Speaking at Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the media for its coverage of the first anniversary of the surgical strikes. These strikes were conducted in the aftermath of the Uri camp attack which led to the death of 18 army personnel on September 18 last year.
Incidentally, even as the PM was speaking, security personnel in Srinagar were responding to a boisterous attempt by three terrorists to script another Uri-like attack. They targeted the battalion headquarters of the Border Security Force (BSF) where close to 200 personnel and their families were present.
In the year gone by, several such attempts have been made by the terrorists. The surgical strikes, one can say, have neither deterred them nor their Pakistan-based handlers.
Yet none of this came in the way of ‘celebrating’ the operation.
Did anyone ask if all measures to prevent such Uri-like camp intrusions had been implemented? If yes, why are they still taking place? If they haven’t been implemented then why so?
These strikes were meant to be yet another option in deterring Pakistan from aiding and abetting terrorism in Kashmir. What are the other options? How have we implemented them? What happened to the question of delivering better governance in the state which to my mind is the biggest step in coming closer to solving quagmire?
For one, Delhi claims it has refined the counter-terror mechanism in Kashmir because of which it has achieved more terrorist kills in comparison to previous years. Adding to the argument, those on the ground insist the present year is a calmer one (167 violent incidents recorded till June 30, 2017) coming after 322 recorded incidents – highest in the last five years – in 2016. A senior officer in Srinagar reasoned, “We are controlling better, more tightly than before.”
Along the Line of Control (LoC), the surgical strikes were followed by a severe intensification of cross-LoC firing. The 449 ceasefire violations in 2016, bulk of which were recorded in the aftermath of the surgical strikes, consumed the lives of seven security personnel (not to speak of those 29,000 who had been temporarily displaced or the civilians who’ve been hit, killed or lost property). Interestingly, if you are to keep the casualties in the months of October and November of last year aside, data between April 2016 and March 2017 shows India only lost two service personnel in the firing.
But this isn’t all that happened.
A PRS Legislative Research Jammu and Kashmir Budget analysis of 2017-18 tells us that investment in the state which amounted for Rs 4866 crore from 2009-10 to 2014-15, averaging Rs 973 crore a year, slowed down to Rs 267 crore in 2015-16. What does that mean on the ground? Rate of unemployment for persons between 18-29 years of age in the state hovered at 24.6 per cent when the national average was 13.2 per cent. Among persons between 15-17 years of age, it was at 57.7 per cent when the corresponding national average was 19.8 per cent.
State’s Finance Minister Haseeb A Drabu, on January 11, 2017, made an insightful comment when he said, “Unemployment is a social issue of serious magnitude in the state. Even as the rate of unemployment is supposed to be very high in the state, we do not have actual figures” (http://jakfinance.nic.in/Budget17/speechEng.pdf)
Two recent news reports from Srinagar caught my eye.
The Indian Express reported on October 4 that ‘schools, especially higher secondary ones, have been open for a little more than hundred days throughout the 11-month session so far. It is the second consecutive year that schools in the valley have remained shut for most part of the academic session’. Day after, Hindustan Times quoted, ‘Combined cases of drug abuse and related psychological issues also went up from more than 14,500 cases in 2014 to 33,222 in 2016, a staggering 130% increase in two years. This year till April alone, this number is 13,352’.
Did Delhi and Srinagar face any questions over this?
When I tried finding out a voice on the ground to understand the human story from these numbers, I bumped into Muneeb Mir (37), a businessman operating from Pampore. He said, “We see the iron fist of the government, we see a return to the cordon and search approach we thought we had last seen in the 90s. We understand it helps the rightist agenda of the government to be seen as muscular but what really worries us is this – earlier the narrative of the government was one thing and the narrative of the people the other. Today that line has blurred and this dominating rightist narrative worries us.”
