues of Kashmir. I certainly hope that things will continue to improve there for the benefit of everyone.

You may also read: The Truth on Kashmir and Terrorism in India  and  Facts on Pakistani Terrorism Against Kashmir.

            [This article and more information at http://stephenknapp.info]

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