Face of Hope Reflects Calm in Kashmir

NEW DELHI — There was the smell of hay and soil in the crowded village hall in the Kashmir Valley. The men were on plastic chairs in the front rows, and the women were in the back ones. The doorway was packed with adolescent boys and young men with fierce, translucent eyes. The only sound in the room belonged to the speaker, with occasional deep-throated exclamations of men and honest applause of all.

A district magistrate in India usually does not enjoy such attention.

But in this cluster of farming villages on the slopes of a hill, 60 kilometers, or 40 miles, from Srinagar, a city of paradisiacal beauty and the capital of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, people will listen with great care to any man who tells them how he plans to bring roads, electricity, jobs and good schools to their villages, which have been impoverished by decades of strife.

In recent times, especially the last year, there has been relative calm in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, a mostly Muslim region held by India and claimed by Pakistan. The attacks of militants demanding that the region be removed from India’s control have abated after nearly two decades of violence. Local support for the militants has diminished considerably, although the desire for freedom from India and to become a sovereign republic has not, nor has hatred for the Indian Army, which has a formidable presence here.

Facing the villagers in the hall was one of Kashmir’s stars, the 29-year-old deputy district magistrate, Dr. Shah Faesal, who has a degree in medicine. Almost everybody in Kashmir is beautiful, and Dr. Faesal’s clean, studious, good-boy charms are somewhat unremarkable in this room.

What made him the center of attention is the fact that two years ago, he ranked first among more than half a million candidates in the Union Public Service Commission examination, one of the most prestigious in India. Dr. Faesal was the first Kashmiri to top the civil service exam, an achievement that brought a procession of ecstatic, drum-beating people to his home when news broke on television channels.

When it was Dr. Faesal’s turn to speak to the gathering, there was spirited applause. A young woman, a local journalist whose head was covered, blushed as she stood holding a recording device close to his face. She almost never met his eyes through the course of his speech.

Dr. Faesal has a firm but reverent style of speaking. He told me after the meeting: “I respect everyone. It is very useful to be that way, but I am not putting on an act. I address every person I meet as ‘Sir,’ including the village women. They love it when I call them ‘Sir,’ and they start laughing. Nobody has ever called them that.”

He said that the recent period of peace in the region was not a window of deceptive calm, but the first sign that common sense was finally winning. He wants to make the most of it to bring development to Kashmir’s poor.

Vivanta by Taj, one of the two five-star hotels in Srinagar, is an immediate beneficiary of peace. The hotel is set on top of a hill of tulips and ancient trees and is surrounded by great, snow-capped mountains. It is guarded like a fortress by armed men, but many of its defenses are not visible to the pampered guests.

A security official, who had undergone a month’s counterterrorism training in Israel, told me that the hotel had its own intelligence gathering system, which includes using a network of local residents for information about anything unusual in their neighborhood.

It had been about 10 months since the hotel opened, and all its 48 operational rooms were booked, even though February was not peak season in Srinagar. The revival of the tourism business is evident all over Srinagar. Honeymooning couples from across India are arriving in droves, confident that they will return alive.

The simplicity of peace can end at any moment in Kashmir. There can be another attack by militants, or street protests of Kashmiris against the Indian Army that can last days. But the people here are growing confident that this may be a new beginning they had wished for.

The restaurants and cafes are filled with happy conversations. The joy is visible in the people walking down the streets, many of whom look pregnant because they are holding, under their long checked robes, a cane-wrapped pot filled with burning embers of coals to keep warm. They are so used to it that they, including Dr. Faesal, can go to sleep with the pot of red coal between their legs.

When the meeting in the village hall was over, some elders, the district magistrate and Dr. Faesal went upstairs for a feast. There were huge pieces of fried river carp, and chicken and lamb, which the men tore into with both hands, their fingers growing luminous with oil. And they boisterously discussed things to be done in the villages.

Dr. Faesal has a cheerful face even though his life has been marked by tragedies that are common to thousands of Kashmiris. His father, a schoolteacher who spoke against violence, was killed by unidentified gunmen a decade ago. Before that, Dr. Faesal’s father was one of the thousands of Kashmiris who were routinely humiliated by the Indian Army, he said.

“Once, after a terrorist strike, the army just picked up some men in revenge and beat them up,” he said. “My father was among them.”

According to Dr. Faesal, his father was also forced to recite a Hindu chant, “Ram, Ram.”

After the meal, the district magistrate left in a car that had a red light on it, and he was followed by armed guards and an old, battered ambulance, which had nothing in it but a narrow bed. It might as well have been a hearse. As the ambulance made its way through the unpaved village lane, two little girls mimicked the sound of the ambulance siren.

During the long years of conflict here, that had been the predominant sound of childhood.

Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel “Serious Men.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/world/asia/01iht-letter01.html?_r=1