E-Pao! EI - My perception of J&K: It is different

My perception of J&K: It is different A long awaited tour finally materialises

By: S Hemanta *

It was a visit which All Manipur Working Journalist Union (AMWJU) had planned for sometime. And finally it did materialize at the fag end of the year and completed only at the dawn of 2007. It definitely will take sometime to sink in that we have seen so much in such a short time and that too when the mercury level by and large remains sub-zero in the Himalayan kingdom.

Before starting, we very casually approached PRO Defence Imphal for some assistance by the army. Once we learnt that the clearance is required from Ministry of Defence (MoD), we knew that bureaucratic hurdles take a lot of time and the trip may not materialize and hence we may not get to see as much as we would have liked.

But surprisingly the clearance came and we reached Jammu by train. The entire trip was to be completed in five phases-
Jammu in phase 1,
Srinagar in phase two,
Kargil in phase 3,
Leh in phase 4,
Siachin Glacier in phase 5
and from there to Jammu and taken back to Imphal. Save for Siachen, we did get to see all the places.

We were told that it would be very cold in December and January and hence equipped ourselves well in terms of warm clothing and other accoutrements. And we had the determination, the will. I must admit army had made some excellent arrangements; however on reaching Jammu, the first reaction of most of us was 'thanda hai' (its cold), only to learn it later that worse was to follow.

We spent about four days in Jammu and celebrated our Christmas there, well I always felt that J&K meant terrorism (Jammu included), fida-yeen (suicidal) attack, bomb blasts and such like scenes. But on Christmas Eve and on 25th Dec, it was a usual Christmas revelry though may not be at the same scale as it is in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya or in our own hill districts. But definitely people with their friends and families were out to celebrate X-mas, to have fun. There is considerable night life in Jammu.

A meeting with Lt Gen AK Sinha (retd), the Governor of J&K was a revelation. He summed up the historical background of J&K, complexities of Indian nation and the challenge he faces in precisely ten minutes over a cup of tea, which otherwise would require some serious reading. He was the first GOC of the Leimakhong based 57 Mtn Div, has been Governor of Assam and thus had an excellent knowledge of North-East and its people. The Governor also asked us to convey his New Year greetings to all Manipuris and wished them well.

We went to Suchetgarh sector and saw the border post manned by BSF in Ranjit Singh Pura Sector. The place is also known for its Basmati rice. Sialkot is only 11 km for this place and Lahore is just about 140 km. Villagers on both side speak the same language. At the moment peace prevails but one can see the effects of artillery shellings as the habitation exists all along the border purely for economic reasons since RS-Pura Basmati rice fetches good money.

I later learnt that both India and Pakistan want to patent (may have already obtained) RS Pura Basmati before Americans acquire it. So much for healthy relations (Pak-America) or rivalry (Indo-Pak). It only proves that enmity can be set aside if matters related to bread and butter are intertwined.

Apart from the tank ride facilitated by a young Manipuri officer serving there, what I can never forget is the state of road in Jammu. Roads upto Akhnoor and even beyond are widening and it is difficult to fathom as to what would happen of the traffic snarl in Jammu if the number of flyovers that exists were not there. Police pickets are seen even in Raghunath temple where we met quite a few Manipuri serving with CRPF. Because of Vaishnav Devi Temple, tourists continue to flock the city. Suffice to say that the usual hustle-bustle of a city was very much visible in Jammu contrary to my expectation.

Valley is different : The first phase of our visit to J&K ended when we boarded an AN-32 aircraft of IAF and left for Srinagar. Transit camp in Srinagar was to be sojourn during our stay in Srinagar, enroute to transit camp we went to Avantipur where we were briefed about the area and of course the terrorism/insurgency. We were greeted by 'Welcome to AMWJU' to whichever army location that we visited. My skepticism about army according such warm welcome only to English media was totally belled.

We went to Baramullah. The stretch between Srinagar and Baramullah is extremely picturesque. I can imagine the Chinar trees lined on either side of the road must be adding a majestic charm to the entire stretch during summer. This is the place where some of the most visually delightful scenes of romantic movies were shot.

I had read about Aman Settu (Bridge of Peace) adjoining India and Pakistan in Uri Sector. The Old Uri-Muzaffarabad road has been opened. Camera, the professional ornament of journalist was enough of an indication to Pakistani soldiers who were just about 10 meters away from us that some shutterbugs from somewhere in India have arrived (who else would in end Dec).

