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Value my Severed Head

It was difficult not to feel a misplaced but grotesquely perverse sense of pride following the discovery that my severed head was of more value to the militants than that of a government cabinet minister, and also worth marginally more than that of one of Kashmir’s most feared men, S, head of the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB). It was also difficult not to feel anxious about whether there would really be any need to use the machine gun in my bedroom, placed there, so I was told, in case militants stormed the house in the middle of the night.

However, the greatest struggle was trying to comprehend what the hell I was doing as a personal guest of S, drinking tea with him on the expansive lawn of his house in Srinagar, Kashmir. This was a man who not only had the authority and power to have someone driven over the edge of a cliff, no questions asked, but who had also, so I was told, had invoked the questionable privilege a number of times.

Rationally of course I knew how I had got there, picked up in an armour plated Ambassador from the airport. But the unexpected events of the previous few months had unfurled at such a breakneck speed I was still reeling and it was hardly surprising that I felt bemused at finding myself in such surroundings and wondering what kind of kick there was from an AK 47

I had arrived in India about six months earlier with the aim of making a photographic record of the life that teems in and around New Delhi station and also drawn by the curiosity of watching an Indian friend from London, Sukhi, find himself a wife. As he crept past 30 years of age his mother and sisters descended on him like birds pecking at freshly sown seeds pointing to his thinning scalp as immutable evidence that if he did not find a wife soon he was doomed to live a forlorn and lonely life bereft of any consolation. Of course I attempted to convince him otherwise but discovered I was not only wrangling with a friend but centuries of Hindu tradition too. It was no contest. Unsurprisingly he did find a wife and surprisingly so did I when I wasn’t even looking.

However, that’s another story, but it was thanks to my newly acquired brother in law, Naveen, and his mysterious IB contacts, that I was now pondering the terrain that bordered S’s wire ringed garden to see if it was possible for mujhadeen to creep up on the house undetected, while listening to tales of their moral depravity. For instance the militant who gave an unwitting child a bag loaded with a bomb and directed him to a restaurant where it went off causing a massacre, blowing the child to bits too. According to S the militants were as much in interested in financial gain as they were political and religious gain: “They have an extensive wireless network throughout the region and when they have made a killing we listen in to them chattering about how much they have made.”

This is where my head came into it. Apparently Americans top the list with a value of one lakh rupees, approximately £1,500. They gained top ranking because of the FBI’s insistence on placing Osama Bin Laden number on one its most wanted list. Europeans came in at 50,000 rupees close to £700 and government ministers and S were worth around 35,000 rupees. The values then descended on a sliding scale according to the rank of the victim, with a policeman worth about 7000 rupees or a mere £100 or so and ordinary Hindu’s bringing up the rump.

When S was telling me this I was quietly sceptical. After working as a business journalist for long enough to learn that most people in a position of power or authority have an agenda I realised that he may have been hoping that I would take the bait and scuttle back to the UK with tales of nefarious deeds financed from the mosques of Birmingham, Leicester and London. After all he was adamant that funding for the militants came from three main sources, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UK.

However, one week later I visited a newly acquired family member, Detective Superintendent Kailash Chibber, CID, Jammu – Naveen certainly had contacts – who not only corroborated but also elaborated. The militants families in Pakistan received a one off payment when their kin went into Kashmir and their tour of duty lasted for about 18 months. Any killings, kidnappings, decapitations earned them bonus payments and if they survived they also received another payment. This information was extracted from captured militants many of whom, according to Chibber, were weary of the militant life and wanted to give it up.

Chibber lived in a large compound near Jammu railway station, exclusively for police officers and their families. The day after arriving a rapid ‘thak thak thak’ sound came from the direction of the station. Four militants had got off a train as it was pulling in and machine-gunned seven people waiting on the platform before they were in turn killed. The entrances to the compound were quickly sealed off and people were prevented from entering while police rushed out. It was then that I understood why Chibber’s wife chattered incessantly, she was not an incorrigable gossip, she was actually very frightened and understood only too well that she and her family were prime targets.

