Note: This article was written in December 2005 when the situation in the Kashmir Valley was much better than it is now with no reported stone pelting, though the environment was tense and the mood of the people quite subdued. It was an official visit organised by Infosys at the invitation of J&K Bank and the meeting was scheduled with the then CEO – Dr Haseeb Drabu, who is currently the Finance Minister in the J&K State Government.
On my flight from Bengaluru to Srinagar via Delhi, a very apprehensive me pondering hard, what awaits me at the city. Just a few minutes ago, I had met Mr N.R.Narayana Murthy (he was then the Chairman of Infosys), while taking the Airport bus from the terminal to the aircraft. Incidentally he was seated next to me in the flight and while alighting at Delhi, he wished me good luck with the meeting at J&K Bank. He also comforted me by saying that the situation in Kashmir was not that bad at all as he had visited the place recently on an official trip.
During the Delhi to Srinagar leg of the flight, my mind again went back to the days preceding the journey, when almost everyone forbade me from visiting Srinagar based on press reports and the earthquake that shook the region around the same time. I was headed towards the Capital of the State that was already in deep turmoil. All this, while the flight was smoothly sailing over the majestic Himalayas with a breathtaking view of the valley below, as if I was floating in Heaven. I remembered a famous Persian quote by poet Amir Khusrow, when translated to English meant, “If there is Paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”…..
But I was proved wrong. It was a very pleasant sight to see a normal city going through the hustle bustle of daily grind at 12:30pm on a clear Monday afternoon circa December 2005. My cabbie was very soft spoken and he hardly drove the cab above the 40km/per hour limit. I was wondering why he was different compared to others who drove on the Srinagar roads at high speed. Later I came to know, that he had couple of bypass surgeries and was not willing to take any chance by driving rashly. He was the only bread winner for the family and his absence from work meant his family had to go almost hungry. The lean tourist season had affected their business very badly. The wide and beautiful road that took me to the City center looked so normal and made me feel as if I was in a Delhi suburb. It was only after I saw security personnel every 100 yards, which made all the difference. Srinagar, a city that once was the toast of Bollywood producers and the honeymooners alike, today looked like a protected bride. The people, however made all the difference with their warmth and generous smile. Even the coldest winter in a decade (-6.5 degrees celsius temperature) could not take away this warmth.
Upon checking in at the Grand Mumtaz Hotel, my home for the next 5 days, I was made to feel like I was the bridegroom visiting my in laws house after many years. The hotel staff at the Reception were excited when I mentioned I came from Bangalore. Oh, you have come from the IT capital of the world, they gushed. The hotel had all the facilities I could expect in a 3 star hotel, contrary to my expectations.
However, on the night of Tuesday, December 13th 2005 at around 3:15am, I felt the experience of my life. The earthquake, which had an epicenter in Afghanistan, shook the city out of its sleep. When I came out of the hotel room, I was greeted by the hotel staff which ensured that all its guests were safe even at that time of the day. I did not dare rush out of the hotel as the temperature was lesser than -6 degrees celsius outside. If the God above us willed, we will be very safe, is what the hotel staff said and assured me of safety in case there were aftershocks. Switching the Television on, I came to know that the earthquake had a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale and this time, God did not will to take away any life. He had certainly heard their prayers! The years of turmoil and the earthquakes that shook this beautiful state, has certainly made the people very tough and they could face any trouble or problem that posed before them.
The next day I visited Dal Lake and was pained to see almost all houseboats with “Vacant” board hanging outside the majestic boats. A top tourist destination for years was reduced to this state. This was only due to unfound fears of people like me who now prefer to visit other countries than holiday in Kashmir. The state has everything to offer and can easily offer tough competition to Swiss locales which we see in Yash Chopra films. The place has people with large hearts and this makes a big difference when it comes to tourism. I could hardly see any form of terrorism or experience anti India bashing throughout the five days I was in Srinagar. Where don’t we see terrorism in today’s world… New York, London, Madrid, Paris, Delhi. Have people stopped going there? We have seen the terrorism of the worst kind in Bangalore, a city which prides itself to be a safe city and the IT capital of the world, where a lady employed with a MNC company was raped and murdered by the company’s own contract staff.
That evening I took a stroll near Lal Chowk, the city hub. I was enthralled to see the market place and the lively atmosphere. When the shopkeepers came to know that I had come from a distant place, they took more care to offer the best service. This city demands better tourism facilities and the local Kashmiris want us to visit them. The general feeling of the people contained positive hope that the new Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad would take the State to its former glory. I could see that the change was happening. Almost all leading private air carriers fly to Srinagar, new International airport, wide and beautiful roads, flyovers etc. are certainly positive signs. However only BSNL was allowed to operate mobile based telephony at the time, when no other private operators had a presence.
Incidentally my sister’s (cousin) husband, an army man, was posted at Srinagar just a few months before I landed there. I had not met her for years and it was indeed a great reunion. She told me that the security was very heavy in the valley and they were well protected within the army garrison. I had to actually spend close to 30 minutes to gain entry into their house after 2-3 levels of security checks despite being a close relative of the Army Major. The security at the Airport too was very high. The bags had to be unloaded quite a distance away from the airport complex and the same were being subjected to multiple checks till the check in process.
On my day of departure, I could clearly see the moistened eyes of the hotel staff who bid adieu to me. They wanted me to visit the place once again with my family. Let us restore Kashmir to the earlier glory. The Government should take positive steps to promote tourism in Kashmir and bring us closer to these wonderful people and the place once described as the “The Crown of India” and “Paradise on Earth”
Note: Since the weather was cloudy and overcast during the entire trip, the quality of the snaps is bad
Please view the snaps by clicking on this Link