Monday, August 4, 2008

Lesser known Kashmir

Gurez (LoC): “Please stop to have a sanga view” reads a board near Razdhan Pass about 11,762 feet up in the greater Himalays. The beauty of the area is so breathtaking that a caravan of jeeps carrying journalists, travel operators and tourism department officials, who were on way to Gurez to attend Gurez Festival, stopped here without even looking at the board. “It is so close to nature,” said a Polish photographer, and with it she started capturing the landscape in her camera.
Others too were mesmerized. From Sanga the entire Bandipora, including Wullar Lake, is visible. Labourers who work with Border Road Organisation here say that at times cloud hang so close above the earth’s surface that “they could be touched”.
Nearly 200 meters from Sanga is Peerbaba shrine managed by Army. All visitors have to report to Traffic Check Point Peerbaba before proceeding forward. But the caravan was allowed to proceed without the searches to which they are accustomed in the city and towns and villages of Kashmir. Still it stopped to see “Sarva Dharma Sthal” (all religions place). Outside the shrine there are bathrooms constructed by various regiments by Army and donated to the shrine. Scribbled in white stone in Hindi and English is a biographical note on Peerbaba just outside the main shrine. It says Baba had come to this place from Mansar Pakistan. He was known as Nanga Baba as he didn’t wear clothes even in winters when temperature here goes several degrees below zero degrees Celsius, and “subscribed to no religion”. He died after the partition and days after his death one person known as Malik, a resident of Bandipora, dreamt that baba had died. So he went up to Razdhan to bring his body to Bandipora. Heavy rains and snow failed him in his endeavor forcing him to bury the Baba at Razdhan. Inside the shrine there is Mausoleum of Baba and symbols of all faiths. Mostly army men visit the place to pay obeisance. This is perhaps shrine in Jammu and Kashmir, which is under the direct control of Army.

Road to Gurez
The road to Gurez from Razdhan gives you back ache; it is riddled with bumps and potholes. And there is a lingering danger of slides. This only lifeline to Gurez is so fragile that it can’t stand a slight snowfall. It remains cut off from the Valley and the rest of the world for six months in a year. And in summer the condition of the road is such that this 86 kms stretch from Sunerwani in Bandipora to Gurez takes at least four hours to cover by a Sumo. This road was jeep track managed Military Engineering Service of army. Later, officials here said, the road was constructed on the orders of former Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi. The officials of the Roads and Building Department say that if the road comes under their jurisdiction, they would keep it open for round the year. “Three places, Dragbal, Zadkhusan and Kanzalwan are prone to slides and to manage this 30 kms stretch PWD needs men and machinery which it has in abundance to keep this road open,” said Muhammad Dilwar Khan, an official of Roads and Building. Presently road is under the control of Beacon. From Razdhan to Kanzalwan there is omnipresence of outside the State labourers who work the beacon project. “We work with Sarkar,” said a labourer. Asked what is Sarkar, he pointed towards an official of Beacon project.

