Kashmiri Clarification Through Clash

Arriving in Srinagar, Kashmir, we were greeted by soldiers shouldering AK-47s who escorted us across the tarmac into an airport still under construction. While that is a completely unfair portrayal of the Kashmir we have since witnessed, it is the landscape we encountered first.

Clearing baggage, Bashir, a stern, hazel eyed, intensely honest Kashmiri sporting a new North Face puffy—no doubt a gift from a departing foreign skier—didn’t so much greet us, as take control of the situation, deftly palming off the mass of taxi drivers and porters determined to carry our bags for a tip. Arranged by a friend to meet us, Bashir is perhaps the God Father of the foreign ski scene in Gulmarg. He joins all the dots for transfers, tracking down missing luggage and bargaining the best price for hotels.

Once packed into a jeep, Bashir turned on his heel and ventured back into the throng to untangle the next mess. Exiting the parking lot, we began our climb up to what is heralded as some of the best skiing on the planet—Gulmarg. The 17th century Moghul Emperor, Jahangir proclaimed of Kashmir, “If there is a paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here” but the winter weather and precipitation that falls as snow in the mountains, painted the outskirts of Srinagar in mud and caused the men in the streets to huddle together in tea houses. An overwhelming military presence stalked the streets, but our gut feeling was not one of fear or tension. That isn’t to say that it is a harmonious relationship between the Kashmir people and military, but more a loggerheads of political and bureaucratic agendas.

Skimming through outskirts of the city the rural flats, puddled with water perfectly reflecting the grey clouds above and spindly stands of trees that demarcate them, it didn’t seem we were in paradise at all, but merely witnessing another ordinary day in another inconsequential place on Earth. And in many regards, that is what the Kashmiri people are striving for.

The Kashmiri topic is infinitely complex and not so much the topic of this post as whole libraries of books have been written about it. What seems significant to myself thus far as a traveler arriving to a destination where the travel advisory warns, “Do not travel,” is that while as mentioned before we feel secure, the region is today, still on edge.

Before coming here, I paid little attention to the travel advisory, preferring to rely on first hand accounts of friends that have spent time in Kashmir. To a degree I think I didn’t give the tension the respect that it is due. I might also be trying to be optimistic and not living in fear of it. The volatility of the region, however, was brought home subtlety, at least in the context of the Kashmir conflict, a few days before we arrived.

Whilst having breakfast in the hotel restaurant our first morning, we were joined by an ex-pat Californian, tabloid writer living in Thailand. He quickly brought us up to speed on the gossip in Gulmarg and top of that list was the ejection of a Swedish skier from Kashmir a few days before we arrived. Our gossip queen related that said Swedish skier had converted to Hinduism and had translated the Quran and painted verses on his ski boots. After clarifying for our celeb-stalker that the Quran was in fact the book of Islam and not Hindusim, the general gist of the story went that he was ejected from Gulmarg since to point your foot, stamp, or throw your shoe is seen as a great offense to Muslim people. What ensued was a strike and picket line in Tangmarg, the town below Gulmarg, making it impossible for skiers to access Gulmarg from Srinagar. Those already in town were also unable to rent jeeps to shuttle them back up the mountain after skiing the lower tree runs that skiers frequent when the gondola is out of commission.

Talking to less sensational sources in Gulmarg, and Tangmarg, it seems that the Swedish skier was in fact Muslim, but was unaware that his actions were offensive. This was related to me by Munshi Machtub, an amiable and pleasant businessman whom we met at the Downhill Restaurant in Tangmarg. There were indeed protests in Tangmarg before the issue was then pounced on by protestors in Srinagar lobbying for Kashmiri independence. These protesters took up stones and clashed with the military. A journalist up from Srinagar whom I met, Anwar Wazim, explained that the story splashed around the international news claimed that the Swedish man was assulted, but in truth, the protestors in Srinagar where only leveraging their case through the spotlight that had been cast on Kashmir because of the incident. In both cases, Wazim and Munshi felt that the people had over-reacted because had the skier written the verses anywhere but below his waist, it would not have been an issue whatsoever, and while he was ignorant, the skier meant no offense. They claimed they spoke for a vast majority of the population and that while the Tangmarg protest was faith based, the minor riot in Srinagar was more political than religious.

This incident does not compromise my sense of security at all, but it does give insight into how volatile the situation is here. It also supports an anecdote I read in “Kashmir- The Untold Story” by Humara Quaraishi. In the book, the author articulates a conversation with a Kashmiri taxi driver who recounts an incident in 2002 where an ignorant US senator insulted the Muslim community. As a consequence the people revolted through a hartal or strike. When the author questions, “Why give him [the American] such importance?” the taxi driver retorts, “The call for a hartal is absolutely correct. It’s a matter of our faith. For Kashmiris faith is a very important aspect, it is a way of life for us. It is our faith that has helped us survive the trauma and the humiliation of these years.”

The combination of the gentle people and the seemingly ultimate stagnation of a resolution to the Kahmir issue when contrasted against the confronting actions of the Tangmarg strike, give myself somewhat of a greater understanding of the true composition of the atmosphere here in this war ravaged paradise on earth.