They waved at us to which we heartily reciprocated. This is one place where Pakistani are dominating us. But the ease and elan with which young Major Mithun conducted us left no one in doubt that should the peace-process derail, folks at home need not worry. The borders are in safe in strong hands.

Last day in Srinagar was reserved for trip to Gulmarg and see Srinagar township and those interested could shop a bit. En-route to Gulmarg we were told that the visit may not materialize as our vehicles did not have anti-skid chain - a contraption worn around the tyres so as to ensure that they don't skid.

Thankfully, Vani - the local driver, was confident. In between we stopped for a cup of hot Kahwa and were told to hire rubber boots as the Jazzy shoes we all wore would often slip. The temperature in Gulmarg on an extremely sunny day was between -6 to 8 degree. We did try our hands at skiing in High Altitude Warfare School. Almost all the peak and slopes around Gulmarg were covered with snow, adding a unique regality to the entire landscape. People say Gulmarg is lush open in summer and looks simply splendid but I found it equally charming even in winter.

Whenever connectivity improves, I am sure Patni Baba temple in Kargil which is at present looked after by an Artillery Regiment will become an important tourist destination. The folklore goes that the Baba was 'Shiva Bhakt' who would feed stray and wild animals and birds. He lived in a small hut and had built a temple where he would offer his Puja.

The area was heavily shelled during 1971 Indo-Pak war but no harm was done to the area as the shells didn't explode. After the war, Baba called the local people as also the army to clear the area of dangerously lying unexploded bombs. While people gathered, nobody had the courage to pick up the shells. Hence Baba himself started picking those shells and throwing them in the nearby nullah. The bombs would explode in the nullah.

That is when people realized that Baba was a godly person. This saint suddenly vanished one day. People know for sure that Baba didn't die in the area. Nobody had seen him leaving the place. Patni Baba simply ceased to exist. It is in the memory of this Baba and people's unflinching faith in him that a temple was commissioned in 1989. Every Monday a Puja is organised and in the month of July a Mela is held which is attended by people of all faith.

We went to Dras based 56 Brigade. Chunk of the Kargil battle was fought in the icy heights of Dras. Tololling, Tiger hill, Batra top and many such areas in this sector only though similar battles was also bought in Buttalik, Gurez and Mashko valley as well. We were told in nutshell about the battle and courtesy media, this battle was also shown in our drawing room when the war was actually on.

I was seeing those cliffs which would challenge any mountaineer as the gradient at most of the places from where our soldiers reached them was a steep as 85 degree. I think Hritik Roshan did an excellent job enacting those scenes. I possibly cannot explain how I felt looking at those treacherous cliffs when I think of those real heroes who didn't live long enough to narrate their stories.

One would often ask a few question as to why did Pakistan under a democratically elected Govt then decide to go for such a misadventure. If the aim was that after the initial foothold, the people of Kargil would support Pak army, then contrary to such expectation, it brought them only closure to Indian army.

If the vision was that Indian army which is fighting insurgency in J&K and in north east for decades and is fatigued and a weak coalition Govt in Centre would be too weak to respond, then that also proved to be a fallacy. If the aim was that the world would sit and take notice of Kashmir as it would be projected as internal uprising, then yes, world did take notice of it but only to say that Kashmir problem is aided and abetted by Pakistan.

In the end what happened? Whatever little hope that existed of democratic institutions gaining grounds in Pakistan have vanished. Nawaz Sherrif has already said this was not his decision. The old adage that 'war is too serious a business which can not be left to generals alone' once again proved to be correct.

Many a times out of disgust and frustration, even well informed persons in our country quip that country will be better under army rule. Thankfully our army top brasses don't nourish any such ambition. That I think has been the biggst strength of our nation. Institutions might have faltered but instead of outright rejecting or discrediting, they have been allowed to correct themselves and grow, albeit slowly. This I think is the biggest strength of our democracy so far and that is where most of the fledging democracies have been failing the world over.

