A paradise in ferment

Print edition : September 10, 2010

THE 22-KILOMETRE TREK to Gangbal begins at Naranag. Here, walking uphill through a burnt forest above Naranag.-

A trek to two mountain lakes in the Kashmir valley in troubled times.

THE trek to the Gangbal and Nandkulsar lakes in Kashmir had been planned in May. When the time came to leave for the valley, in July, it was under curfew. However, my Kashmiri friend, Mohammed Amin Qureshi, who had invited me over, reassured me that the curfew was meant only for Kashmiris and not tourists.

On July 9, I reached Srinagar. Inside the airport there was frenzied activity. Outside it was deathly silence. Empty roads, shuttered shops and a dark blue, cloudless sky greeted me. Security checks, though not very impolitely done, were galore. Policemen and paramilitary and army personnel aggressively stood in clusters around their vehicles. Armoured personnel carriers sped threateningly through the sparse civilian traffic on the roads every now and then. Kashmir was besieged, but tourists and pilgrims to the Amarnath shrine could travel unhindered.

In less than an hour (it usually takes two hours) we crossed Srinagar and Ganderbal, and reached a dhaba ahead of the Woiyul bridge over the Sindh river. Here, there was no sign of any tension. Amarnath pilgrims were noisily queuing up for chola and chapatis. Despite weeks of unusual rain, the waters of the gushing Sindh river were clear. The view was typically Kashmiri green fields and blue mountains and peaks that kissed the sky. Running brooks and roaring cataracts punctuated the hum of the car in which we were travelling.

Across the bridge was a Kashmir where normalcy prevailed. People were moving about freely, fields were being worked, roads were being repaired, shops were kept open and young vendors were selling green apples and ripe ones.

THE 9TH CENTURY stone temple complex at Naranag.-

We passed the villages of Manigam, Wosun and Prang. At Wangat Nijala, we bade goodbye to the Leh highway, the Sindh river and the majestic chinar trees. From there the road climbs up a spur to go through clumps of firs above the left bank of the Wangat river, past the villages of Kushnabal where some old and rare shingle-roofed houses proudly stand their ground through Babanagri whose main attraction is the palatial home of State Minister for Forests Mian Altaf, past the dam on the Wangat below the village by the same name, to Naranag where there is a complex of impressive 9th century stone temples built near a pond of the same period.

The 22-kilometre trek to Gangbal started at Naranag, at 2,289 metres from sea level. One half of the path, used mainly by shepherds, weaves steeply through a vast forest of magnificent firs. The lovely meadow of Burjpathri (3,111 m) greets one at the end of it. Along the way, we passed thousands of hectares of the remains of deodars burnt in a wildfire in September 2005. The destruction would have been worse if about a thousand villagers from the Wangat and Sind valleys had not erected huge mud walls overnight to contain the fire. Sad to say, there has been no attempts at afforestation even though the Minister for Forests lives just about 15 km away.

The path from Burjpathri, which goes up and down through birch and fir trees, takes one to the edge of the tree line at Trangkhul (3,363 m). It is a massive alp, green and wide, spreading for miles in any direction. It is bordered on the northwest by the Lawan pass and the peaks of the Harmukh (5,144 m). The alp is cut up in places with boulders left by receding glaciers, and one can hear the tinkle of streams flowing unseen. A lively place, it had a kotha (semi-permanent camp) with many flat-roofed mud huts for Gujjar shepherds. Children were seen playing, women working and men smoking hookahs. Fowls, sheep, cattle and horses added to the din. Seven kilometres later, we crossed some ice patches and, at 3,450 m, skirted the Nandkulsar lake, at the foot of the awesome south face of Mount Harmukh (meaning the face that can be seen from everywhere). Its south and southeastern sides are extremely steep, and it has several glaciers and ice walls pouring out of it. A short climb up a couple of alps, we reached, at 3,606 m, the Gangbal lake, from which the Wangat river originates.

Serene mountains

A trek in Kashmir is a tranquil experience. From summer until early autumn, even the wind is not spiteful. While sunlight makes the snow-capped mountains and the meadows glow, clouds add lustre and depth to the whole picture. The mountains are a picture of serenity while the towns in the lower reaches burn.

PEACEFUL NARANAG, SITUATED 2,289 m above sea level.-

The trek was not just satisfying, but also edifying. The path was full of sounds and people a shrill whistle summoning a horse, the pitter patter of sheep, the screech of the Great Himalayan Eagle, foreigners trekking to Gangbal, Kashmiris escaping the imprisonment of a curfew-bound valley, and Kashmiri and Gujjar shepherds with their thousands of sheep and goats.

