Saturday, April 8, 2017

Witnessing The Worst Of Kashmir- A Bike Ride!

The situation in Kashmir valley continued to be grim due to killing of Hizbul terrorist Wani (July 2016). With one of us safely back home, I stayed over at Patnitop to gauge the situation and then decided to continue the ride to Ladakh. The valley was shut by terrorist sympathizers but this was the time when thousands of pilgrims head for Amarnath Yatra and government was trying their best to help those stranded in the valley. The Yatra was cancelled for a brief period and while I was in Patnitop I heard on the news that Amarnath Yatra was resumed. An Indian Army convoy escorts the yatris till Baltal, which is 20 km from Sonamarg. I saw a flicker of hope and was happy that I would be able to cross Kashmir valley and reach Ladakh along with the Army convoy that escorts the Yatris. The entire highway would be cordoned off and manned by Army to provide security cover to yatris. Little did I know that in the next 5 hours, I would be asking myself "Will I live another day?"

I left from Patnitop towards Anantnag from where the convoy would start. As anticipated, I was stopped after crossing Baniyar, just meters away from Jawahar Tunnel. I was asked by the security forces to wait till Night fall and cross after 10 pm along with hundreds of other Amarnath Yatris. 

Slowly and steadily vehicles started piling up gearing up to leave with the Yatris. After 2 hours of waiting, I was approached by a J&K Police personnel who told me that I did not have to wait for the convoy and could leave for Srinagar. Assuming all was good and the situation was getting better since it was a police personnel who mentioned it and I had no reason to doubt his statement, I followed his command and rode through Jawahar Tunnel, an engineering marvel. It was such an amazing feel to ride here and soon I had the first stunning views of Kashmir Valley (Titanic View Point.)

The entire 60 km stretch was deserted. I crossed Quazikund, an area that had witnessed violence a few days earlier but was now peaceful and calm. I felt relieved and my anxiety slowly died down. I happily rode further towards Anantnag, the most troubled area at that time as terrorist Wani was from here and was also taken down here. I was stopped by the Indian Army, the Army personnel were in riot gear ready to face any adversaries or challenges and they asked me routine questions. They wished me good luck and asked me to proceed and I felt pretty safe and confident. It seemed like slowly the mobs were losing interest and the situation would soon return to normalcy.

It was the exact opposite though. Riding further and in just 4 km, I saw a mob of about 50 guys some hundred meters away. I panicked and stopped the bike wondering what to do, some locals who were standing there told me to head back to 'Kanabhal Chowk' near degree college in Anantnag as it was one of the safest areas with DC office and Army camp."Bhago Bhago" the locals yelled at me, Frightened, I took a U- turn and rode back to Kanabhal. It was a welcoming and calming sight at Kanabhal to see a few shops with shutters half down and civilians around. I took shelter at a closed shop and saw plenty of Army men in full riot gear, armed with assault rifles and armored vehicles around. Soon a few locals initiated conversations and asked where I was headed. They advised me to stay put until the convoy along with the Yartis reach and ride with them at around 11 pm. They also advised me not to stay in Srinagar but to continue further for my own safety.

The locals were keen to share their views. Initially during the conversation I was little scared and diplomatic but after a few hours I got comfortable and shot straight forward questions. The locals were very clear and most wanted "Azadi." They wanted Kashmir to be an independent nation.We spoke a lot about politics and how both local governments had failed the Aam Janta. Couple of hours passed and since they were pretty cordial I opened up and asked what would they do if declared Independent? A few of them wanted Islamic law "Sharia" imposed, after which I asked them what other plans apart from that, economy wise what would they do? What would they do if Pakistan occupies Kashmir like they did with Baluchistan? They said how will locals allow that! As far as I remember Baluchistan residents are still fighting for Independence from rogue state Pakistan. Kashmir was not forcefully occupied by India during partition. The Instrument of Accession was signed by the then Kashmir Maharaja in return for military aid and assistance while Baluchistan was forcefully occupied by Pakistan in 1948. So "NO" Kashmir and Baluchistan situation is not the same.

