Former President Bill Clinton called Kashmir the ‘most dangerous place in the world' just days before his South Asia visit in March 2000. As a disputed territory, it locked nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan into a bitter hostility that has so far resulted in three wars and pushed South Asia to the brink of a nuclear disaster when the mobilized armies of the two countries seemed on the verge of a fourth war in December 2001.
At present, there is a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, but Kashmir remains a difficult and dangerous valley up in the Himalayas and control over its territory a possible nuclear flash point. The Kashmir conflict itself is as old as the independence of the Indian subcontinent from British rule. In 1947, British India was partitioned into two countries, resulting in disastrous communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, and the migration of millions of Hindus and Muslims across the new borders.
Partition had been planned on the basis of the religions of the people of the 562 princely states of a United India. In the case of Kashmir, however, this criterion was overlooked. Although it was a Muslim-majority state, it went not to Muslim Pakistan but to India, thus giving birth to the conflict that has dominated the relations of the two countries ever since. Kashmir's autocratic ruler or maharaja was a Hindu, but wanted the state to be independent from either country. Pakistan sent in an army of Pashtun tribal irregulars from its Northwest Frontier province along with its regular troops to seize control of Kashmir soon after the British left, prompting India to send in its troops as well. This lead to the war that finally resulted in Kashmir's uneasy division between the two newly created states.
While India and Pakistan were involved in hostilities in Kashmir, the people of this Himalayan region only aspired to be left alone as an independent state -- a demand unacceptable to either country. The discontent within the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, fuelled by New Delhi's policies (especially its rigging of local elections), led to an armed uprising in 1990, which was supported by Pakistan. Since then more than 80,000 Kashmiris -- though the official government figures are "only" 35,000 -- have been consumed in this war between Kashmiri insurgents and the Indian army, while this scenic valley has been turned into a bloody battlefield.
As a newspaper reporter based in Kashmir since 1993, I have witnessed this mayhem on a daily basis. Over these 12-years, my entire body of reporting has focused on bomb blasts, the damage caused by improvised explosive devices, shoot-outs, crackdowns, search operations by the Indian security forces, ambushes and raids by separatist militants, violent deaths and tense funerals. Now, at a time when almost every village in Kashmir has a ‘martyrs graveyard' and its own set of stories of residents who met violent deaths, the readers of my paper, the Indian Express, are quite literally bored by these daily doses of despair.
I wondered how it might be possible to break through this net of desensitization, and whether I could tell the story of Kashmir through a village which had somehow escaped this mayhem, a single place where death still arrived only due to natural causes. During the search for this oasis of peace, I surprised myself as well. Even though, as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I had been a constant witness to events in Kashmir, I had no idea how difficult a task it would prove to be to find such a village.
"Exhausted by tales of bloodshed, I began the quest for this elusive island of peace -- for, simply put, a happy story -- six months ago. I started with the central district of Budgam, thinking it might be comparatively less conflict-ridden. I traveled for days from one village to the next without success. Then, I went to the main bus station in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital, and began questioning dozens of villagers from faraway places. Still, I couldn't find my dream village.
"So I approached Kashmir divisional commissioner Khursheed Ahmad Ganai, the highest civilian officer here, for help. Ganai promised to check with his deputy commissioners in different districts. A few weeks later, he got back to me with a list of six villages he believed might be casualty-free in Pulwama and Pampore. Excited by the news, I rushed to check them out. As it happened, one of the villages, Jazeera Mah Sitara, existed only in the revenue records, while all the other villages had had their share of violent deaths that simply never made it into the government records. Finally, I heard of Gundbal from a friend."
Village without Casualties
There are no wreaths on the graves, no embellished epitaphs eulogizing the dead. The burial ground looks strangely old-fashioned, with wild grass and thorny bushes swallowing the neglected mounds. The stone walls are crumbling, and children play cricket in a corner. Gundbal has no martyrs, no bullet-ridden bodies of young men lying under its earth. Death in this little village has always come from natural causes.
Today, an icy wind shuffles the bare willows that circle the village. In the east, the snowy crests of the towering Harmukh range float like drifts of clouds. We set out early on our journey from Srinagar, 60 kilometers from here. This was to be our last attempt at finding a village where a body bag has never arrived. Although we had cross-checked several times about Gundbal, we still weren't sure.
As we take a right turn from Bandipore town to climb the slope up the final few kilometers to Gundbal, I brace myself for another disappointment. The road cuts through a huge Border Security Force (BSF) camp, where every yard is manned by a soldier in battle gear. Bandipore has one of the highest concentrations of both troops and militants. Four army battalions, a BSF sector headquarters, and several federal and state police companies are deployed in the jurisdiction of a single police station, while the number of militants hiding in its mountains is estimated at more than a thousand. Here, the idea of a village untouched by the turmoil seems bizarre.
The road narrows to a dirt track that pierces through unsown paddy fields. Villagers in traditional phirans [traditional loose gowns] walk past our cab, staring curiously. Gundbal, I am later told, has no transport, and people walk three kilometers to reach the nearest bus stop. A car comes down the dirt track only in extreme cases like a medical emergency.