Gurez festival
The travel is back breaking. But once you reach near Gurez valley cold breeze, high peaks, view of Neelam, irrigated plots, log houses and smiling faces of Dards work as a balm. “I have been to every part of the Jammu and Kashmir, but this is different. Foreigners would love to visit here,” said Nasir Shah, a tour operator. And on Saturday, July 14 when two day Gurez Festival was inaugurated, the president of tour operators Akram Siah promised Minister for Tourism Dilwar Mir that they will bring some 40 foreign tourists here next month. Siah, however, had some apprehensions, which he didn’t hesitate to express. Directly addressing Brigadier Roy, who was present in the function, he appealed that foreign tourists should be spared the hassle of security checks.
Explaining later, he said foreigners are not afraid of difficult terrain but they should not be subjected to security hassles. This area, he said, has everything for adventure tourists and if tourism is allowed here it will bring revolution. “There is everything in this area for foreigners: meadows, mountains for rock climbing, water for rafting and then you can also go for trekking; it has no parallel,” he said.
The minister was prompt to respond. “The government has plan for the development of this area. Nearly Rs 5 crore will be spend on the infrastructure development of Gurez,” promised Dilawar Mir. The words of the minister didn’t only get applause from the locals who had come from different villages to Dawar, Tehsil headquarter of Gurez but local MLA of the area was ecstatic. He stood up and shouted “Dilwar Mir Zindabad.” Minister earlier said that the festival could take place because of the efforts of Nazir Gurezi. “He has converted my office into his own office,” the Minister said.
Perhaps it is the first time that the National Conference MLA has been seen shouting slogans in favour of Peoples Democratic Party Minister. Political analysts in Srinagar might conclude that Gurezi may join PDP, but people are unfazed. “So what. No matter what party he joins he should do something for this constituency,” says Amir Lone, 60, of Churvan village. Churvan is last hamlet on this side of the border. He says since Gurezi became MLA, the area has seen some activity and the ministers are visiting oftener. A young schoolteacher sitting next to him however had a different take on the issue. He was not against Gurezi but said the area will only develop once the politicians here start fighting election on Ladakh pattern. “We should send MLA from this constituency unopposed. This would help the MLA to always support the ruling party and there chances of his becoming a Minister as well. And once MLA from this area becomes the Minister he could do more for the area,” he said. Lone appreciated the teacher for his wisdom.
The people here belong to Dard tribe and take pride in their history and culture. But years of isolation, closure of Gilgit route in 1947, and exodus of highly educated people has changed the things. The tourism Minister was quick to realize the gravity of situation. “You have great culture so it is frustrating that you people are deserting your log-houses and giving up your culture,” said Dilwar Mir, who was perturbed on seeing some concrete construction in the area.
Mir argues that log-houses and culture of Dards including Shina, the Dardic language, which only the 30,000 people of this area could speak and understand, could be added attraction to tourists. “Concrete buildings are not compatible with the landscape,” he said. The joint director Tourism Department Sarwat Hafeez says there should be total ban on concrete construction in the area. For it tourism department has made some plans. “We will construct hutments here on the pattern of log-houses,” says Director Tourism Farooq Shah. He said foreign tourists look for local touch and we will do our best provide the same to them. Locals in the evening asked Shah to provide helicopter facility to the area. “There should be two sorties at least once in a week. This is terrible place when people in winter suffer from aliments here. There is no health care facility available and helicopter sorties would bring some relief to us,” pleaded a delegation of local respectable to Shah. Shah promised he will take up the matter with the government. “Please do something in this regard. The closure of road is killing us,” said an aged person before leaving the meeting hall.
Others asked that Gurez Festival should be organized every year now. “This was part of our culture in years gone-by. Its’ revival will help in great deal to revive our culture,” said Abdul Aziz, a political leader. Aziz proudly says that Dards are first Aryan race to accept Islam and “we came from ruling clan.” He says Yousuf Shah Chak, the last Chak ruler of Jammu and Kashmir was a Dard. There is a small stream, which immerses into the Neelam near a mountain named Habba Khatoon Mountain. Residents said Yousuf Shah Chak had moved from this area and when he was incarcerated by Mughal emperor Akbar, Haba Khatoon came here to look for him. “She went to the peak of the mountain to search for Yousuf. Hence the name Habba Khatoon Mountain,” said Abdul Aziz.

Road to Gilgit
From Churvan, Dodigai village in Gilgit can be seen clearly. Amir Lone says after it there is another village called Zeyan. “I only remember these two villages of Pakistan,” he says. He says before partition, this was the route used by the traders and army of Dogra Maharaja. However after the partition this route of commerce was closed. The residents long for opening of the road. “There are various check points on various borders. If they are not opening the road at least they should open the check points so that we can cross over to see our relatives,” said a villager.

Road to Drass
Whether Gilgit road will be opened or not, but the government of India would soon throw Gurez-Drass road open for the traffic. Officials here said this strategically important road linking Gurez to Drass was constructed after the Kargil war. “Initially when the construction was taken up 1995 the plan was for 59 kms to connect Chakwali in Teilal with Dawar,” said an official. However after 1999 the government changed the plan and included 37 kms from Chakwali to Drass in the construction. The road constructed by 56 RCC Gref will be thrown open in August-September this year, officials said. This is route which will provide alternate road to the Ladakh area. They said the road has been constructed through forest and wildlife areas and both the departments have given permission to the construction company for the construction of the road. The travelers can travel to Kargil from this route and then return to Srinagar from Zojila.

Separatist politics
Residents here say that this is only border area where people didn’t join militancy. However, this doesn’t mean that they have no interest in politics. They remember names of all the pro-freedom or separatist leaders but say that they have not seen any leader visiting the area. “I don’t know why they didn’t come here. In fact I don’t know any who had even tried to visit here,” said a resident. Despite it residents discusses politics at length and ask why there are so many factions in the separatist politics when the goal is same? That’s why the pro-freedom leaders didn’t visit border areas. That’s why border areas were always ignored. Any answers?
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