Speaking of anniversaries, it was in October 1947 that Jammu and Kashmir’s erstwhile ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession, paving the way for the state to become a part of India. An undated letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to Hari Singh published in Ramachandra Guha’s seminal ‘India After Gandhi’ carried the following text:
“Even if military forces held Kashmir for a while, a later consequence might be a strong reaction against this. Essentially, therefore, this is a problem of psychological approach to the mass of the people and of making them feel they will be benefited by being in the Indian Union. If the average Muslim feels that he has no safe or secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere. Our basic policy must keep this in view, or else we fail”.
A discussion involving a trip to India’s north eastern region often stalls on two grounds – poor connectivity and the lack of availability of vegetarian food options. If you read this piece, perhaps you will raise your hand and beg to differ the next time you find yourself amidst such talk.
Meghalaya is known to most Indians as the Sanskrit term for ‘the abode of clouds’. Flanked by the state of Assam to its north and east and Bangladesh to its south and west, this cool, clean, calm and captivating destination needs no endorsement.
Our story begins differently. For us, Meghalaya was never the option.
Troubled by the unending strife in Jammu and Kashmir, we began looking for alternatives as the date came closer. While most destinations were ‘out of bounds’ because of the rainy season, Meghalaya was ‘open’ exactly on that account.
Since Meghalaya has no full-fledged airport (Shillong has one which does not operate regular flights), we took a flight to Guwahati. Upon landing, we hit the National Highway (NH) 40 which connects the city to Silchar (also in Assam), poking in and out of Meghalaya along the way. The joy in driving on a road like this was soon upon us – Assam was on one side of the highway and Meghalaya on the opposite. While at the former’s end there was nothing but homes and wilderness, the latter’s side brimmed with activity, petrol pumps, liquor shops and commercial enterprises to which people were flocking to. “Thanks to the lower taxes in Meghalaya, the Assamese cross the highway to make purchases,” explained our driver.
As the highway snaked out of Guwahati, chaotic streets, bogged down with vehicles gave way to a well-made, four-lane highway dotted with a sheet of tall, slender and distinct-appearing betel nut plantations on both sides. Cute, colourful stalls set up by locals selling organically-grown pineapple, banana and home-made pickles jostled for space in the lush landscape.
For those who may want to schedule a meal along the route, wait for Byrnihat, a town along the NH40. Our driver led us to a restaurant called ‘JIVA’ which served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive. We’d happily recommend it to anyone.
As the sun was receding, we were inching closer to Shillong.
Whatever little we saw of it, we did not like. Narrow streets, endless traffic, littering and a town appearing quite worn down, it definitely was anything but love at first sight.
Meanwhile, our destination was a place few haven’t heard about – Cherrapunjee.
With the altitude rising, the road thinned out. The low-hanging clouds reduced the visibility. Does that cause a worry? Peek out of the window into the neatly-built colourful homes and the abundant fruit-bearing trees. For a ten rupee note, the locals will even allow you to pluck a few, juicy wood apples.
The chill was setting in. The rainfall, however, was nowhere around.
At the end of a seven hour-long road ride, we broke the journey 15km from Sohra, the name the locals use for Cherrapunjee. At the base of the town is a hamlet called Laitkynsen and in the wilderness there is the simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort where we stayed. All we needed was a warm wash, a simple meal and a bed to call it a day.
The next day was slated for ‘sight-seeing’ (not a term we fancy too much).
Sohra, by the virtue of its heritage, by now has a list of places to see which includes waterfalls, vantage points, caves, churches dating back to the 19th century and gardens. If you find yourself interested in these, make sure you do not venture out around the weekend as the rush can be immense as we found out. Of all the places, we enjoyed our time at the sprawling Arwah Lumshynna cave complex the most.
We gathered that the villagers in Laitkynsen were developing a bridge by entwining trunks of betel nut trees or bamboos with living roots of the Indian rubber tree (botanical name: Ficus Elastica). It isn’t as easy though. Apart from leaving matters undisturbed, it can anywhere between ten to fifteen years for even a small section of those roots to firm up. However those in Meghalaya aware of the state’s rising tourism profile are realising it is an investment worth the wait.