In such sylvan surroundings, there is no suspicion and rancour. Leisurely walks and frank talks come naturally. In the three days that I was there, I spoke to Kashmiri and Gujjar shepherds, Bakarwals from Rajouri, and many Kashmiri trekkers.

THE NANDKULSAR LAKE, at 3,450 m above sea level, with some shepherds' camps on its banks.-

When I reached Srinagar in the second week of July, I thought life could not be worse for the Kashmiri people. But the next week there was a curfew, which went on for a fortnight or so. The Army was called out, but the valley remained tense.

Everyone I spoke to blamed the Army and the police for all the problems in the valley. Kashmir has had a cycle of violence and calm. After every phase of peace, an incident of police or Army brutality made the people revolt. That created an ideal situation for Pakistan to stoke up the flames of anger, they said. This year has been particularly bad as far as the death roll is concerned. The hearts and minds of Kashmiris cannot be won over if the high-handedness of the armed forces continues unrestrained.

I have holidayed in Kashmir almost every year in the past four decades. I have witnessed instances of offensive behaviour by armed forces personnel nearly every time I have been in the valley since 1990 a care-worn trinkets vendor in the Char Chinari having to give away all the picture postcards he had free of cost to some jawans, soldiers demanding free meals at restaurants or removing crates of fruits from trucks, and so on. People say two years ago a truck driver who resisted such looting was shot dead at a checkpost at Shopian and then branded an insurgent. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has apparently given the Army the licence to kill at whim. In Gulmarg and in Pahalgam, people say money is collected by patrolling soldiers and policemen as if it is their right. I have been witness to such incidents innumerable times.The people I met during the trek told me that they had had enough; that they would not rest until the AFSPA was withdrawn and the brutalities were stopped. For two decades, the Centre has been making mere noises about the need for a political solution.

The Gangbal lake, situated at 3,606 m above sea level.-

Stolen elections

This period of trouble started after the elections of 1987, which were won' by Dr Farooq Abdullah. Those who had actually won were declared as having lost. They took to the streets, and some of them went to Pakistan. Brutal oppression began after that. Pakistan did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation.

The government used excessive force to curb the resistance. No doubt it helped contain the insurgency, but innocent lives are being snuffed out even today. This is fuelling countless mini-insurgencies, mohalla by mohalla. There is no political solution in sight; only the gun and the lathi are visible.

At a press conference on May 23, 2002, the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee told Kashmiris: Your pain and anguish is mine too. It is shared by all the people of India. We are with you in your sorrow and we will be with you in your joy.

Iris at Gangbal.-

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also spoke fervently about winning the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir and reducing the troop strength there. But there are more troops there now than ever before, and the hearts and minds of Kashmiris appear to have turned firmly against the Government of India.

On May 25, 2006, in Srinagar, the Prime Minister said: I have instructed the security forces to be more mindful of human rights and be sensitive to the liberties and self-respect of ordinary people.

THE MEADOW AT Trangkhul.-

As recently as June 7, 2010, Manmohan Singh said in Srinagar: There are a handful of people who do not want any political process for empowering people to succeed. This is the reason that attempts to disturb the lives of the people in the valley still continue from the across the line of control. Whenever such incidents happen, they spread terror and cause disruption in the lives of the people. Our security agencies are forced to act in the wake of such incidents. During the process sometimes innocent civilians have to suffer....

The people I spoke to on the trek said if the armed forces in Kashmir acted with the same restraint that they showed during arson and violence elsewhere in the country, the problem would not have been so severe.

Crossing the Wangat river.-

The ruthlessness of the forces often results in equally brutish reactions from the people of Kashmir. Recently, when curfew was briefly lifted, a Kashmiri Sikh friend's vehicle was singled out for attack by a group of young men. Here another innocent suffered simply because he was seen as representing the oppressive forces.

Unlike in the past, when affected youth crossed over to Pakistan for help and training, these young people are taking to the streets and demanding change here and now.

TRADITIONAL SHINGLE-ROOFED HUTS at Khushnabal.-

It would be wise for the government to discipline the troops and scrap the AFSPA if a solution is to be found. It is not a coincidence that the armed forces are hated just as much in the northeastern region, where too the AFSPA prevails.

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