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In Search Of Modi In Srinagar

By SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF
May 06, 2024 14:14 IST
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It's a different Srinagar from what Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf encountered 24 years ago.

Tourists throng the Kashmir Valley post-Article 370, azaadi appears dead, and everyone says one man is responsible for this change, so what if his poster is nowhere to be seen.

IMAGE: Lal Chowk, Srinagar, with the Tricolour flying high. Photographs: Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com
 

As the plane descends at Srinagar airport, Jayeshbhai pushes me aside in my window seat, stretching out his hand to shoot the scenic Kashmir valley below on his iPhone.

Only a minute ago, the airhostess had announced that no photographs could be shot from the plane due to defence ministry restrictions.

But that does not deter Jayeshbhai even after I remind him of the airhostess's caution.

"Saaru che (beautiful)," says his wife sitting in the aisle seat on seeing the photographs on Jayeshbhai's phone.

The airhostess turns up to warn Jayeshbhai not to shoot photographs or else face the consequences.

This time Jayeshbhai listens. He later tells me he was excited to shoot the photographs because it is his first trip to Kashmir.

"I have travelled across India, to Himachal, Darjeeling, Ooty and Munnar, but I have never saw such scenic beauty in India from a plane," says Jayeshbhai.

I ask why he has never visited Kashmir and pat comes the reply, "Article 370."

Jayeshbhai says he feels safe to travel in Kashmir now after Article 370 was repealed by Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's government in August 2019.

"But Article 370 was repealed five years ago," I tell Jayeshbhai, so why didn't he come visiting all this while.

"I know, but it is only now that I am daring to go because my friends say Kashmir is safe and a haven for tourists."

The prime minister whose achievements are praised by Jayeshbhai is missing in Kashmir.

Elections are a week away, but not a single Modi poster or hoarding greets me outside Srinagar airport.

'Modi Ki Guarantee' hoardings greet you all across Mumbai, but in Srinagar it is difficult to find even one billboard with Modi's image on it.

The logical answer is that the Bharatiya Janata Party is not contesting elections from Srinagar.

But you get the Modi effect when your driver starts talking.

Twenty four years ago when I visited Srinagar, the question taxi drivers at the airport would ask was, "India se aaye ho? (Have you come from India?)"

It was the norm set by the drivers union to make Indians realise that they were not welcome and Kashmir was not a part of India.

But this time the driver asks, "Are you from Bombay?"

I ask what happened to the question drivers used to ask visitors. He laughs and echoes Jayeshbhai: "Article 370."

What about it, I ask. "The people of Kashmir are tired of fighting. And post Article 370 they have realised that violence is not taking them anywhere. So, let us think of a better future for Kashmir."

And the tourism industry has shown the way in the last three years.

According to www.jandktourism.jk.gov.in (external link), the number of tourists who travelled to Jammu and Kashmir was 113,16,484 in 2021. It was 188,84,317 in 2022. And in 2023, including Amarnath yatris, this number was 211,80,011.

The last figure given on the Web site is for March 2024, when 16,25,123 tourists visited the Union Territory.

What happened to azaadi I ask the driver. "The azaadi slogan is as good as dead," he says. "People are tired of fighting. They now want prosperity."

Intrigued by these answers, I get down from the car to buy biscuits and utilise the chance to discuss politics with the shopkeeper. There is little enthusiasm about the election in Srinagar considering that the city votes on Monday next, May 13, I tell him.

"All of Kashmir has realised one fact. What the BJP wants, the BJP gets in Kashmir," the shopkeeper says.

He then points to the Apni Party poster outside his store.

"Watch this man Altaf Bukhari. Apni Party is the BJP's 'B' team in Kashmir. They are contesting the elections on the BJP's behalf and I feel they will win. Sadly for Altaf, Kashmiris do not want to go out and vote because they know their future is not decided by local parties, but by the BJP."

A quick fact check reveals the shopkeeper is right -- there is startlingly low voter turnout in general elections in J&K.

25.55 percent in Srinagar in 2009; 25.86 percent in 2014; a shocking 14.43 percent in 2019.

Dr Farooq Abdullah is the sitting member of Parliament from Srinagar, but the National Conference president has opted out of the elections this time. Aga Ruhulla, a Shia cleric, has replaced him as the National Conference candidate.

A visit to downtown Srinagar makes you realise that the frustration among Kashmiri youth is high because of steep unemployment.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election 90 booths in downtown Srinagar registered zero voting.

And what will it be this time? "Zero once again," states a college-going student and eligible voter.

Does he not see people coming out in numbers to vote because of the influx of tourists and resultant prosperity for Kashmiris?

Without divulging his name, the student says, "Voting in downtown Srinagar is only possible by the brutal force of the Indian Army. Democracy on India Army boots is the only way elections can be conducted in Kashmir. If not, the Army is happy in their tents and we are happy not to come out and vote."

Finally, I spot Modi's image on a wall where it is written, 'Seva Sushashan Gareeb Kalyan'.

IMAGE: The Modi poster spotted at the Bharatiya Janata Party office in Srinagar.

It was the BJP office in Srinagar.

The office is shut, but the watchman guides me to Lal Chowk to see Modi posters.

Lal Chowk, you realise, has become a selfie point for young Kashmiris to take selfies to post on social media.

Here too, there are no Modi posters.

Soldiers are all around, watching the movements of the public.

They are on terraces, in gullies, shops and bunkers.

The Tricolour flies high and young Kashmiris click photos with gusto at Lal Chowk.

Lal Chowk is where a 41-year-old Modi accompanied then BJP president Dr Murli Manohar Joshi in January 1992 on a Tiranga Yatra to hoist the Tricolour amid terrorist threats.

It is where separatists hoisted the Pakistan flag in 1989 declaring Independence from India.

Thirty five years later. the Tiranga is hoisted from dawn to dusk and Pakistan flags have disappeared from Srinagar.

"Everyone in Srinagar knows why the Indian flag is flying high at Lal Chowk," says the driver, "even though his pictures are missing this election in Srinagar."

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SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF / Rediff.com in Srinagar