Nox magazine February 2008
By Paul Cochrane in Srinagar and Gulmarg
Kashmir is known as a military hot spot, but instead of dodging bullets and hand grenades, Nox found there was a greater need to watch out for wild bears and avoid hitting golf balls at soldiers growing hashish on the seventh fairway
To tee off at any golf course in Kashmir requires a mixture of patience and a blasé conception of following the rules.
On arriving at what is considered the best golf course in India, the Royal Springs in the Kashmiri summer capital of Srinagar, there was no sign of the management and the only sign of life a handful of caddies lolling around the car park. And eager though the caddies were to lug clubs around the course, none of them knew the cost of a round.
Being a Friday afternoon, the management were “all at the mosque praying.”
“Can you come tomorrow?” suggested a caddie. “But the golf course closes for the winter tomorrow, I must play today.” - “No, the course won’t close, come tomorrow,” he replied. “But it says on the board it will close for four months.”-“Then come back in an hour, maybe someone is here then.”
The Royal Springs Golf Course in Srinagar
Later in the afternoon, manager Rafiq Azad explained that the club’s lack of dynamism was down to the lack of players, and that was not because of the exceedingly low green fees (even by Indian standards, at $7 for 18-holes), club hire ($5) or caddie service ($2).
It was “because of the situation,” he said, sounding not unlike a businessman in downtown Beirut or the Gaza Strip.
Azad was referring to Jammu and Kashmir's 60-year struggle for independence, another unresolved legacy of the British empire that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. With Kashmir a major piece in the puzzle of Great Game geopolitics, located as it is at the cross roads between Pakistan, Central Asia, and China (which controls 20% of Northern Kashmir and Aksai Chin), the area has long been at the forefront of an Asian ‘cold war.’
While India controls the bulk of Kashmir, Pakistan uses its slice, the sparsely populated Azad Kashmir, as a launch pad for a proxy war against the Indian state.
Kashmir has been the cause of so much tension between Delhi and Islamabad that the now nuke-wielding countries have been at war twice, and nearly at each others throats several times in the past 25-years.
This is all the more tragic as Kashmir was once a popular tourist destination, famed for its mountains, lakes, flowers and skiing, and called the “second Switzerland” (but not to be confused with the other equally unstable “Switzerland of the East,” Lebanon).
Although Pakistani bankrolled militancy has declined in recent years, along with popular support for such groups in urban areas, Kashmir doesn’t feature in all guidebooks to India, with potential visitors advised to avoid the area’s charms due to the fragile security situation.
Most of the tourists that do come are middle class Indians, but that too is dependent on the perceived safety of Kashmir. And so competitive is tourism within India that when a bomb exploded a few years ago the culprits, suggested one Kashmiri man, were not freedom fighters but militant hotel owners from Himachal Pradesh, a popular tourist destination in the lower eastern Himalayas, that were losing out to Kashmir’s resurgent tourism trade.
Talk of Kashmir’s current tourism woes led manager Azad to lament the lack of petrodollar-rich Gulf golf enthusiasts coming to the government-funded club. But mention of the club featuring in Arab magazines warmed Azad up, eventually leading to a discount in the green fees, from the foreigner’s $20 fee to the Indian rate.
The cashier didn’t seem so keen on the idea though, insisting on checking before returning with the a-ok. “We need to register you in the records. What’s your Indian name?”-“Um…Anish. Anish, ah, um, Singh.”-“Mr Anish Singh, you must play the round as an Indian, in case anyone asks.”
After the round – in which “Mr Singh” was challenged by the plastic flip-flop wearing caddie to 5 Rupees (10 cents) a hole and lost by two – the walk back into the city along the banks of Dal Lake resembled a security cordon for a high-ranking politician.
Soldiers were dotted along the road every couple hundred meters, a common sight along all roads, possible only through Delhi forking out some $7 million a day to station over half a million troops in Kashmir.
But despite such numbers, the communication skills of the Indian Army are far from impressive. To get to a Hindu temple overlooking Srinagar that also houses a military base, visitors have to pass through an army checkpoint at the base of the hill, where tobacco and matches are taken away, and bags searched.
Half way up a soldier indicated a short cut to the top through the undergrowth, which required a scramble up to the stairs of the temple, where more soldiers stood around. The soldiers looked bemused at someone emerging from the forest and started talking avidly to one another. An Indian tourist remarked: “They were saying how lucky you are, that there was a bear down there yesterday. Why did you come that way?” – “A bear? But the army told me to come this way.”-“Ah, well.”
It wasn’t a joking matter, with the local press reporting that villagers on the outskirts of Srinagar had been mauled just the day before in attacks by leopards and bears.
Describing the ineptitude of the soldiers to Kashmiris, they damned and blasted the army, a feeling that is largely mutual. Talking to a Military Policeman from Delhi, he pointed down at the town and said, “all terrorists.”
Such animosity has led to heavy-handed tactics. A shopkeeper, Gulzar, said that a few years ago a militant had thrown a grenade at a military vehicle in Srinagar, and the army opened fire, killing six civilians, including his sister. At the morgue the Indian army insisted his sister had been killed by shrapnel from the grenade, denying that it was a bullet that gone through her heart, and this is what would be put in the report.
“I’m tired of all this. We don’t want the army here and we are all for independence, 95% of Kashmiris are, and we certainly don’t want to be part of Pakistan,” Gulzar said.
But as with any occupied populace, internal political divisions are holding back a united front. Certain groups want semi-autonomy, others a unified, independent and secular Kashmir; while sections of the Sunni community want a Sharia-based government, which is opposed by the 20% of Indian-Kashmir’s10 million population that are Shia.