The locals, from the Khasi tribe are gentle though largely inward-looking. From our discussions with the resort owner (a Tamilian born in Meghalaya), we learned how they were initially against the idea of letting tourists come closer. “They were happy selling potato chips and waving good bye to tourists but we are trying to make them realise the worth of what they have here,” he said. He began his resort after fierce opposition in 1998 and has employed several villagers in full and part time roles.
We welcomed the cool evening with some wafers and coffee. As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors this time in the company of a shy lot of local musicians who strummed up some wonderful melodies only for us.
The next morning we bid the staff farewell and began our journey for Tyrna. This village was the starting point for a trek up to the wonder called the ‘Double Decker Living Root Bridge’. As the name suggests, it is a two-tier bridge made of living roots which spans a waterfall. Located in a village which goes by the name Nongriat, the route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.
The villagers have built wide steps out of concrete which is good and bad – good since it is easier to navigate and bad because the rains can make the surface slippery. Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings! Our companions, apart from each other, were bamboo sticks – a must for hikers – which we rented from the “Bros N Two Sis’s Shop” for Rs 20 each. (This shop is closed on Sunday, by the way).
Once in Nongriat, where the locals utilised their time in making and selling honey, we couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us.
To our advantage, we learnt our home-stay was hardly ten steps away from the double decker! Some hot ‘chowmein’ into our bellies, we spent the next few hours swimming in the gentle pool of the waterfall or reading and relaxing by it. The comfort and facilities on offer were minimal. There was another couple in there with who we exchanged notes about our exploration hitherto.
For all its allure, life in Nongriat was hardly as good. With no roads, no market or even a medical facility, just about everything in the village meant trekking nearly 5-6 hours in and out of Sohra. “Everything has to be carried on one’s back. If someone falls ill, things become really difficult”, said Charlie, who owned that home-stay.
There are trekking destinations further from Nongriat however our schedule did not permit us to undertake them. So we lazed around longer and then started back to Sohra. It was drizzling and it made our journey muggier. However, we were back where we started this time completing the route in less than two hours!
We were definitely hungry by now!
An ever-smiling Uttam Koch was the manager at Nalgre’s restaurant, a by-the-road eatery in Sohra. The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food. Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to. Mr Koch, on the day we were leaving Sohra, told us he was building rooms to stay in which would be ready soon.
Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to.
The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food.
Our journey thereon turned eastwards.
Heard of Mawlynnong? A Google search will tell you it is a known destination in Meghalaya because of the tag it earned – that of being, “Asia’s cleanest village”. None of the locals could explain the antecedents of this tag but more on that later.
Brightly-coloured bungalows, both big and small, neat streets, roads lined by pretty, flower-bearing plants – it looked like a postcard. We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.
About 2-3km from Mawlynnong is Riwai and its living root bridges. The reason Riwai stands out is because that is where we learnt that the locals would charge us money to enter the village and funnel a major chunk of earning into beautification and maintenance. “The government doesn’t come into the picture. The better we maintain, the more tourists come and better we earn,” said a villager.
The manager of our home-stay, a college drop-out named Khrew was a talkative fellow. At our request, he called in the newly-elected village headman of Mawlynnong. “We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule. While most people clean their homes and surroundings, everyday a fixed number of us also do community cleaning,” he said. When we quizzed him about the title of cleanest village, he replied, “Ah you can do Google search. Even I am not sure”.
It no longer matters.
Mawlynnong, which even found a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio talk in 2015, already has its hands full. There aren’t enough home-stays to accommodate tourists. The road, Khrew told us, “Needs to be widened for so many vehicles coming everyday”.
Dawki is a border town on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border and located at an hour’s drive from Mawlynnong. Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, this town has nothing remarkable to offer. We particularly recall the pathetic state of roads, the resulting dust and catching glimpses of the people in the corresponding town across the border. Of interest to us was a village, 8km from the town, which went by the name Shnongpdeng. The village is located on the banks of the Umngot river which we heard flowed with crystal-like clear waters. The bumpy ride turned out fruitless as heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit. Anyway, we hired a boat and the 30-minute exploratory ride even though under the 12 noon sun, turned out an enjoyable experience.