Soon we moved on and locals said Kashmir is Muslim majority and Hindus have taken a lot of seats in Kashmir University. While this man's son studied in Anna University in Chennai. I was genuinely hurt by his double standards and hypocrisy. Then I asked about the Pundits who were chased away from the valley. There was no answer for a few seconds, then the usual India Government chased them away BS came out. One even went on to say "That they were not natives but migrated to the valley and hence do not belong here." At this juncture, one old man said "India intervened in 1971 and helped create Bangladesh, something Indira should not have done." That's when I asked what about rape camps set up by Pakistani army and other atrocities carried out by them? There was no answer.

There were of course very kind locals as well who felt bad that we (outsiders and travelers) were affected unnecessarily. They also said a lot of atrocities were being carried out by the Indian Armed forces. Though a strong supporter and admirer of the Armed Forces. I was not going to blatantly support the Army. If what they say is true, it is very unfortunate and the people responsible should be punished. The same concerns were echoed by the people of North East India too. So I do believe some issues are true and should be stopped. I hold the Indian Army with utmost regard and respect and hope such incidents never happen.

I agree that just by spending few hours with them I have not become an expert but for sure I edge over an armchair critic and in my opinion, if Kashmir is declared an independent nation, it would be a failed state.

After taking to locals for a couple of hours, one of them asked me to give him a ride to Srinagar and assured me that he would take care in case we were stopped by mobs. He said he would talk to the local guys there and take me to his place safely where I could rest for the night and leave for Sonamarg the following morning. I was hesitant but the locals around supported his suggestion and assured me that I would be safe as I was with a local. I decided to go with their suggestion, a decision that I was going to regret in a matter of minutes. It was a bad call and turned out to be one of my worst travel experiences.

En route the guy asked me not to worry and told me in case we were stopped and questioned, I should mention that my name is Younis and I was his cousin. I told him I was not comfortable and would not lie. As we left to Srinagar we were stopped by a mob of 30 odd guys in their teens armed with rods and sticks. The Kashmiri local asked me to not say a word and said he would manage them. As soon as we stopped, they immediately started yelling and asking questions in their local language as to who I was and what I was doing there. They turned off my bike's engine but I had the sense to quickly grab the key. I was asked to take my helmet off and as I did the first thing they asked me was "Tum Hindu Kya?" Are you Hindu? While I nodded in affirmative, my pillion cooked up a story that his sister in hospital needs blood and is in Srinagar and I have to be there.

Until then I had heard from locals that there is no discrimination based on religion in the valley, there is no Hindu Muslim here and they were all united. But sadly reality is bitter and unforgiving. They asked me what I did for a living and what my religion was. I told them I am a travel writer and a Hindu while the Kashmiri local and my pillion told them in his local language that I was an engineer and a Muslim. They understood my pillion was lying to them. They asked me to drop him there and proceed and were kind enough to me as I did not lie to them. I told them in clear terms "NO" I will not leave without my pillion and then they asked me how much money I had taken from him to drop him to Srinagar. I told them I had not taken a penny and I did not have any reason to take money. Somehow we managed to proceed further and I thought that would be the end of all troubles. I was so wrong as in a couple of minutes our luck ran out.

There was another mob and the guys were truly awful and ruthless. They stopped an ambulance to check if there was a patient inside. It was disgusting and sick to see the extent to which they were going. One of them was very violent and agitated and asked me to take off my helmet. On seeing that I was sporting a stud which is solely for style he moved ahead to strike me on my face as it is a custom for some Hindus to pierce their ears and they sport it for purely religious reasons. Luckily for me, he was stopped by the rest of the mob. This conclusion was so ridiculous as I even wear a Kada so I should be a Sikh too? by birth I am Hindu but an atheist by choice. I just could not understand why was Religion suddenly so much of a concern and how did it matter what was my belief or faith but who is going to put sense in their heads.

Meanwhile another local car's windshield and windows were smashed, a scene I had only watched in movies was unfolding in front of my eyes in reality. Everyone was yelling, while some asked me to show my 'I card,' the agitated guy threatened to burn my bike if I did not leave while some others randomly opened my bags and were searching the contents. I was sane enough to hide all the cash that I was carrying in a way that sometimes even I had difficulty in digging it out from my bag. Once they could not find any money in my bags they asked my pillion to get down there and I was forced to leave without him, he apologized to me and I headed back to "Kanabhal Chowk," my safe haven.