In such a climate, external actors are having a field day. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi influence has spread to Kashmir in the form of funding for madrassas, mosques and militant groups, and among the Shiites there is widespread support for Iran as well as Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah. Making Kashmir sound even more like the Middle East’s problem child, Lebanon, even the Israelis are in on the act, reportedly seeking to gain a foothold as well, according to academics at Kashmir University.
A Shia Kashmiri holds up a framed photo montage of Iranian troika Khomeini, Khameini and Khatami. Beneath is a portrait of Mir Waiz Molvi Mohammad Farooq (Srinagar)
The security situation presents more problems than just a lack of golfers, an imposing military presence and young Kashmiri men harassed with security ID checks when out walking the streets.
The military presence is even visible in tourist resorts, such as Gulmarg, popular with Indians from the south that come for a taste of cold autumn weather and the chance of snow – or else make do with a mock-up photo, standing in a pair of skis in front of a truck-size block of snow in the middle of a grassy field.
Middle class Indians from warmer climes enjoy 'skiing'
The whole far side of the town, as well as immediately above it, is given over to army barracks. Even up at 4,000 meters there is an army base, looking out at the towering peak of Nanga Parbat (8125m) and the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan.
Ironically, with Gulmarg being a ski resort, the military presence poses a threat to skiers.
“We’re not allowed to use dynamite – no T-N-T – to trigger avalanches as the army is worried it could fall into the wrong hands, so we snow cut, which is much harder and more dangerous,” said Javid Katari, the head of Gulmarg’s ski patrol.
Katari’s office had been unintentionally indicated as the place to enquire about a game at the Gulmarg Golf Club, the second oldest in India and allegedly the world’s highest course at 2800 meters. Skiing and golf might not appear to have much in common, but with the golf course being completely re-developed and no snow, the commonality was in both sports being in off-season mode.
Katari suggested going over to the only functioning part of the club, the practice greens, where caddies waited around despite the course’s slated re-launch date being 2009.
A man came up saying he had a “temporary pass,” then went off to discuss with a club employee the logistics of playing 9 holes on a course that was being completely gutted. After teeing off a further commonality between golf and skiing in Gulmarg soon became apparent– the extremes of having to risk avalanches when going off-piste, and having to play cross-country golf as there wasn’t, by any standard conception of the game of golf, a functioning course.
Two holes into the game, a young man clad in the traditional Kashmiri garb of a phern – a long, woollen jellaba – appeared. “Do you want a second caddie to look for your ball?” the first caddie asked. Looking out over the rest of the course, of muddy ditches, ankle high grass, and heavy machinery dotted around, it didn’t seem such a bad idea, but two caddies to play a game of golf? Dismissal didn’t work, so he came with us anyway, illustrating his usefulness by indicating the hole on the dusty, overgrown greens with his foot.
The hair and the hashish
The tensions between Delhi and Islamabad have led to the rise of religious extremism, evident at one mosque where graffiti had been sprayed, in English on a wall, ‘Down with secularism.’
The writing's on the wall: 'Down with secularism'
But despite contemporary Middle Eastern religious and political influences, Kashmir’s colourful religious past – a Hindu kingdom then Buddhist, then Hindu again –means Kashmir’s blend of Islam has its curiosities, namely in the relic worship that still abounds, despite being mamnou (not allowed) in Islam.
Srinagar has a temple that supposedly contains the body of Christ, the story going that as Kashmir was paradise, then Kashmir was where Jesus went after ascending to heaven. And over at the Hazratbal shrine (literally ‘Majestic Place’) there is housed a hair from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad, preserved in a silver and crystal cylinder, kept in three wooden boxes and locked away behind five doors in the heart of the mosque.
Taken to Kashmir after the cuticle had been brought to India by two Saudi merchants in the 17th century, the light-brown strand is shown to the public twice a year. Where the hair had been for nearly 1,000 years after the Prophet’s death could not explained by the guide, but its time in Srinagar has certainly been eventful, a symbol of Srinagar’s religiosity.
In 1963 the hair disappeared when a guard took a break and someone broke in. All hell broke loose in the city, with the army killing two protesters during riots demanding the hair’s return. India went on national alert, a $21,000 reward was issued and conspiracy abounded in the halls of power. Delhi started pinning the blame on Islamabad as part of a scheme to incite the Kashmiris against them, and the Pakistani press mulled over India's Prime Minister Nehru being the thief, or that it was all part of a “satanic” plot “conceived in the so-called intellectual cells in a faraway Western capital.”
But a week later the hair was found in the grounds of the mosque, and Kashmir’s most holy man was called in for verification.
To prevent such future crises, soldiers now guard the mosque. But such religious issues are still sensitive, where debating the origins of the hair, or whether Jesus is really buried in Srinagar, is a touchy subject.
The next day teeing off at the British-era Kashmir Golf Club in the heart of Srinagar, conveniently located near the former British government residence, the caddie said he didn’t believe the strand of hair was the real deal. “But if I told certain people that they would kill me,” said Sanjad Farooq.
The Friday sermon resounding over the course had another message however, of religious tolerance. And the majority Hindu Indian army also had others things on their minds.
On the seventh hole two men in fatigues were rummaging around in the foliage at the edge of the green. “What are they doing there Sanjad?”-“Soldiers, growing hashish.” – “Hash, here? On the golf course?” - “See, there!”
Lining up for a shot with a 9 iron I hoped not to clobber a soldier with a golf ball, at least in any way that would make him think it was an attack by a vengeful Kashmiri that could prompt him to let rip with his machine gun.
- All photos by Paul Cochrane