Finding Srinagar’s geography of peace

The summer capital is undergoing a massive physical makeover. But its spirit remains troubled.

Srinagar is a city in unrelieved ferment. It has no normal routine, living in hard-won gasps of normalcy, hour-to-hour or, at best, week-to-week. The raging guns may be muted now, but 20 years since the violence began anew, this picturesque summer capital of Kashmir remains a troubled place. The city's life cycle begins on Friday, as soon as the booming loudspeakers of the Grand Mosque in downtown Nowhatta Chowk go silent, after the weekly afternoon prayer. Suddenly, crowds of angry youths flood out of the nearby lanes; armed with stones and broken bricks, they take on the police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Almost instantly, this old quarter of the city closes down. By evening, the trouble has already radiated outwards.

The people of Srinagar consider themselves lucky if the situation calms down by the end of the day – with a few injuries on both sides, of course. But a death of any kind wreaks havoc. It sets off a fresh wave of protests, even a shutdown or two, which extends over the rest of the week. The result is more killings, more protests. The cycle goes on. If stone-peltings cease, the strikes take over, sometimes a full, uninterrupted week of them with barely a shop open or a passenger vehicle plying the roads. Recovering from the mayhem of the past two decades, Srinagar is struggling to find its moorings, all the while continuing to live amid the echoes of the immediate past and the call of an uncertain future. It is not that change has not visited the city, but the transformations have primarily been of a physical nature.

Today, there are dozens of large shopping complexes sprouting up, as if born out of a pent-up urge to break out of the mass decay of the crumbling old structures. Along the major streets of Residency Road, a brand-new facade over the pre-existing shopping complexes has lent a new gloss to the city. Some larger changes have also been made, such as the remaking of a large portion of the Jhelum embankment into a chinar tree-shaded riverside park. This facelift has somewhat restored the famous boulevard along the river to its past colonial glory. The Bund, as the boulevard is locally called, is a famous Jhelum-side feature of the city, a darling of tourists. The mooring site of the Kashmir Valley's first houseboats, in its heyday it was considered the Oriental challenge to Venice. Indeed, even Muhammad Ali Jinnah kept his houseboat here during his visit to Srinagar in 1936. For many years, well into the 1970s, the Bund enjoyed the privileged status as the starting point for visiting dignitaries' boat rides. But the militancy was eventually to render the Bund out of bounds for the people as well as the government, leaving houseboat owners and nearby dwellers free to encroach on it.

With the situation in recent times normalising somewhat, however, the government has since 2005 been restoring the Bund to some of its old glory. Today, the shanties on the banks of the Jhelum have been razed, revealing an uninhibited view of the ancient river, and triggering nostalgia for many. In many ways, the renovation drive is a search for the vintage Srinagar – for a time when all was serene. Some call this a bid for the restoration of the once-familiar geography of peace. There have been other changes, too. A portion of Eidgah, the Valley's largest prayer ground, close to Martyr's Graveyard, has also been turned into a park, as has the old almond garden on the banks of Dal Lake. Similarly, Ghulam Nabi Azad, in his imagined role as a Mughal emperor, also built a tulip garden in the foothills of the Zabarwan hills during his three-year term as chief minister, which ended in 2008.

New old city
Srinagar has rarely been short of gardens, anyway. Chinar-shaded Mughal retreats such as the Chashma Shahi, Nishat and Shalimar, which ring Dal Lake, remain famous haunts. In stark contrast to the violent 1990s, when these would generally be deserted, the gardens today teem with people from Valley. Several other places continue to steep the city in its history, including the fortress on Hari Parbat, built by Afghan Governor Atta Muhammad Khan in 1808; Pari Mahal (the Palace of Fairies), built by Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh in the mid-17th century; and the ancient temple of Shankaracharya, located atop the ridges around the lake.

