“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness”
On the banks of Jhelum is the house of Mohd Ashraf Wani, a 72 year old retired school teacher and a father of four children, three sons and a daughter. His day starts with his morning tea, sitting next to the window facing the river, remembering the good old days when Kashmiriyat was a way of life and happiness was in abundance, when tourists used to throng the valley and people used to celebrate their festivals together. During a short conversation with Ashraf, he said the time which he saw and grew up in were different, Kashmir was a land of peace, prosperity and happiness and religious tolerance was a way of life, they would attend each other’s functions and weddings wherein they would sing and dance together. He lived each moment to the fullest, with friends and family, never did he ever dream of a more satisfying life than the one he was living. Kashmir was truly a paradise then, abundant with natural beauty and filled with love and the warmth of Kashmiris. He vividly remembers as 12 years old, his visits to the boulevards of Srinagar town, with his uncle, who himself was a young, handsome and a stylish man. They would go watch a movie in Palladium Talkies and then would have a much awaited meal at Ahdoo’s. Even today Ashraf misses the liveliness and energy that was there on the boulevards back then, with tourists thronging the restaurants, shikaras in Dal Lake, crowded theatres, the pony riding and the roads full of vendors. That is the Kashmir he remembers and misses today. He also remembers his days as a child when Tikoo Sahab, his school teacher used to cane him for being late and complain about him to his father whenever they would meet. Tikko Sahab’s son Rakesh was his friend and the two shared a wonderful unconditional bond of love and friendship, which made them inseparable. They ate, played and pranked together with each other’s families. He still remembers Rakesh’s wedding and how he single handedly made all the arrangements for the marriage and danced his heart out on mehandi raat. All these memories are still fresh in his mind, as if it all happened yesterday only. Those were the days when Eid & Diwali were celebrated with equal fervor and jointly by the people of all faiths. People used to live like an extended family and that is the Kashmiriyat he learned, knows and remembers. But those days are now a bygone era. A sudden wave swayed the youth of Kashmir in the late 80’s. There was madness and total chaos everywhere which was killing people. Pandits and other minorities who lived like brothers for centuries suddenly started fearing for their lives and fled to safe places outside the valley. He cannot forget that fateful winter night when Rakesh and his family along with other Pundit families had to leave the valley hastily. He still remembers with tears in his eyes, that fateful night when Tikko Sahab came and handed over the keys of their house to his father. Loosing best friend suddenly, like this, was one of the biggest loss of his life. The Kashmir and the Kashmiriyat which he knew, where he grew up and what he loved so dearly was being brutally denigrated before their own eyes. There was violence and fear everywhere. Business and industries suffered and tourism, the back bone of Kashmiri economy, was collapsing. The youth were jobless, schools & colleges were either burnt or closed and people were living under the fear of gun and uncertainty in their lives. On one hand Kashmiri’s were being threatened by the so called ‘Freedom Fighter’s and their associates, and on the other hand security forces doubted us for not cooperating with them. There seemed to be no hope, no light at the end of this tunnel of despair and darkness. The boulevards, the cinema theatre and the restaurants which he so fondly remembered, were all deserted now. Palladium Theatre was forced to shut by terrorists, the restaurants stopped getting visitors out of fear of terrorists or getting bombed or getting amidst a fire fight and finally the tourists stopped visiting Kashmir. The period between mid 90s to 2010 was full of turmoil with no future. Many Kashmiri’s moved out and established their businesses outside Kashmir. The youth of Kashmir were misled; brain washed and led on the path of self destruction. The stone pelting and intifada like protests by the youth became a new normal. The educational institutes remained shut for months, tourists dried up and businesses started to crumble. The poor hawkers, small time vendors, shikarawalas, tangewalas, the handicraft shop owners and many others who were dependent on tourists for their livelihoods, suddenly had to look for alternate daily wages work, as tourism was totally shut. These people silently suffered at the hands of their own, the protestors and their creators. Many voices of dissent against these creators of chaos and unrest, were snubbed brutally by the henchmen of the so called self styled representatives of the local people. After having suffered for two decades, the people slowly realized the game plan of people from across the border and their supporters here in Kashmir. Many like Ashraf started to raise their voice against this mindless unrest and the need for peace and development. Every day, like others, Ashraf too prayed for situation in Kashmir to change and return to like old times. The Kashmiri pundits should be back, the sound of Azzan in mosques and Aarti in mandirs should be heard together, the Eid and Diwali should be celebrated together, the boulevards of Kashmir be lively again, the tourists and their hustle and bustle should be back for good. Ashraf feels of a divine providence, as slowly and gradually, things started to change after 2016. The militancy was brought under control by the forces and resultantly the government machinery became even more effective. In 2019 government took a bold step to abrogate Article 370. Initially even Ashraf felt that it was unfair on part of the government to make such a change, however when, the pace of development picked up and developmental works started to happen in areas where no work was ever seen, pending projects started getting executed with promptness. Panchayats, the backbone of state administration became more powerful and started functioning effectively, he then realized how important was abrogation of article 370 for the betterment of Kashmir and Kashmiris. Slowly common Kashmiri masses have started realizing that they have the power in their hands, power to bring hope and to “Bring the change”. Businesses have started flourishing, markets are opening, people are feeling more secure now to come out in open and speak their hearts out. Now there seems to be a hope, for a better tomorrow and a hope for a brighter Kashmir. Ashraf feels that Kashmir is rebuilding itself and this gives him a strong feeling of optimism that before his life time he will be able to see the Kashmir he knew, grew up in and lived. Kashmiriyat will again be a way of life here. Tourists will again start coming to Kashmir to enjoy its natural beauty and witness Kashmiriyat, a wonderful culture of love, brotherhood, tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The paradise which was once lost will be back again. He is certain his dream will be a reality soon.