On our way back we crossed many posts manned by personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF). The name of one such post struck me and we stopped our car. Pyrdiwah was the first in a series of Indo-Bangladeshi border posts involved in skirmishes in the summer of 2001 which led to the loss of 16 BSF men. Back then Bangladesh forces walked in and claimed the post. Happy to report that today not only does an Indian flag fly atop but also the BSF reported very cordial ties with their Bangladeshi counterparts. One point to ponder about though – the BSF, raised in 1965 and stationed there for decades, still operates out of tin roofs and shanty-like structures. The government hasn’t been able to acquire land for them or build decent facilities. When we were around, the temperature in those tin-structures felt way higher than outside. Couple this with the earlier-mentioned condition of the road in such a sensitive region. Questions our nationalistic netas must answer.
Back in Mawlynnong, we noted the sun’s descent from the confines of an open to air wooden gallery, a part of a tree house where also greeting us were gentle strokes of cool breeze. To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.
Those in Mawlynnong have always lived a quiet and compartmentalised life, we were told. Notwithstanding the influx of tourists, six days of the week are alike even today. On Sunday, time is devoted to the church and community issues.
Something we had not encountered before – the place of our stay, (a home-stay by the name ‘Ilajong’ which means my own), had a lake in the middle. “Anyone can come, pay us Rs 100 and fish in this water”, said the owner.
Our stay in rural Meghalaya came to a close. Before we reached Guwahati for our flight back home, we wanted to closer look at the capital, the hill city we’d earlier crossed en route Sohra.
Rejecting the ‘to-do’ list, we gave Shillong Peak and Elephant Falls a miss and headed to the shopping zone of ‘Police Bazaar’, located in the heart of the city. The prices are negotiable especially where handicrafts are concerned and for about Rs 2500 we purchased a hell lot of material. Lots of restaurants offering varying cuisines, including the local Khasi, are co-located so the meals were taken care of.
Once done, we checked into an old, large bungalow in a quiet corner of the city. In addition to an affable air about it, Bo-ville also had a small garden and a fireplace.
At sundown on that Saturday evening, some research online showed Café Shillong Heritage, perched atop a hill overlooking the hill town, as the place to be. We did enjoy the fare but the ambience, the live performance left a lot to be desired.
Our last morning was meant to take us to a village by the name Laitlum outside of which was said to lay the most breathtaking place Shillong had to offer – the canyons of Laitlum. An hour’s drive from the city, we reached early in the morning, thanks to the humble staff at Bo-ville who packed in some hot parathas and tea for us.
Green, vast meadows, views of endless mountains emptying into a splendid valley, low-hanging clouds, plants and insects of a magnificent variety and a tiny village at the bottom as our destination, the trek at Laitlum could not have been more welcoming. The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery. A couple of close calls and mounting pressure on our knees, we decided to call of the trek. That was not the time.
Of course the villagers used that route daily for supplies. There was in fact a rickety pulley from bottom to top so as to lug their heavier items.
In a state known for its spices and condiments, a visit to Shillong’s Bada Bazaar, howsoever damp and filthy a place it may be is a must. And thus when we reached there, we returned with lots of spices and of course the famous Khasi red rice.
On our final evening, we did not want to leave the quiet environs of Bo-ville. Sitting in the porch with coffee and the puttering of raindrops on the roof punctuating the conversation, we relived the minutes, the hours and days we’d spent in the lovely state of Meghalaya.
This journey was made in August 2016
The essay you read is based on handwritten notes made along the journey
We’d reached out to GREENER PASTURES for organising this trip for us. Their service we found was reliable and flexible even to last-minute changes. Mr Bornav was our contact. (+918404002125/+919435747471/www.thegreenerpastures.com)