It was not just a memorable holiday in one of the world’s most naturally captivating places, but a historical, political and sociological crash course on the oft-quoted ‘idea’ of India.
Forty-two years after being born an Indian, I saw India in a new light.
After my parents’ much-desired holiday plan to Jammu and Kashmir failed 30 years ago, I hatched my own with them this summer. The two-week adventurous drive across the Himalayan mountain ranges – from India’s ‘Little Tibet’ Ladakh to Kashmir valley, and finally, to Jammu – was not just a memorable holiday in one of the world’s most naturally captivating places, but a historical, political and sociological crash course on the oft-quoted ‘idea’ of India.
Even though it is not evident to most tourists, apart from a separate flag, Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that also enjoys special constitutional autonomy. This means no law enacted by the Indian Parliament, except those pertaining to defence, communication and foreign policy, is binding on the state, unless ratified by its own legislature.
What is apparent, however, is that since Indians from other states cannot purchase land or property here, the state has been spared the crass real estate boom that has inflicted the rest of India, thereby letting serenity prevail over concrete jungles!
Equally visible is the state’s environmental consciousness. In 2009, Jammu and Kashmir became the first state in India to completely ban the use of polythene bags. Instead, bio-plastic, paper, cloth and jute bags have given currency to ‘green shopping’. Though no ban is fool-proof in India, the impact of this shift is pleasingly apparent during a ‘shikara’ ride on Dal Lake.
The Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh inhabitants of this state match the diversity of its topography. The gushing waters from several rivers match the colour of snow-capped peaks. The landscape varies from parched brown mountain terrains to ranges punctuated by shrubs in some places to others enveloped by chinar and pine trees, and combines to make the Valley or Shepherds and Valley of Flowers, among others, astoundingly attractive – no less than any other famous natural hotspots in the world.
The number of security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir hovers around the half-million mark, a number that cannot be verified due to lack of official figures. While the presence of so many uniformed forces in the entire state amid relative peace – which obviously camouflages the subaltern undercurrents – strikes as an aberration, it is not rocket science to decipher where a large chunk of the Indian taxpayers’ money is spent – after the wastage on corruption, of course.
The overbearing presence of uniformed personnel also serves as a reminder of the country’s festering border troubles with its neighbours. War memorials are major tourist attractions in Zozila and Kargil, for example, highlighting the conflicts in 1948 and 1999. Though skirmishes rear their ugly head periodically, the buzz of tourists in the state – nearly 1.5 million in 2012 – is a record that testifies to the improved security scenario.
In an environment where treacherous snowfall plays spoilsport for nearly half the year, the warm-hearted people of the Valley are thrilled with the let-up in the more-than-two-decade turmoil. The increasingly busy summer months now bankroll their idle winter season.
While pot-holed roads in many Indian premier cities reflect the corrupt politician-bureaucrat-private sector nexus, the road network amid some of the world’s highest mountains, planned and managed by the relatively clean army affiliate Border Roads Organization (BRO), inspires confidence in Indian engineering. Some of these roads, including the motorway to Khardung La that is about 5,600 metres above sea level, offer breathtaking views, only blemished by high-altitude sickness.
In this risky and serious business of road building, the BRO signboards brim with humourous social messages to motorists – ‘Drive like hell and, you will be there’; ‘After whisky, driving risky’; ‘Be gentle on my curves’; ‘Peep and beep, don’t sleep’; ‘Speed is the knife that cuts life’; ‘This is a highway, not runway; don’t take off;’ and ‘If you are married, divorce speed’!
Like some cities in the Gulf famous for their records of the longest, tallest and biggest in the world, Jammu and Kashmir owns its own book of world records too – highest ski slope, highest golf course, coldest desert, highest cable car, highest motorable road, highest battleground and, perhaps, the cheapest apples, pears, cherries and Kashmir willows!
Another point of interest to the Gulf is that unlike the famous Arab ‘qahwah’ or coffee drink, the ‘Kahwah’ here is made by boiling green tea leaves with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and, occasionally, rose petals for aroma. It is served with sugar or honey, and crushed almonds or walnuts. Along with delectable food, it warms the heart as much as the body!
Dr N. Janardhan is a political analyst and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter. His academic works include ‘India and the Gulf: What Next?’ and ‘Boom amid Gloom: The Spirit of Possibility in 21st Century Gulf’.
Photos: Saba Monin/Flickr