Well, the song 'Ae mere watan ke logon' was played at the end of the briefing. I distinctly remember the song was sung by Lataji in the aftermath of 1962 Indo-China debacle and even Pandit Nehru had cried. The lyric so lucidly and poetically lists out the sacrifice of those thousands of unsung heros who fought and died gallantly and the plead in Lataji's rendition is so real, demanding and authoritative that as an Indian one has to be stone not to be moved.

As a child I didn't understand since my Hindi was not very good then. Years later while studying in Kanpur, friends explained me the meaning in detail. Well friends, fellows and countrymen, the song (Oh my countrymen, shed a tear for those martyrs) is actually a song for those who not only fought in 1962 but again in 1999 and are fighting even now.

Our short and 'freezing' tenure in Kargil ended when a MI-17 hptr brought us to Leh. At approx. 12000 feet Leh is the highest air field in the world. It also has a dual distinction of having the highest motorable able road at about 14000 feet across Khar-dungla pass connecting Leh with Nubra valley which is not only known for Siachin as it lies there but also for snow leopard, Ibex (a kind of mountain goat) and also double hump camel.

A smart lady, Vartika along with her male counterpart Jinesh of Ladakh Scouts both in uniform were there for great us. A visit to Ladakh Gallery, a must see for every tourists, gave a glimpse of the entire landscape of Ladakh its history, culture, wars fought in the region since independence and flora and fauna. Ladakh held special interest for us. Ladakhis are of the Mongolian stock like us Manipuris.

Their features are quite akin to us. Even the language is quite similar. Ming (name), Meet (eyes), Nation (nose) and Mi (people) have the same meaning and pronunciation in both the languages. While a Ladakh youngster is called 'Nunu' and elderly person 'Achai' we address them as Nanau and Achouba respectively.

Such is the startling resemblance in both the languages that somebody who listens to both the languages being spoken simultaneously and not familiar with either of them will find no difference. It could well be an interesting study as to how the tribes migrated and settled in different part of India and how their regional language evolved.

With an area of 52000 sq km Ladakh is separately populated for obvious reasons. It shares boundaries with Pakistan and China. Even in 1962 Indo-China war, Chinese had suffered heavy causalities in Chushul area. A mention be made here of Col (late) Rinchin, MVC Bar. He was one soldier who had fought in all wars that India had fought since independence, the first one in 1948 as a young lad of 18 when he was instrumental in raising Nubra Guards.

He didn't live long enough to fight Kargil war in 1999, but gave a good account of himself in all others and was decorated in each war. Even in Kargil war, Ladakh Scouts had amply demonstrated their valour and in the aftermath five units of Ladakh Scouts have been raised. It is a full fledged Regiment now.

While the snow in Indo-China relations melts and a thaw looks eminent, there are still Tibetan restaurant in Leh displaying posters like 'China Get Out of Tibet' and 'China, Release the World's Youngest Political Prisoner' (meaning the 11th Panchem Lama) still adorn the wall. Tibetans in Leh maintain a stony silence and will speak nothing on the topic.

Majority in Buddhists and the places is strewn with Gompas the most famous being Hemis Gompa which can't be seen even when you are actually just 10 meters short of it, a reasons for which it could not be destroyed by Zorawar's army as they could never see it even when they were short of the monastery by a few yards. It indeed was a surprise that a young soldier named Javed conducted us explaining very intricate details of its history, architect and practices finest example of a soldier who respects all religion.

Since the trip to Siachin could not materialize for some reasons, our stay in Leh was extended by a day. A tourist must see 'Shanti Stupa' which was inaugurated by Dalai Lama in 1989. The entire landscape of Leh is visible from there. I am sure it would look beautiful in summer.

We happen to witness the extremely warm hospitality of Ladakhi people by chance. We entered a village named Sasoo. The village appeared deserted but our local guide from Ladakh Scouts helped us. Locals speak fluent Hindi. We entered a house whose owner is serving with ITBP and had recently died.

The widow in her fifties but looked much older, showed us around and even offered us 'Chhang' a lovely brewed drink akin to our own 'Atingba'. Believe me the taste till lingers. I must confess, this was the warmest hospitality that I ever got, would ever get or can even be extended to a total stranger but a Ladakhi.

Mr Murup an elderly person who became our companion, however had a complain. The village was visited by the President APJ Kalam and also by J&K Chief Minister. The villagers were promised that Sasoo will be made a model village. While they were skeptical of their own Chief Minister, they were confident that the promises made by the President, who the villagers hold in great esteem will be honoured.