S, however, made light of the militants. He told Naveen, my wife Shabnam and I not to get too close to army vehicles or personnel as they were most often the targets and also to get back before darkness descended. This was not as easy as it sounds given that the presence of the Indian army in Kashmir, and particularly Srinagar, is so ubiquitous that it resembles an army of occupation. This impression is reinforced by the atmosphere that pervades Srinagar, it’s like a Pakistani town. There are no Hindu temples or Sikh gurdwara’s, no English, Hindi or Punjabi writing on the side of buses or outside shops, nothing that bears witness to it being an Indian city, only mosques and Urdu, framed pictures of anonymous and fierce looking mullahs and the cries of the mussein calling the populace to prayer while the Indian soldiers look on nervously. There is the Hindu Shankarachrya Temple, dedicated to Shiva and said to have been built in 2,600 BC, which sits on top of a 1,000 foot hill that overlooks the city. However, given its prominence both symbolically and physically, one side of the hill virtually drops into the back garden of chief minister Farookh Abdullah and garden’s of other prominent dignitaries, it is heavily guarded and not accessed easily.

Bolstered by the presence of our own personal bodyguard, Gurinder, who alarmingly appeared very sleepy for most of the time, the day after arriving we ventured down to the side of the famous Dal Lake. Like bees to honey, we hired a shikara to glide across the placid waters and surprisingly encountered a handful of Western tourists staying in houseboats. I was surprised to see them given that Kashmir has been dubbed the most dangerous place in the world but perhaps that was part of the attraction and perhaps they would have been surprised to discover that some of the men who plied their trade on the shikara’s, according to S were also local militants. During the course of his explanation to me about the Kashmir situation he explained that broadly speaking there were two types of militants, the indigenous local’s who had their birth and their being in the valley and those shipped over from Pakistan. Apparently these also included Taliban, a fact that the Indian Army had discovered several years earlier after one particularly fierce battle. During the normal course of events these shoot outs would last for about four hours until the militants were killed, captured or surrendered. However, this gunfight went on for eighteen hours before the militants were done for. It was then the Indian soldiers discovered they were Taliban, battle hardened in the fiery wastes of Afghanistan.

The lakeside was also busy with Hindu families, excited and happy at the prospect of visiting the holy mountain shrine at Armanath and driven by the fervour of their devotion to the deities Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha whose naturally formed images in the holy cave can only be viewed on a full noon night in July/August. Several days after watching these families enjoy a happy interlude in Srinagar, pilgrims on the high mountain track to the holy cave were ambushed and seven killed. Once the news filtered down to Srinagar, the Hindu families quickly fled the lakeside leaving a sad emptiness which was made more poignant by the fact that their journey’s had been motivated by a love and devotion to their belief in the subtle and ethereal and their departure forced by the brutal physical ugliness of terrorism.

In the late afternoon Shabnam and I went to visit Nishat Bagh a popular Moghul garden at the north end of Dal Lake. Leaving Gurinder and the armoured Ambassador, we began strolling through the garden which is laid out in a series of ten terraces each one higher then the other and with a canal running through the centre dropping from terrace to terrace in a series of cascades. As we neared the back of the garden two local girls came up, gave Shabnam some flowers and began making pointed and flattering comments about her. I noticed what I assumed to be their brothers who were staring intensely for several minutes before they joined us. The chatter went on for about ten minutes and feeling bored and hungry I urged Shabnam to leave. The foursome insisted on tagging along until we neared the entrance when they retreated back into the garden. When I asked her what they were talking about she said they wanted us to come back to their house for something to eat. However, despite Shabnam’s insistence they would not say where they lived and insisted that we leave immediately for their house.