On my way back I saw a CRPF convoy marching and like an idiot I overtook them and was taken aback! They were the target of stone pelters and I was right in front of them in the line of stone throwing mob. I never expected young guys with masked faces to attack security personnel with stones. The Same forces that have saved them during floods and other calamities.

I covered, ducked and scrambled ahead and luckily no stone hit me. I was really worried that a gun or pellet shot would hit me. I did not want to die in that manner, a little ahead of me I spotted a shed with a mini truck parked there and a hundred meters ahead was the last but furious mob. I did not want to ride further so I parked my bike behind the mini truck and my heart was racing. The only thing I could think of was my family and friends, I was cursing myself and was desperate to go back home. At that moment the kind young truck driver asked me to come and sit in his truck as CRPF were approaching and they could mistake us for stone throwers and beat the shit out of us. I sat inside the truck and witnessed unruly mob throw stones at the Army. The sound of stones hitting the Army vehicle echoed around with the mob cheering and hooting. Army personnel got out of the vehicle in pursuit of the hooligans and they scrambled and ran into their burrows like rats. I have no shame in name calling them as they did not have the balls to face battons and lathis of the Army. The minute they were confronted they ran into sewer like rats and that is where they belong.

A few minutes after the CRPF passed thru it was safe and the truck driver decided to leave and so did I and reached Kanahal. Never had I been so happy waiting for several hours on the road doing nothing and waiting for Army to bail me out. While waiting there for several hours I made a few friends who opened up about the situation. One J&K traffic police said "Though my shift ends at 8 pm, I do not go back home until 1 am for the fear of being targeted." Other J&K police officers admitted that they do not call out their profession loud as they would end up being prime targets.

"Setting one's own home on fire to kill roaches" is something that I have heard as a proverb but I got to witness that firsthand in Kashmir. Killing of a terrorist had resulted in a total shutdown and it had extended beyond two weeks. Life has come to a standstill for locals and peak tourist season was a total disaster with tourists heading to other calm and peaceful destinations. For the very first time in my life, I experienced rioting mobs and hooligans on the streets.

And Yes it was dumb and stupid of me to go to a disturbed area, even more stupid to ride despite knowing mobs were there. But my question to you is, 'Are you not the champions of free speech, Kannahya Kumar is a hero, Beef is your favorite food? It is a free country and terrorist supporters are cheered on and you ask me why did I go there? No I did not willingly go face mobs thinking it would be cool. I was following directions given by people in charge and then relying on locals but what happened was unfortunate and it is very much possible that the locals were under a different impression or it could even be possible that things changed in a matter of minutes.

Shouldn't  you say bravo you go on man! Let the Armed forces take on these guys. But no you would say Army is killing civilians! Hypocrites. Civilians do not throw stones at Army, Block a National Highway, Burn down schools, homes and businesses. DO not question what religion I belong to. So grow some balls and "call a spade a spade!" And by no means I'am stereotyping Kashmiris, I was spoken to so nicely, they were willing to let me stay with them, asked me if I was fine and comforted me. While on the other side I was harassed too. So when you ask the Army not to shoot or arrest or use pellet guns do also ask locals to not throw stones. I am a witness on how professional and calm the CRPF were while being under attack. They only tried to arrest stone throwers. So the next time on Eid the CM of J&K decides to pardon Stone throwers, she better have a constructive plan other than vote bank politics.

Sonamarg Such A Welcome Site
As the sun set and darkness took over and the mosques had the final call of prayers, Army went ahead to remove obstacles on the road as trees were felled on the streets and large stones were on the road. It was all removed and we left at 11 pm. Chewing gum was my best friend all through the journey. I reached Srinagar at 12:30 am and stopped at Boulevard road near Dal lake where I was offered a house boat as it was too late to ride alone to Sonamarg. But by then I had had enough of Kashmiri hospitality both good and bad. I declined and fighting bitter cold rode to Sonamarg and reached by 2:30 am. It was such a nice feeling to know I was from harms way and slept. Leaving to Kargil in the morning I felt like a bird out of a cage.

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