By Manjeet Kripalani For centuries, the Himalayan kingdom of Kashmir has been known for its pristine beauty and serenity. When the Mughal emperors found their way into Kashmir in the 15th century, they declared it nothing less than "a paradise on earth" and decided to make it their summer capital.
Centuries later, India's British colonizers made Kashmir their summer retreat, building Alpine bungalows and floating houseboats on the picturesque Dal Lake in the capital, Srinagar. More recently, Indians have turned Kashmir into a honeymoon retreat and it has become a favorite location for Bollywood filmmakers.
It's not just Kashmir's physical beauty, but a spiritual purity as well. The region's main religion is Sufi, a mystical brand of Islam that also combines elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. The landscape is dotted with shrines sacred to all three religions. Many of the holiest Hindu temples in Kashmir are tended by Muslim caretakers.
BLOOD IN THE VALLEY. I have my own wonderful summer memories of Kashmir -- living on the houseboats, romancing in the palaces, hiking the snow-clad mountains, drinking from sparkling mineral streams. My idyllic vision of Kashmir was shattered in 1985 when, on a summer holiday there, I heard that a man had been shot dead just outside Srinagar. The thought of bloodshed in this valley of peace and beauty made me shudder.
What has happened in the last 13 years has wrenched the souls of all who love Kashmir. Since 1989, it has been a state under siege, with both India and Pakistan laying claim to it.
The Indians say Kashmir is an integral part of their land, the crown on the northern head of the map of India. Pakistanis says Kashmir is part of their country -- the "K" in Pakistan stands for Kashmir, they contend. Both nations -- each nuclear-armed -- have centered their foreign policies around claims on Kashmir and have fought three wars over it. The result: a region still divided, and 40,000 lives lost, mostly native Kashmiris.
CRUCIAL ELECTIONS.These days, Kashmiris want independence, but even more, they want peace. Their land is devastated, and many of their young people are dead. The country has no tourists and no economy -- the Indian side of Kashmir is supported by the Indian government, and the Pakistan side by Islamabad and some large grants from the World Bank. The Indian-controlled side still holds elections -- but, say many Kashmiris, the candidates are too closely tied to New Delhi.
That could change, though. From Sept. 16 through Oct. 8, Kashmiris have been going to the polls (see BW, 9/23/02, "Kashmir's Elections Bring a Whiff of Hope"). Much is riding on these elections. International attention is riveted here, and the Indian government has promised free and fair elections. So far, voter turnout has been surprisingly healthy, greater than the usual 25% to 30%.
When I visited Kashmir a week before the elections began, Srinagar was still preparing for the polls. While I didn't expect the city to be the happy place of my memories, I was shocked by what I saw. Paradise is almost lost.
MORE LIKE BOMBAY. Srinagar's streets are dusty and neglected, pockmarked with craters from shelling and poor maintenance. The surrounding mountains, once lush with pine and fir, are denuded and grey from bomb blasts. The delightful Alpine cottages are collapsing, their crude roofs of aluminum sheets and corrugated iron propped up with crude poles, much like the slums of Bombay.
Indian troops, their guns cocked, patrol the streets every 100 yards. Although the customary evening curfew has been lifted for the election period, fear and habit leave the city deserted by 7 p.m. After that, the only car on the roads seems to be my sturdy Ambassador taxi driven by Rahim, a fearless local.
Kashmiris still retain their pride, however, much of which is vested in their cherished reputation for hospitality. An old friend from Srinagar recently took me to lunch at his sister's home, where I was treated to a traditional minibanquet she prepared herself. Six courses of succulent, saffron-scented meats, vegetables, rice, and delicious confectionery from the local patisserie. The conversation could have taken place in any Delhi drawing room: the problems with domestic help, how workers are so lazy that the government has to import street-sweepers from the state of Bihar, praise for a just-released book of poems on Kashmir, and assurance that you can still buy beautiful Kashmiri rugs on Residency Road, Kashmir's main street and shopping center.
INTELLECTUAL REFUGE. That such graciousness is still alive reflects the Kashmiri longing for normalcy. Even at the heavily fortified home of the Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, a local religious leader and member of the militant opposition group, visitors -- including representatives of the loathed Indian government -- are treated to tea and plum cake.
Surely it is this centuries-old civility, this Kashmiriyat -- the Kashmiri way -- that will ensure the region's survival and regeneration. Kashmir's culture is too rich to be eradicated, its offerings to the world too great to be ignored. And I don't mean the exquisite Kashmiri carpets or the unparalleled beauty of its women. What I saw in Kashmir in September was not a battle of religion -- Islam vs. the rest -- but a struggle to maintain the spiritual mix of Hindusim, Islam, and Buddhism that should serve as an example to a world dangerously polarized by religion.
Aga Ashraf Ali, a popular former education commissioner in Srinagar, is both a secular and a spiritual Kashmiri. At 80, he is still a handsome, towering presence. He loves to quote the 11th century poet Rumi and is a scintillating raconteur. In the evenings, his home in besieged Srinagar becomes an adda, an informal meeting place, where intellectuals, young and old, brave the curfew.
SHATTERED SCHOOLS. A favorite topic is education. Ashraf Ali is despondent over the state of education in Kashmir. Literacy rates are a low 25% to 30%, despite the availability of free education. The government-school teachers are rarely in class because they can earn more than their $500 monthly salaries in a week selling embroidered Kashmiri shawls to Delhi's society ladies. Private schools are mushrooming, but they're not much better, says Ashraf Ali, because the teachers in Kashmir who are left to supervise the classrooms are the dregs of the system. The solution, he says, is to bring back the pandit.
