From ancient times Kashmir has been equated with Paradise. Venice of the East. Eden of the Bible. Paradise on Earth. Switzerland of Asia. In fact, whenever we speak about Kashmir in any international gathering, we call it the “Paradise on Earth” quoting the famous Persian verses, “If there is a Paradise on Earth, It is here, It is here, It is here!” Yes, it is a fact that Kashmir Valley is the most beautiful place on this Earth. The snow clad mountains, the ever green forests with numerous meadows, lakes and rivulets and above all a very salubrious climate have motivated people to equate it with “Paradise”. Kashmir’s beauty unlike the resorts in the west has been wild and natural without any make up, as God created it. Unfortunately, the Paradise has been subjected to so much trouble during last two decades that it has really earned the epithet of a “Troubled Paradise”! The enchanting land is in distress on two counts. Firstly, the Paradise dwellers have been facing so much oppression and turmoil from all sides that they will be the happiest persons to get out of it if they had a chance and the means. They are caught between the devil and the deep sea and are being held hostage between opposing guns. The sight of thousands of soldiers armed to the teeth swarming in their battle fatigues in every nook and corner of the valley does not project an image of heaven. Hundreds of bunkers and pill boxes surrounded by razor sharp barbed wire. Dozens of road blocks and regular frisking is taken as a normal activity. Cordon and search has become a routine which people take in their stride. Nocturnal knocks, thrashing and molestation and sometimes even brutal rapes are a regular menace. Thousands of dwellers have lost their lives. Paradise has now scores of orphans, hundreds of widows and thousands maimed and disfigured. The atrocities continue unabated and the dwellers continue to suffer without end. Kashmiris have been renowned throughout the ages for their hospitality. Almost all the famous explorers and travellers who have passed through the valley have mentioned this trait of Kashmiris in their writings. Any one who came to Kashmir in good faith and with love was always welcomed with open arms. In spite of all the troubles and sufferings of last two decades, Kashmiris continue to retain this positive trait of their character. Visitors from all over India and abroad are still shown the same hospitality which was there before 1990. Kashmiris clearly differentiate between the Government of India and the people of India. The untold atrocities faced by the common people at the hands of Indian security forces have not succeeded in distancing them from the people of India. In fact, in a number of cases Kashmiris have gone out of the way in helping them. In 1996 when hundreds of pilgrims perished during unprecedented blizzards on the Amarnath Yatra trail, it were the Kashmiri villagers who came to their help and sheltered and fed thousands in their own homes. Similarly, whenever any violence was resorted to against the visitors, there was spontaneous massive response of the common people against its perpetrators. People not only abhorred and resented such senseless violent acts but extended immediate succour to the victims and even donated blood for them. Kashmiris have been more eager to receive visitors these days as they can share their grief with them. In fact, a number of visitors in their comments have observed that they had problems with security forces and not with the local people. In the past, Kashmiris had been known to travel through length and breadth of India with their wares especially embroidered shawls. They do travel even now but are not spared harassment as the stamp of being a person of Kashmiri origin brings untold miseries upon him even outside Kashmir. He is suspected and hounded every where. He has to register with local Police where ever he goes and in the event of any untoward incident has to face the music where ever he may be!
In addition to the pitiable condition of the dwellers, the “Paradise” is facing extreme distress of the other kind. The very environment which has made people name it as “Paradise” is facing a dire threat. The shimmering water bodies with crystal clear water, the roaring streams, the flower carpeted meadows, and the lush green forests have all gone. Instead we have stinking ponds, filthy rivers, concretised meadows, and wantonly vandalised forests. It used to be a treat to paddle in the back waters of Dal Lake to see the blooming lotuses and the colourful kingfishers. Now these waters are stinking and full of rubbish of all types. The mushroom growth of weeds does not allow one to paddle in these waters with ease. The only sight is muck and garbage all around. The boat ride on the Jhelum was an experience. Even the erstwhile Maharaja and his distinguished guests would be given a ride in specially designed boats under the bridges of Jhelum. Now there is only filth and stink under these bridges. The city of the sun, Srinagar is at present probably one of the dirtiest cities in the world. Its growth has been totally unplanned and haphazard. Quiet and peaceful residential areas have been converted into commercial hubs with multi-storey concrete buildings. The old British character of its posh localities and markets is gone. Shear material considerations have overtaken everything. There is only one mantra for its dwellers, Money, Money, and Money! Wular Lake which used to be a bird watcher’s delight and was like a small sea has shrunk abnormally by reclamation and uncontrolled weed growth. Gone are picture post card poplar avenues leading to famous tourist resorts of Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Roads are lined with rows upon rows of shops and buildings. The miles upon miles of paddy fields along the roads have disappeared under clusters of houses. The village of shepherds and the meadow of flowers are being slowly concretised. There is mad rush for “development” which is taken to mean more and more constructions. The mountains which used to welcome one’s entry into Srinagar have been scarred beyond retrieval by continuous quarrying. Once lush green young forests in many places such as Aharbal, Yusmarg, Lolab, Bandipore, and so on have been so cruelly vandalised by timber smuggler’s with the connivance of authorities both in uniform and without, that these resemble stalks left in a freshly harvested maize field. This bizarre and disastrous destruction of environment does not seem to move the local populace. Rather they seem to have been active partners in its destruction. One wonders why the people have become so insensitive, callous, and unconcerned with this environmental vandalism. Somehow the inner feeling of appreciating beauty and its refinement seems to have suffered a paralytic stroke. Even the intellectuals and the intelligentsia in general seem to have developed some sort of apathy to such issues and exhibit total lassitude. Yes, there is lot of pinning every where among all circles but no initiative and persistent effort to set things right at all. All of us, writers, lawyers, doctors, students, and politicians of all hues and shades and of all streams write and speak about this colossal environmental degradation. There have been off and on some dramatic and spontaneous initiatives from Judiciary, Non-Governmental Organisations and certain individuals who have been feeling the pain but all lack persistence. There is no unified and persistent effort to stem and reverse this destructive tide engulfing our environment. Both the “Paradise” and its dwellers are on an irreversible journey of total obliteration. There is urgent need for a unified sincere, honest, and focused movement to save the “Paradise” as well as its “dwellers”. Till such a genuine initiative takes off, to be honest and truthful, we may have to seriously consider whether we should still continue to call Kashmir a “Paradise on Earth”!