Kashmir’s festering wounds

A delegation of journalists from across the LoC had an emotionally overwhelming experience in Muzaffarabad

Kashmir’s festering wounds
When a delegation of journalists from this side of Kashmir visited Muzaffarabad recently, it reinforced the strong desire of the people on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) to unite. The young journalists, who had been to the other side for the first time, broke down in the packed hall of the Central Press Club in Muzaffarabad. It was not just a song by the young singer Bano Rehmat that moved them, but the festering wounds that have caused pain to people on both sides of the line for decades.

Bano’s melodious voice singing the famous lines, “My land, we will come to your paradise one day,” stirred the audience’s emotions, and many wept inconsolably. These were not ordinary emotions, but a manifestation of the pain of separation that tens of thousands of families have been living with.

It was not just about divided families. Many of them could see each other after five decades only in 2005, when the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot bus services were launched as part of confidence building measures between India and Pakistan. These emotions are also political. When the group of 12 journalists reached Kohala, the first entry point on the Pakistani side, they went hysteric – taking pictures and posting them on the internet. They associate themselves with their erstwhile state. The Partition of 1947 broke Jammu and Kashmir into three pieces – one each falling in India, Pakistan and China. Kashmiris on either side cherish the dream of reunion. And that is why the outburst of emotions soon after the delegation left Pakistan was also very significant.
Srinagar was only 179 kilometers, Kabul 393, and Tashkent 578

When the group reached Domail, where Jhelum and Neelum (known as Kishanganga on the Indian side) meet, it invoked a different emotion. Looking at a signage that said Srinagar was only 179 kilometers, Kabul 393, and Tashkent 578, they wondered why people seem so far away when they are so near. To cover this distance of 179 kilometers, we had to travel to Delhi, Lahore and Islamabad to reach Muzaffarabad. That hurts every heart on either side. Kashmir’s connection with Kabul and Central Asia is centuries old. The trade routes used in olden times were far easier than the modern, artificial ones. Until 1930, Kashmir had strong trade links with the Silk Route. Muzaffarabad was a gateway to Central Asia and the rest of the world until 1947. Now, it is just a back lane.

The most significant connection Kashmiris have with this side of the world is Tajikistan, where the most revered preacher and saint Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani is buried in Kolab. Kashmiris have an unflinching respect for him. A route like this, if opened, would connect them with a great civilization where their most admired saint is buried. Also known as Ameer-e-Kabir, he traveled to Kashmir and converted a majority of people to Islam.

Kashmiris have a level of affinity with Pakistan. They may or may not want to be a part of the country politically, but they have a strong emotional bond with it. After having receded in the last few decades, these emotions have reemerged since 2008 as the alienation towards Delhi grows deeper.

Not only did the visiting journalists get a fair idea about Pakistan, its people, and its Kashmir policy, they could see what the “Other Kashmir” looks like. While the group was in Pakistan, the talks between the national security advisers of India and Pakistan were canceled, and the euphoria surrounding them also evaporated. The entire Pakistan was unanimous in accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “not reciprocating Nawaz Sharif’s peace overtures”.

The Shah-e-Hamdan Mosque in Srinagar is a blend of Kashmiri and Central Asian architecture. It was built in 1395 as a memorial to the visit of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani
The Shah-e-Hamdan Mosque in Srinagar is a blend of Kashmiri and Central Asian architecture. It was built in 1395 as a memorial to the visit of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani

For many in the delegation who had always wanted to see the city, it was a different Muzaffarabad. It was not new for me, because I had seen it before and after the devastating earthquake in 2005. Muzaffarabad has changed. The imprint of Turkey’s liberal aid is quite visible, dotted by pencil minarets and flat domes built on the pattern of Turkish monument Ayasofya. Surrounded by lush green mountains, it has emerged as a major tourist destination in Pakistan, with clean roads and good infrastructure. For many of us, it is still not politically free, but on our return, when we showed our pictures and videos to reporters, many of them asked, “Are these real?”

An invisible fear of talking freely to a delegation from outside could still be seen, not just in people but also in political leaders. But over a period of time, that has reduced to a great extent.

The visit – first of its kind – strengthened the argument that people-to-people contact is the only way to reduce the trust deficit between India and Pakistan and to ameliorate the sufferings of the people. Barbed wire, guns and mortars can protect borders, but they cannot help resolve mutual differences. For that, people on either side will have to meet each other. Such meetings can heal the wounds they have suffered. These confidence building measures can pave the way and create the atmosphere that is required to address larger political questions in a historical perspective. Any Kashmiri visiting Muzaffarabad will sense that the people from both sides of the LoC have a strong emotional bond.

India and Pakistan have returned to hostilities, but there is still hope that the two countries will realize their responsibilities towards their people. “As we seek to build bridges to prosperity, we must not lose sight of our responsibility towards the millions living without hope,” Narendra Modi had told the SAARC conference last year. “This is the call of our times,” he said. “This is the age of social media, where boundaries matter little.”

The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir

Email: shujaat7867@gmail.com