Kashmir’s season of pleasure and plenty, the autumn, is here, but alas, the tragedy of the beleaguered valley this year has overshadowed everything that is good about the golden-brown season.
For anyone coming to Kashmir in autumn, nature could just not have been more rewarding.
A verdant countryside, crystal-clear waters in rivers and streams, and fields swaying heavily with grain are visible when pilots of incoming civilian flights announce they are landing at the Srinagar International Airport.
On the majestic Chinar trees, the fleshy leaves are changing from green through crimson to yellow. Orchards are laden with ripe apples waiting to be picked. Paddy fields await the harvest and the marriage season is reaching its peak.
These are some of the hallmarks of the Kashmir Valley’s autumn, but where are the tourists? Where are the groups of locals who would throng the Mughal Gardens with their families to relax in the soothing warmth of the autumnal sun?
Separatists’ call for protests and the security forces place coils of razor-sharp concertina wire to thwart the protests. This is the depressing reality of the autumn in Kashmir this year.
For all of autumn, which is now approaching its end — as the morning and evening chill indicates, winter is already knocking at the valley’s door — nothing has moved here, quite literally.
No schools, colleges or universities for students, no main markets for shoppers, no public transport for commuters.
“It is extremely difficult for non-locals to believe how any place in today’s world can remain closed for such a long time. But as locals we have learnt to accept every tragedy and misery as part of our destiny,” said Srinagar resident Abdul Gani, 52.
After many years, the Kashmir Valley is missing its huge work force of non-locals who would be engaged for harvesting, threshing, winnowing and other agricultural operations in autumn.
With the beginning of the ongoing cycle of violence in early July, all non-local labourers, both skilled and unskilled, have left the valley. Even the brick-layers engaged by various kiln owners left three months before schedule this year.
“When 90 people are killed, 12,000 injured and dozens blinded by pellets, how can anyone expect to risk his/her life by working in Kashmir,” asked Ali Muhammad Dar, 69, a brick-kiln owner in central Badgam district.
The tourist towns of Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg have become ghost hill stations. All hotels, tea-stalls and handicraft shops at these places were closed by the middle of last month.
“We were completely sold out for autumn. We had a Bollywood multi-star shoot booking for 20 days this autumn. Every single booking has been cancelled. We have brought down the shutters on our hotel in Sonamarg,” said Suhail Mir, 37, the owner of Hotel Tranquil Resort, one of the best addresses in Kashmir’s golden meadow.
The sad story of scores of other hotels, guest houses and houseboats in Srinagar city is no different from Mir’s.
The tragedy for the valley’s tourist industry this year has been that it was caught unawares.
“We were at the peak of the tourist rush when the unrest started. We had made investments for autumn as we had huge bookings. All is finished now,” said another hotelier in Srinagar.
For public transport operators, the sword has been double-edged. “We have been grounded since July 9, the day trouble started here. Banks are continuously charging interest on our loan outstandings,” said a transport operator here who did not want to be named.
“Any public transport operator who dares to challenge the protest shutdown has to pay a high price. Protesters smash vehicles and in two cases, they even torched some autorickshaws,” he added.
Many well-to-do families have sent their children to join coaching centres in the winter capital Jammu as there is no hope of the valley’s educational institutions opening soon.
The crisp, clear morning air of autumn, its benign, soothing sun, orchards laden with fruit, mountain streams full of trout beckoning anglers, mountains seeking trekkers and mountaineers are all there, but, unfortunately, the Kashmir Valley has missed its tryst with autumn this year.