The Perils of Pauline

Getting to know the Ugly Underbelly of Local Politics, writes Carin Jodha Fischer. I was going to write about models of lesser integration that ...

Getting to know the Ugly Underbelly of Local Politics, writes Carin Jodha Fischer.

I was going to write about models of lesser integration that have successfully led to economic independence after reading a recent statement by Omar Abdullah that "he had yet to see a model of freedom which would convince him that J & K could be a viable independent entity." Knowing his party's position on independence for Kashmir, I presume that he referred primarily to economic rather than political freedom. Out of curiosity, I have since spent some time researching whether those advocating the need for economic self-reliance of Kashmir could successfully refute his claim. But, while finding that there are in fact fitting and little known models that could be emulated by Kashmir, that piece will have to wait for some time. As so often here, events that affect you on a personal, instead of a strictly academic, level tend to fully occupy your mind space at the expense of sharing viable solutions that could be of benefit to all. But, perhaps in a perverted kind of way, my story today is also part of the same theme.
 As explained before in this publication, I came to Kashmir to work on both rural development and environmental conservation with a special focus on remote areas. One of my models has always been rural tourism development because, if executed correctly, it combines the raising of income levels and skill sets of the poorest communities with a marked improvement of the ecological balance of the areas in which they reside. To that end, for the past year and a half, I have been trying to implement a community-based "Trekking for Trees Program" in the upper reaches of Rafiabad as part of a rural tourism development initiative approved by the J & K Tourism Department and recently sanctioned for funding by the Union Ministry of Tourism.
 While doing my groundwork for a Detailed Project Report, I spent a great deal of time in twenty- five remote and very poor villages through out Rafiabad. I also put up for several months this summer in a small place that for the purposes of this article I shall call "Bad-ua." Over the months, while staying in this breathtakingly beautiful place that offers everything a tourism consultant dreams of – stunning views of some of the Valley's highest peaks, cascading mountain rapids, traditional architecture, and opportunities galore for most eco tourism activities — I slowly came to know that the village was at war. And this war was not one waged against the security forces stationed at its backdoor, but much rather against itself and its own people. Sadly, age-old family feuds have divided the villagers of Bad-ua not only along socio-economic but also along political lines, with local members of opposing mainstream parties adding fuel to the fire while fighting for political space in a place where family problems often translate into the switching of party affiliations. In the process and encouraged by warring candidates, all common ground has been lost. Because of the obstacles I have faced as a result of the village's internal political divisions, I feel that my experience with some of the self-proclaimed leaders of Bad-ua deserves case study treatment. This is not only for the purposes of discussion by social scientists, but also to lend credence to other columnists who have warned that internal divisions could seriously hamper the advancement of the public good in Kashmir. And mind you, none of what I experienced was the doing of the poor, who of course stand to suffer the most by the destructive manipulations of some of their mainstream leaders.
 I was first introduced to Rafiabad and Bad-ua by a former Minister of Tourism, who had asked me to explore possibilities for tourism development in the poorest areas of his constituency. Call me naïve, but as far as I could tell then, this was not part of an attempt to gain political mileage for himself or his party in the upcoming elections, but rather out of a visible concern for lack of development in those parts and the rampant deforestation that had led to a chronic drinking water shortage. In subsequent months, we worked together closely, not only because I came to like his place very much, but also because he greatly helped facilitate my movement throughout the area. From the beginning, however, there were attempts by some of his political opponents to scuttle what I was intending to do. Rumors of my being a "campaign gimmick" and not serious about my project were spread soon after I arrived on the scene. Regardless of all the public town meetings I held about details of the rural tourism development program, these false rumors intensified and got nastier over time. Among the initial stories that were planted was that I had come to corrupt locals with "Western values" and that I was planning to peddle alcohol to the young. Despite my professional track record, I found myself on the defensive again and again. One local journalist, closely affiliated with one of the two opposing parties, went so far as to say that I was brought by the Tourism Minister to "lure local girls into working in massage parlors." Now, please don't confuse me with the Indian woman accused of a similar thing in Srinagar! As a result of these rumors, I was asked by last winter to be on the safe side and delay my project until after the election, a  suggestion I declined politely, even after being warned that political opponents, perhaps posing as militants, could harm me. Similarly, while planning to move to the area to do my work, an ASP who was closely aligned with one of the opposing parties and who has since been transferred, tried his level best to prevent me from moving to the upper reaches and Bad-ua, saying the entire Rafiabad area was "crawling with militants" and that he could not allow me to work there fearing an "international incident." I later found out that he, as many others in uniform, was not only biased politically but also much benefiting from the illegal timber trade in the area.
 Despite all of this, I moved to Bad-ua in late spring and commenced my work. The house I selected for my stay was strategically located for the exploratory treks we were planning throughout the entire area, and its inhabitants had not only a sufficient command of the English language but also much needed enthusiasm for the project. Importantly, unemployed as they were, they also had the required time to assist me in identifying trekking routes, guides, and houses for home-stay upgradation. Unfortunately, they were also associated with the above- mentioned Tourism Minister's party, who unbeknownst to his opponents had specifically advised me not to stay at that particular locality or that house, because of the nasty turn politics often took there, and out of concern for my personal safety as a result of the rivalries between my hosts and some of the rest of the village.
 Throughout the spring and well into the summer, attempts by opposing political camps to scuttle the project increased. According to the local SHO, a police inspector related to one half of the village, and allegedly well funded by two different mainstream parties, was behind a demand made to a cleric that a fatwa be issued against me for trying to spread Christianity. Along similar lines, attempts were made to file an FIR against my hosts for allowing someone engaged in the conversion of locals to stay at their house, and the local headman and others were interrogated by police as to my purported "missionary activities." For the record, I am not a Christian and I have been inching closer every day to converting to Islam. During the launch party of our Trekking for Trees Program, which was attended by hundreds of villagers from throughout the area, opponent party workers lined up at a neighboring village to prevent additional villagers from reaching, claiming that the event was sponsored by "a Christian" and that the welcome feast organized by locals for the very first group of tourists to the area was actually a "campaign rally" of the party they were trying to unseat. Perhaps worst of all, the next day those tourists were arrested by the army in an unrestricted area of Rafiabad under the false pretense that the trekkers, most of them foreign, were traversing restricted territory. The evening of their detention, I was told by the army that they had responded to a phone call, alerting them that militants had abducted the trekking group. According to local sources, the call was made by the same police inspector who was behind the fatwa request in yet another attempt to end the tourism development program as part of a larger political conspiracy to scuttle any activity initiated by his political opponent. While I of course can't prove that particular allegation, I wonder how else it could have been possible for that police inspector to gloatingly inform a local relative of the detention of the trekkers hours before they were actually intercepted. After the incident, it took many hours of army intelligence interrogation before the officer in charge was finally convinced that I was working on officially sanctioned rural tourism development instead of bringing advance teams of foreign agents or any other mischief to the forests of Rafiabad. Meanwhile party workers of the opposing camp fanned out throughout villages to proclaim that tourism development had now been stopped. As an interesting aside, the tourists were taken from Rafiabad to an area of Uri from where the police inspector was functioning in both his official and unofficial capacities.
 In a different, but not altogether unrelated, incident some time later, I was forced into an verbal duel with the same political opponents and close associates of the police inspector over the senseless destruction of drinking water pipes newly laid nearby by the Department of PHE and leading to local violence between warring political and family camps at Bad-ua and another locality. The drinking water scheme was sanctioned by the same politician who had brought me there, and it is violently opposed by his foes for no other logical reason than being a "scheme of a particular political persuasion" that has to be stopped at all costs so he won't appear more effective. While admittedly that issue is not for me to solve, it did concern me a great deal because of the effect such dangerously destructive behavior could have on future tourist groups putting up in the forest near the water pipes through which drinking water will flow to the households of some 40,000 poor people.
 Following the curfew imposed throughout the Valley, I brought journalists of the Greater Kashmir with me to Rafiabad and also to Bad-ua to investigate food shortages that had been reported to me, and also to write about the problems of local orchardists resulting from restrictions on their movements. Villagers then also talked about an increase in timber cutting since curfew had been imposed. While speaking to some locals on the side, one of the reporters was informed of the many alleged political conspiracies hatched by the very police inspector and members of his political camp, and the hardship locals had been facing as a result of his activities. Sensing yet another motivated opportunity to slow down progress of my project, my hosts and I are of course now being blamed for the story that was written about him even though I did nothing to prompt the report that appeared. As a result, while visiting the area again a few days ago to announce that the money for my rural tourism project had finally been sanctioned, relatives of the police inspector and members of one of the rival political parties publicly threatened me to stay out of Bad-ua while at the same time alerting me to the fact that the police inspector was "backed by very big men." I am not trying to be flippant when I say that I very much hope this story is being read by some of the "big men" who are backing me. While I can't and won't abandon the people of Rafiabad, for the first time since I began my work there, I wonder if from now on I should travel to the area with security detail, something I despise and never felt I needed, being protected by thousands of locals, and so far mostly from bears. Obviously such a change in my style would most certainly not be prompted by fear of any militant threat. The entire Rafiabad area is safe, but some of its politicians' designs clearly are not.
 My experiences at Bad-ua have taught me that local political affiliations there have little or nothing to do with ideology or a desire for social change. Rather, they stem from age-old and often feudal family and neighborly feuds that prompt people to extend their support to opposing candidates in an effort to settle personal scores and to selfishly prevent the advancement of the most needy. Sometimes this misguided support results in small-scale violence and the hampering of projects aimed to benefit all. Throughout my summer in the village, I listened to story after story of hardships suffered by the poor of the area at the hands of a small group of mostly well-to-do and educated political supporters of different parties seeking to unseat the incumbent because of their personal dislike for each other and those favoring him. The nexus between the most destructive political elements and someone in uniform entrusted with guarding the safety of the public is particularly disturbing. As a result, work on my project has sometimes been difficult and overshadowed by personal and political battles that have nothing to do with what I have set out to achieve. My war is against poverty and environmental destruction, and not against the political opponents of the man who first took me there. I have received overwhelming support from thousands of villagers throughout the area, and nothing will change my determination to improve their lives in any way I can. But there is an important lesson to be learned from what I have experienced over the past year. It is easy to only blame outside forces for the lack of development activities and economic self-sufficiency. It is much more difficult to introspect and hold ourselves responsible for selfish deeds that only hurt the poorest amongst us. For security reasons, I may have to shift my base of operations in Rafiabad to another locality nearby. Being openly threatened by members of one political camp, and relatives of a police inspector aligned with it, may force me to take such a step, even though the majority of the poor people at Bad-ua are begging me to stay. If I have to, only dirty politics and some of the locals' refusal to end their petty wars for the sake of the common good would have to be blamed. I fear that under the current set of circumstances and the kind of leadership being asserted, the greater economic self-reliance I am advocating for Kashmir won't reach Bad-ua any time soon. And neither militants nor any of the other usual suspects would have anything to do with it. There can't be real progress without unity. It's an important lesson to learn, I feel.

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