A decade ago, Muslim militancy caused the pandits to leave Kashmir. The pandit -- the word is the root of the West's pundits -- are the upper-caste Hindus from Kashmir (the most famous of whom was pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister), who dominated the education system and made Kashmir famous for its schooling. Their departure makes many Kashmiris ashamed. Says opposition leader Sajad Lone: "The loss of the pandit is a blot on Kashmiriyat. We want them back again, so we can have a blended society."
Alas, there are no signs of the pandits' return. Very few are left in the state, but those that remain are highly respected. Neerja Mattoo, a retired professor from a leading local women's college, was honored recently on Teacher's Day by another women's college. "It was the best day of my life," she says. Like most Kashmiris, she is refined, beautiful -- and sad. Before I leave her home, Neerja Mattoo presents me with some pears picked from her little orchard. Another sign that Kashmiriyat is alive still.
FORGOTTEN PLEASURES. I saw other signs -- and reason to hope this election could mark a new beginning. Several former militants have left their groups and are running as independents. The election rallies have drawn huge turnouts, despite several assassinations and grenades lobbed into the crowds. Analysts say at least five of these independents could be elected to Kashmir's 87-member legislative assembly. That may not seem like a lot, but their voices will be heard, and their fight legitimized, as they move closer to the center of power.
Kashmiris are pinning their hopes on this. Young Kashmiris pine for normalcy -- the joys of being stuck in a traffic jam, the pleasure of going to a restaurant. Samina Ashraf, 24, has a degree in hotel management and economics. But Kashmir has only two good hotels left, and they have almost no guests. So she works as a secretary in a bank. For the last 13 years of her young life, she has watched her father and brother go to work every day, without knowing whether they will become the victims of a militant's bullet. Every morning as they leave home is a final goodbye.
Samina says the constant fear has left her suffering from insomnia and that 95% of young Kashmiris are chronically depressed. In any other environment, a young woman like Samina would shine. But here she is in despair. "We have no life. Give us the air to breathe. Give us a life to lead," she pleads.
"WE KEEP OUR DIGNITY." Still, some achieve a semblance of normalcy. In the Government College for Women, located alongside the picturesque Jhelum River in Srinagar, students haven't missed a day of class despite frequent security checks, bombings, and a lack of electricity. Students come from villages 40 miles away because this is the only women's college to offer a business course. "But at the end," laments Nusrat Andrabi, the principal, "there are no jobs at all."
She isn't waiting for the private sector to rescue her students. "We have social and financial difficulty, and people are afraid, but we keep our dignity," she says. Andrabi has introduced an enterprise class so her students can learn to run independent, small businesses, such as beauty parlors, tailoring establishments, and boutiques.
Judging by the empty shops on Residency Road, it would seem that small businesses have a rough go of it. The streets are populated almost exclusively by Indian soldiers. The only hive of activity amid this desolation lies in a small room on the top floor of a dilapidated building.
The aptly named Quixotic Quotes is the only place with trading terminals connected by satellite to the National Stock Exchange in Bombay. On a typical day, it's packed with about 200 men, 50 of whom are active traders. Srinagar has no stock exchange and only one publicly listed stock, that of Jammu & Kashmir Bank, which has been run for the past six years by Mohamad Yousef Khan, a former botanist.
A SUCCESS STORY. The bank, with a 70% market share, is one of the region's biggest success stories, in part because of its expansion beyond Kashmir. With $3 billion in assets, the bank is small by global standards, but its annual growth rate of 52% makes it the fastest-growing bank in India. A third of Jammu & Kashmir's 436 branches are outside Kashmir.
Khan's dedication and vision have paid off. Recently, the bank introduced a co-branded credit card with American Express. In January, U.S. insurer MetLife signed a joint venture with Jammu & Kashmir to distribute its insurance products in India. And when Khan discovered Kashmir's lack of an Internet service provider barred his plans to offer online banking, he lobbied New Delhi to make his bank Kashmir's official ISP.
While Khan has enjoyed great success, it hasn't come easily. His bank employees are routinely threatened by terrorists and, nine years ago, he was kidnapped by militants. Khan says of his ordeal: "It changed my life and gave me a new birth."
IMPOSSIBLE DREAM? A fresh start is what even the battle-weary militants and politicians long for. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Srinagar's 26-year-old religious leader, would rather be a computer entrepreneur. Sajad Lone, 36, president of the People's Conference (which is part of the opposition Hurriyat), dreams of Bollywood filmmakers returning to Kashmir, allowing him to open a postproduction facility.
And Umar Abdullah, 32, president of the ruling National Conference who is slated to become Kashmir's next chief minister, laughingly says that he would love to be a Formula 1 race-car driver. Like everyone else in Kashmir, all their dreams depend on peace. Many scenarios have been put forth to bring it about, but can it ever be achieved? The people yearn for it, but those in power may not. Sadly, I believe a resolution is in the interests of neither India's nor Pakistan's leaders.
For Pakistan's General Musharraf, Kashmir's status as a festering sore legitimizes the army's rule. A settled dispute would no longer require an military administration. India's powerful Deputy Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, is a hardliner whose entire platform is built on anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiment. He, too, would lose his agenda should the Kashmir issue be settled.
If this election is conducted fairly, a real and legitimate opposition to the state government likely will be installed. Should that happen, Kashmiri hearts will be filled with faith and hope. The results will be known Oct. 10. Maybe, just maybe, the flowers of Kashmir will bloom again, and a paradise will be restored. Kripalani is India bureau chief for BusinessWeek