Indeed, today Srinagar sits uneasily amid its past, the turbulent present and a belated rush towards the future. Even in the midst of the unrest, acre upon acre of new colonies have been built on the city's outskirts, completely transforming this urban area and spawning an unprecedented real-estate boom. Land in posh colonies such as Peerbagh, Rawalpora, Humahama and Hydepora goes for more than INR 6 million a kanal, about 506 square metres. Ten years ago, the land in the same colonies would have been less than a sixth of that. Local developers have jumped into the fray in a big way, building flats and residential colonies to tap into the large-scale militancy-triggered migrations into the city from the countryside.

Inevitably, the city's demography has been altered in the process. Without asserting itself in any conspicuous way, a shiny new Srinagar is coming up alongside areas that are populated mostly by rural migrants; this new area is aspiring to become the new political and commercial hub. It is home to Srinagar Airport – recently upgraded to international status – and a newly laid out railway track, in addition to government offices and an industrial cluster at Sanat Nagar. The city's infrastructure is certainly a work in progress, albeit one that has received some focused attention in the recent past. Roads, already witness to a burgeoning load of the traffic are being metalled, even widened. Electricity supply is also better, though it tapers off in the winter when low water levels in the Jhelum chokes power generation.

Srinagar's transformation from a physically ravaged city into an increasingly glossy one is also taking place in its bazaars – some gutted remains of buildings, including the city's oldest cinema hall, Pladium, notwithstanding. In the recent past, trendy malls have come up, together with the refurbishing of rundown establishments. A vivacious new city has emerged. The change has had a distinct effect on the life in the city, particularly for the new professional class of bankers, business executives, computer engineers and doctors, who make up the conspicuous clientele of an assortment of new high-end cafes, restaurants and malls. Still steeped in the hangover of the 1990s, downtown Srinagar, on the other hand, has exhibited a dread of this physical transformation. Along its congested streets, tinted-glass buildings are covered in tarpaulin. In many cases, the shiny exteriors of the new structures have been peeled off and been wrought afresh in furtive iron grillwork, to escape the notice of an angry new generation.

Years of living in the company of Kalashnikovs and expanding graveyards have associated guilt with any normal political activity. Indeed, most residents see any form of political engagement as a betrayal of the people who died fighting the very system. As such, the city built by Emperor Ashoka during third century BC is today in no mood to forget or move on. Ishaq Khan, a noted historian, says this behaviour is not necessarily exceptional, as "public memory in the urban milieus takes longer to fade than in ruralscapes." Defining cities as "the vanguard of any political struggle", Khan explains that people in urban areas are more "politically conscious, which gives them a more durable view of things." But Srinagar, Khan continues, has a deeper memory, as it is an ancient city, which is why "it has survived, flourished", rather than simply crumbling. "There have been many ancient cities in the world," he says. "But the distinction of Srinagar lies in that it is among the very few which have withstood the ravages of time. This shows an inherent resilience of Srinagar – a deeper, irrepressible spirit".

Khan's arguments may help to explain why Srinagar has continued to be the separatist boycott base during election time, while azadi and democratic participation have generally gone hand-in-hand in the countryside. But even though the militancy has died down – though it does reappear in occasional grenade bursts, or the killing of security personnel – there is today little change in the way the city functions. The exception, of course, is during curfews, when life goes silent in an eerie throwback to the 1990s. Over the course of the past year, Srinagar has witnessed the ascent of a new curfew regime, with tough security measures having often been imposed over every call for the protest by the separatists.

There is a redeeming difference to the environment, though: Srinagar is no longer witness to the dramatic fidayeen attacks in broad daylight, suicide bombers, or the periodic assassination sprees targeting policemen. There are also fewer deaths while in custody or in fake encounters. Underneath this progress, however, at least for the moment, the political culture that has been picked up along the way continues to persist. Srinagar will continue to plod along to its old, volatile tune. The difference is that new roads, fountains and parks are springing up to bear witness.

~ Riyaz Wani is a journalist based in Kashmir.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian