Need is to step out from the shell and see beyond
There is a popular folk tale about the confinement of a Prince from the outside world to save his life. It is said that once upon a time there was a King who did not have any child. He went to an astrologer who told him that he will soon be blessed with a son but there is a curse on him. He has not to be exposed to outside world till the age of twelve. Should he get exposed to the outside world, he will surely die! The King was soon blessed with a son. To safeguard him from the curse, he built a palace secluded from the outside world and provided everything inside it. Whatever the boy needed was made available to him within the confines of the palace. He had everything, the toys, the books, a play area, and in fact whatever he desired was there. As he grew up, he had no notion about the existence of the outside world. He was contented and satisfied as he had not been exposed to things outside the palace confines. For him the whole world was limited to whatever was inside the palace. One day when he was having his food, he found a bone in the dish being served to him. In anger he threw it at the waiter who ducked and the bone hit a glass pane and broke it. The boy rushed to the window and glanced on the outside world. From that very instant he became totally restless and discontented. He wanted to go out to see the world.
Both the Indian as well as the Pakistan Governments seem to have heard the famous folk tale and are, therefore, keeping the people of the valley confined in the way of the Prince. It is a challenging job for a Kashmiri to move out freely to the outside world. He faces both the physical as well as a psychological siege. Ladakhis are completely cut off by surface for more than six months even though there are physical links via Tibet (through Demchok), and Northern Areas of Pakistan (through Kargil-Skardu), which remain open throughout the year. They have been completely cut off from their centuries old spiritual link to Lhasa which had been the traditional seat of Dalai Lama. Neither the Chinese nor the Pakistanis are prepared to open these routes because of some political reservations. For a Kashmiri from the valley getting a passport in Srinagar is a tall order. In some cases the passport applications have been pending for years. The antecedents of the applicants have to be verified from almost a dozen intelligence and police agencies. The Regional Passport Offices in Srinagar or Jammu forward the particulars of the applicant to the Criminal Investigation Department Headquarters. From here these go to Special Branch, Counter Intelligence, and to District Police for verification. Each agency takes its own time in getting the particulars verified. All the reports are sent back to CID Headquarter who convey no objection to the Passport Officer for issue of the passport. The clearance is also taken from the Central Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing in certain cases. A similar procedure is followed for Kashmiris who are already abroad. All Indian Missions abroad have to obtain clearance from the State or the Central Home Ministry before issuing a new passport or renewing an existing passport in case of all Kashmiris residing and working there. Sometimes this creates an embarrassing situation as the working permits of these people become invalid unless the passports are renewed. To avoid these situations the passports are sometimes renewed on year to year basis. For the Muslims of the Valley apart from difficulty in getting travel documents, there is also a continuous fear of harassment by security agencies in different parts of India. They are all suspected to be potential terrorists. It is reported that there are over three hundred thousand educated unemployed youth in Kashmir. Government is not in a position to provide jobs to all. These very youth could easily get jobs in Middle East, South East Asia (Malaysia and Brunei), and many other places.
Even some countries in Middle East including Saudi Arabia have issued official instructions for giving preference to Kashmiri Youth in employment. It is a pity that the Government instead of allowing these youth to go abroad to earn some valuable foreign exchange is making their travel almost impossible. It may be easier for the youth to cross the Line of Control and return with AK 47 rifles than to go abroad through normal channels to find a job! Even if a Kashmiri gets a passport after Herculean efforts, he is not able to get a Pakistani visa unless he has some blood relations there. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Bus has remained a symbolic gesture only because of the elaborate and complicated clearance procedure and limited operations. More than a year’s operation has enabled only few hundred people to make use of this facility. Had this route been opened fully without any draconian restrictions, Islamabad would be only a five hour drive from Srinagar and people would be able to go there throughout the year without any difficulty.
For last 59 years, the Kashmiris have been made to think only about links to Delhi or Islamabad. The most important historical links to Central Asia have been completely removed from the memory of the people. Had we been able to continue our cultural, social, and commercial links to Samarqand, Yarqand, and other Central Asian capitals, we may not have become so hyper-sensitive to links in the sub-continent. Even in the sub-continent we were primarily allowed only one link up, to Delhi which we had to invariably cross for all journeys whether within the sub-continent or abroad. This involuntary arrangement of getting confined to a closed space automatically makes one claustrophobic. One develops a siege mentality which has an adverse effect on one’s psyche. The artificial barriers are also responsible for creating tension and stress in the minds of the population. It is expected that the Srinagar Airport will start functioning as an International Airport from the middle of the next year. Because of the disputed nature of Kashmir many foreign airlines may not be in a position to start flights to this part. However, the Indian Airlines and Air India as also the private carriers in India should be able to begin direct flights to Middle East, South East Asia, and Central Asia. They could easily start operations to Dubai (UAE), Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), and Almaty (Kazakhstan). Most of these places are already on the air route map of these airlines and the flying times would be from an hour and a half to about five hours. If the direct travel for tourism and trade from Srinagar to the destinations mentioned picks up, there will be an automatic opening up of the decades old psychological siege. People will realise that there are other places than Delhi and Islamabad! Similarly the opening of land routes across Demchok and Kargil-Skardu will be a historical event for the Ladakhis. There is a universal trend for opening up the traditionally closed areas and one day the whole world is going to be like the European Union. A land without borders! The greatest gift of a real CBM (Confidence Building Measure) which the leaders of the sub-continent can give to Kashmiris is the real opening up of the borders and not symbolic gestures for diplomatic and political consumption. Will they rise up to the occasion and seize this historical opportunity to open up all routes to allow people to see freely the outside world or keep Kashmiris confined like the Prince of the traditional folk tale? The final solution of the “Kashmir Problem” may very well depend on that very decision!
(Author can be mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org)