We cross the culvert on the little stream, and enter a village of beautiful tin-roofed concrete houses. As we crawl towards the village center, a group of children shadows our car. Windows swing open as women look out to see the visitors.
The top floor of Munawar Parvana's two-storeyed brick house is under construction. ‘‘When this village was destroyed by the floods in 1992, we had to redo every house,'' says the 55-year-old as he leads us inside. ‘‘But God has saved us in all these years. We haven't had any violent deaths." We sit on the floor and lean back into the pillows as Parvana's 16-year-old son Farhad offers a pile of handmade blankets to keep us warm.
Gundbal lies on the banks of the Arin nallah, a stream responsible for the community's lack of development as well as for its unique good luck. In 1992, the water rose, devastating the village where 105 artisan families -- mostly Kangri weavers, clay potters, folk singers and carpet weavers -- lead a basic life. The houses were rebuilt, but the floods snapped Gundbal's link with its volatile neighbors.
Today, a visit to the village is a lonely walk through the paddy fields. The flat terrain makes it impractical for militants to use it as a hideout. The security forces rarely patrol because they have nothing to look for. This village has no militants.
Parvana, who works at the horticulture department in Bandipore, writes Sufi poetry. He has written several volumes, but doesn't have the resources to print them. So he compiled his handwritten books and circulated photocopies to friends and acquaintances. ‘‘Our village has no more than 20 people who hold government jobs. The highest ranking official is an assistant sub inspector of police,'' he says.
The only sign of government presence is the primary school. The last time the state commissioned any work here was in 1972 when the road was built. The tehsildar came once in 1992 to inspect the flood damages. The village has never seen a deputy commissioner or any other officer. It has no clean drinking water, and the nearest health centre is five kilometers away.
So how did this village remain untouched? ‘‘Only by the grace of God,'' says Parvana. ‘‘Otherwise who could prevent it?''
Outside, unfamiliar songs emanate from a neighboring house. It's a carpet-weaving workshop. A dozen young people work in colorful symphony as one man belts out their weaving game plan in Kashmiri.
‘‘I rarely step out of the village,'' says Ghulam Mohammad Zargar, 35, who has set up a loom in his attic. A polythene cocoon inside the room keeps out the cold. ‘‘We are busy and this is our only world,'' he says.
When violence erupted in 1990, Zargar was 21 and his profile was perfect for the militant movement. But like dozens of others in the village, he kept away. ‘‘I was busy weaving carpets,'' he says, his face lit by a huge grin. ‘‘Didn't anybody tell you that this is a village of cowards? Perhaps we were too scared to become militants, or too apprehensive that our families would starve if we left,'' he says. Zargar earns Rs 5,000 to 6,000 a month and says he is content with life. ‘‘I look after my old parents and I am married with children. Thank God, we have a good life,'' he says. ‘‘There is enough food to eat. What more do you need?''
His mother, Shaha, 60, thinks they owe the calm to the blessings of Sufi saints that have kept both the militants and the army at bay.
Gundbal's only close shave with turmoil was an encounter on its borders, but, once again, luck favored its inhabitants. ‘‘Several years ago, an army patrol was ambushed on the outskirts of the village. There was gunfire and we squeezed into the corners of our houses,'' recalls Muzzafar Ahmad Lone, 35, a teacher at New Green Valley, a private school. ‘‘There was a crackdown operation in the morning. But nobody was picked up. The army knew there are no militants in this village.''
The village has remained peaceful, but that hasn't ever stopped the fear and tension from seeping through its invisible protective wall. ‘‘Peace has been here all these years, but there isn't any peace of mind,'' Lone says as he recollects the killing of a policeman, his young son and nephew in a neighboring hamlet last year. "It was evening. I saw two burkha-clad people walking near the stream towards Madar Chuck (on the outskirts of Gundbal). Five minutes later, I heard gunfire. The veiled women were actually militants." Lone's relatives are scattered across the nearby villages. "The bad news keeps on coming. We have escaped physical harm, but pain and anguish have not spared us,'' he says.
A group of children play in one corner of the graveyard and by the edge of the stream. Eight-year-old Amir Ahmad, a second grade student, wants to be a doctor. Shahnawaz Hussain Khan is 12 and he wants to become a pilot. How? ‘‘I will study,'' he says as he clutches his cricket bat. In a village where there is no road transport, flying seems to be a popular dream among children. "I would like to fly in the sky,'' says five-year-old Amir Ahmad Bhat. "It must be exciting."
Of course the children know of the grim reality that encircles the village, but none of them wants to be a militant or join the army. Sixteen-year-old Ahsan-ul-Haq is the only youngster who aims to be a police officer, but that's because his father is a cop.
Whether it's divine intervention or a mere stroke of luck, Gundbal remains an outpost of hope. Unlike other parts of Kashmir, sons here still lead the funerals of their fathers and not the other way around. The laughter of children follows us as we bid goodbye to the village. We leave with the hope that Gundbal's happy story survives, and this first visit by journalists does not come as a bad omen.
Muzamil Jaleel is the Chief of Bureau, Kashmir, for The Indian Express and contributes as well to the British Guardian.
© 2005 Muzamil Jaleel