It was a curious but not uncommon episode for India, however what was slightly jarring and cast a shadow over what may have been an innocent approach was the fact that some Europeans had been kidnapped in Nishat Bagh several years earlier, never to be seen again until one decapitated torso turned up in the mountains. Kidnapping in the region is not uncommon and it doesn’t take the form of a sack-cloth thrust over the head and a gun in the back, that comes later.

The following day we set out for Golmarg, about 35 miles out of Srinagar and three miles from the line of control. On the road to Golmarg, the Indian army is evident at every major road junction, cluster of buildings and village. Encamped behind sandbagged enclosures and protected by nets designed to avert hand grenade attacks the sense of an army of occupation is strongly reinforced. An Indian sadhu, decked out in the mandatory orange robes and walking down a long and empty road appeared strangely out of place as though he had taken the wrong direction about a thousand miles earlier.

The Meadow of Flowers, as Golmarg is otherwise known, is a vast valley surrounded by soaring mountains, forests and lush green slopes and was once a popular tourist destination. However, since the troubles began it has steadily declined; one hotel was falling apart, doors were unlocked, window shutters flapped in the breeze and squatters ponies wandered around and through the porches. But at the gondola base station, which takes visitors to the top of a ski slope, there was a thriving crowd of locals clustered around food and chai stalls and some optimistic locals with ponies tethered to a fence offering rides for a few rupees. Declining we took the lift to the top and were met with an imperious and majestic view; a soaring snow peaked mountain streaked with gently contrasting hues of flint grey and girded with a glistening green forest that wrapped itself around the base of the mountain like a belt. Over to the left as far as the eye could see, there were rolling vibrant green and yellow meadows that sparkled with a myriad hues in the sunlight, soothing the eye and calming the mind with a recuperative stillness.

Just beyond the crest of a hill was a shanty wooden food stall, the last and strikingly insignificant sign of human endeavour, in this magnificent and powerful landscape. Feeling the pinch of hunger we headed towards the shack; sitting around a table the gondola station disappeared out of sight obscured by the gently rising crests of the ground. In a moment that required little effort it was easy to imagine that the violence of Kashmir belonged to another realm until Naveen reminded us that the militants were so close their coded communications could easily be picked up on two way radios. No sooner had he informed me of this depressing fact than my attention was caught by a group of five men seated about twenty yards away. And we had caught their attention too.

They seemed very interested in us, looking over simultaneously and putting their heads down in a huddle, they made hand gestures in the direction of the meadows and the forest and then repeated the process while glancing over at us. Intuitively I knew these gestures were not motivated by philanthropic concerns and I feared the worst. Despite the 20 yard distance I could make out their features and despite their spindly frames there was something swaggeringly machismo about them; fags dangling from mouths, hands on hips; something in the psyche of two of them was alarmingly twisted and misshapen. It was a purely subjective perception of course and one which was absorbed in less than a second but I instinctively I knew we had to get away from there and back to within sight of the gondola station. Shabnam felt the same way too while Naveen laconically quipped “militants” while oozing a surreal confidence. However, at my hasty prompting we hurriedly left.

Despite the malign shadow of violence that hangs over Kashmir its beauty is undimmed. Sitting in the Moghul garden Cheshma Shahi at dusk looking over the Dal Lake the overall impression is one of primeval and seductive beauty. A mist rises up from the water casting a shroud over the lake from which thin wisps of smoke curl languidly upwards eventually disappearing into the ether. Lights twinkle from the ornately carved houseboats and its just possible to make out the shadowy sliver of a shikara gliding across the surface. Behind and to the right of the garden the jagged peaks of the mountains are sharply silhouetted by the orange and red sky illuminated by the setting sun. The evening air is thick with the scent of flowers that cluster in the garden and the faint wail of a mussein’s call is carried on a soft and gentle breeze. Variations of this scene can be repeated almost anywhere in Kashmir such is its outstanding natural beauty. But it is this sense of timeless wonder that can act like a drug bringing down an hypnotic veil and obscuring the fact that in the hills and mountains of Kashmir many of its inhabitants are subject to the rule of fear, terror and violence.

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