I had been putting off this post for a long time. I just thought that my writings might ruffle a few. But now whenever I am on any social media, I just see and read about “incidents” that does not please me. The stories of lynching or the disheartening news of Baduria in West Bengal and the last one I came across is the terrorist attack on Amarnath pilgrims. Then I see the headline of an online post saying that it would deepen the divide between Hindu and Muslims and Kashmir should be ready for more bloodshed!
We are living in tough times. Times when human life has become so insignificant! There are groups of people who are taking lives of others because of their choices – what they will eat, what they will wear and whom they will pray! Well, what I want to do is entirely my prerogative. No one else has any say in it, isn’t it?
And then I remember an incident that happened on July 18, 2013, when Agni and I had gone for the Amarnath Yatra.
Happy as we were going to Kashmir for the first time, but our family was quite sceptical about Kashmir visit. People here still think that the paradise on earth is indeed very dangerous. But we, being our adventurous self, we started towards our journey. We reached Jammu early in the morning, but not early enough to catch the bus that took the Yatris to Pahalgam from Jammu. So we booked a car and started our journey towards the beautiful Pahalgam. It takes about 7 to 8 hours from Jammu to Pahalgam, so we calculated we would reach by 3 to 3:30. We will have enough time to do some sightseeing in Pahalgam.
After having our breakfast on road, we started our journey savouring the beautiful view of the roads and the hills. Our driver was a young guy staying near to Pahalgam, quite serious and a man of few words.
At around 12.30 PM, after crossing the beautiful Patnitop, our car stopped before a long line of vehicles. I could see a long line of different vehicles standing on the serpentine mountain roads and obviously I could not see the head of it. Well, it might be a landslide, I quipped. Hilly roads are quite prone to landslides and sometimes it takes hours to clear one. I quickly made a silent prayer to God Almighty so that the landslide clears quickly. I guess I too have the habit of remembering Him during exigencies!
After some impatient moments, our driver came back with an anxious face. He told us that there is some disturbance at Ramban, a few kilometres ahead. Well, whenever you hear of disturbance in Kashmir, your heart sinks. You tend to fear the worst. “What kind of disturbance?” I asked tentatively. He replied that there was some scuffle between the BSF Jawans and the local. The Jawans had supposedly held back one of the Imams of the mosque and that led to violence in the area.
“People have got violent. The Jawans have opened fire on the locals in the morning, this is all I know”, he said with his eyebrows furrowed deeply.
I hope we Indians clearly understand what violence means in Kashmir. And it is really true that rumours are much more dangerous than the facts. Very soon, different types of news now started floating around. Some said the Jawans had opened fire on the mob and many were killed. Others said that the mob had got extremely violent and they too attacked the BSFs. We could do nothing but wait anxiously on the road. And believe me, it was an agonising wait. We did not know when things will be fine, or whether we will be able to move forward.
And suddenly there was a cry that the mob was coming to attack the Amarnath pilgrims. There were chaos and confusion among the people. Some cars even took a reverse and went back. As we waited for our driver, he came and simply told us, “Don’t worry, as long as I am here, nothing will happen.”
Well, I didn’t know what to say. But something inside me told that I should believe him, and I did so.
Then suddenly out of the blue, the road seemed to clear and I could hear the sound of a vehicle. It was the sound of an ambulance with its screeching siren. An ambulance passed by us. It had blood marks over it. The ambulance was carrying the dead bodies and the injured. In a matter of few minutes, two ambulances passed by and I just kept staring.
In the middle of all these, I realised that I was hungry. We had breakfast at around 8 AM in the morning and it was already 3 PM. We did not have any food. Our bottle of water was almost empty. We were supposed to reach Pahalgam by now, but instead, we are stuck here with no food and water. And this was not only our case but was also with the other Yatris.
Circumstances like this bring people closer. I was amazed to see that some Amarnath Yatris who were on a bus, got down and started making rotis sitting by the road. They were feeding not only their co-passengers but also the others on the road. People were sharing whatever meagre they had. The vehicle drivers too started helping them. It was simply heartwarming to see all the people who were hitherto unknown to each other, were now helping each other.
We were there waiting for what seemed like a lifetime. Finally, at around 6 PM, we heard that we would be allowed to move. Our car started and we were moving at snail’s pace. While approaching Ramban, our driver told us to pull up all the windows of the car.
“We will move very fast here. And please don’t take out your camera!” he warned us.
We were more than happy to oblige him. As we passed by Ramban, we saw the place in utter chaos. Shops and vehicles were burnt, glasses were broken and tires were burning. we were moving through a blanket of smoke. Everything looked desolate and it seemed that the place had faced some disaster. I could remember the scene from Mani Ratnam’s movie Dil Se. I actually never thought that I would see such scenes in person.
We crossed Ramban safely and after a long journey, we finally reached near Anantnag. It was already 10.30 PM then. We still had an hour of the journey left!
“Please stay at my house, it is near Pahalgam only”, our driver told us. We were so touched by his hospitality. Though we were quite sceptical of getting a hotel at Pahalgam, we denied his request.
We reached Pahalgam at around midnight. Everything was closed. Our driver who had already become a friend took it upon himself to find us a place to stay and also a place to eat. He gave us his number and told us to contact him whenever we want.
It was a tiring and also an adventurous day. We crashed on our bed soon. The next morning was beautiful as the rays of sun entered our room. All that happened yesterday seemed to be a dream. We came out ready for our trip to Chandanwari, the starting point of Amarnath Yatra. Our friend and driver Iqbal was waiting for us to take us to Chandanwari.
“There is a curfew in here for 3 days. Everything is closed”, he told us. “When you come down, give me a call, I will tell you if everything is fine or not. Don’t worry, we at Pahalgam will not let anything happen to the Yatris.” He said with a smile.
While we travel, we meet so many people. But there are some experiences that we can never forget. Coming to Pahalgam from Jammu was one such day.
Yes, our driver was from a different religion. Yet, he was the one to help us and also assure us that we were safe when we thought things were bleak. On the road, I saw people scared, but that did not stop them from reaching out to one another, irrespective of religion, caste and creed.
I simply want to say that for every militant killing an innocent, there are five such kind people who are always there to help. For every fanatic killing an innocent for his eating habits, there are five such people who would give you shelter and food when in need. For every act of hatred, there are much more acts of kindness and compassion.
Ours is a country of millions where religion is the highest opium. Hatred and killings in the name of religion are the work of fanatics, and I don’t think they belong to any religion; for religion teaches only love and not hatred. And there are some opportunists who want to advantage of such chaos. Isn’t it better not to highlight the news of violence and instead emphasise on these acts of love and compassion? Let humanity win.
“I am not religious, I am a humanist because human beings are more important than dogma and traditions.”