But...! Probably Marup thought that being a journalists I have access to the corridors of power. If I could only tell him that being from Vernacular Press, our voice is seldom heard even in our immediate back yard leave aside J&K and the mighty corridors of Delhi Durbar. Ladakhis, like Manipuris are 'Murup ki Marup, yeknaba ki yeknaba' (Friends' friend and enemies' enemy). I don't think I can ever forget Sasoo village, God bless Ladakh.

All such excursion that we from AMWJU have recently had teaches a lot. There are lessons for individual, for Government and, if I may say, for men in uniform.

I must first begin with addressing my own community. For a journalist, 'seeing is believing' and hence seeing the length and breadth of our country is a professional requirement. Unfortunately, press in Manipur is very small and financial resources meagre. Breaking even for a newspaper is a 'Himalayan' task (obviously Himalayan and not Herculean after seeing the icy heights).

Individually, we can hardly spare funds for such excursion which is actually required to broaden the horizon. However, fortunately we in Manipur are organized in form of AMWJU. Hence, periodically, we must request State Govt and other agencies to allot us funds for seeing different parts of the country.

Secondly, having decided about the place, we must equip ourselves sufficiently in terms of knowledge about the place and its people. The trip should bridge the gap in our earlier knowledge of the place which is possible only if we are forearmed and have made notes about what we wish to know or confirm. Next, though the aim should be 'learn while you have fun', those accompanying the party should be the chosen ones who wish to take journalism as a career.

Journalists are difficult people anyway and when away from home and in a place where they are not recognized, they are totally without leash. Such a tendency can be dangerous and be avoided. Also, once we have decided to be together for a particular mission, then personal preferences and prejudices should be shunned aside to have a memorable trip. And lastly, 'think global and act local' should be the motto for a vernacular journalist. It can only be possible if apart from own language, we know either Hindi or English reasonably well so as to be able to communicate with all and sundry.

The only lesson that I might have for the Govt of Manipur is development. Despite threats by terrorists, development can continue, roads can be constructed, railways network can be extended and new projects for power generation can be initiated. It is happening in Jammu and Kashmir. If excellent roads can come up in an extremely inhospitable terrain like Ladakh, there is no reason for such a sorry state here.

While I could see a barrage of flyovers in the city from Jammu Press Club, the only flyover in Imphal in Uripok-BT road will be more of a death trap whenever thrown open as rather than avoiding congestion and ensuring smooth flow of traffic for which the flyovers are meant, the one here will do just the opposite. It is a sheer waste of taxpayers' money.

Once convinced as to what is best for people, the Govt of the day should go whole hog despite oppositions by various groups which in any case are dime a dozen in Manipur and a discredited lot who are pulling the State reward. A bit of commitment and honesty from the State Govt and sincerity from the Centre to monitor the developmental project and ensure that the funds are not siphoned of can reverse the tide.

And with all sincerity and humility, let me also have to say something to men in uniform who brave not only the terrorist threat but inclement weather as well. We interacted with plenty of officers, often informally. It was indeed music when more and younger officers were not only upfront but aware of human rights and respect that a soldier must accord to every citizen while doing the unpleasant task of frisking or cordon and search ops.

It is apparent that the army to a large extent has been able to 'humanize' the officer cadre. I am sure the process would have started from the academies itself. However, the same sensitivity is not demonstrated by JCOs and NCOs. We have experienced it often. Is possible to humanize the rank and file?

And lastly I must thank Sitanshu Kar and Col Sakhuja in MOD who despite a short notice made this visit possible, and of course, DIPR Manipur for monetary assistance. And above all, all the army formation and units in J&K who believed my skepticism as stated earlier that such hospitality is reserved for 'angrezi' media.

We may not be very articulate and may not have the perfect mannerism, but we too are the fourth estate. Though I hold no ill will against them (English press), let me assure you, sirs, it is the vernacular press which is keeping the ethos of journalism alive.

I hope similar warmth will be extended to vernacular press in future as well.

Insha Allah! If all goes well, I will visit J&K again.

S Hemanta wrote this article for The Sangai Express . The writer is Editor of Eikhoigi Panthung and Vice-President of AMWJU (All Manipur Working Journalists' Union) . This article was webcasted on March 15th, 2007 .

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