There are largely three kind of people you get to see in Leh. The Ladakhi Buddhists are the one you encounter most often – they are the native inhabitants and manage most of the tourist infrastructure in the region. The next set of people you see very often are the tourists. They probably outnumber locals in summer and vanish during the cold winter season. The third biggest population is of Kashmiris who come from Srinagar and surrounding areas in Kashmir Valley. They mostly work as labourers doing all the hard job that locals would prefer to outsource. You often see them pushing carts with large drums of water to hotels and restaurants in the water-starved Leh. Their population appears small going by the number of people you see on the streets, but they perhaps stay behind the scene and do all the tough jobs. The only time you see them in large numbers is during the morning prayers at the mosque in the main market.
I had a short conversation with one such Kashmiri when I was walking towards Leh’s new bus stand. It is a long walk on a winding road from main market to bus stand. When I saw a small lane that appeared to be a short-cut, I stopped to check with someone if the alley takes me to bus-stand.
“Yes,” he told me, “I am headed that way too. Come, let’s walk together.”
This man had a tall build with a reddish face, sunken cheeks and a long curvy nose—features typical of Kashmiri men. For a moment I wondered if it is a Kashmiri way to invite people to walk together. A few days ago when I was looking for directions to Shanti Stupa, a little girl who happened to be from Kargil had asked me to walk with her.
We walked together to the bus-stand that was just five minutes away at the other end of the alley.
Our conversation started with the usual question – ‘where are you from?’ I answered him and asked him the same question.
‘From Kupwara district,’ he replied, ‘are you travelling?’
I nodded in affirmative.
‘Have you been to Srinagar too?’
I silently shook my head in response. I had entered Ladakh through Manali – Leh highway and had never visited Srinagar before.
‘What is there in Leh that you want to come here?’ he continued talking now a bit excitedly, ‘Go to Srinagar, it is green and beautiful. There is nothing to see here – the mountains are arid and there isn’t even enough air to breathe. It is tiring to walk up and down these roads. We end up breathless. You must see Srinagar.’
He was spending the summer in Leh and did not seem to like it here. It is also perhaps natural that he loved the place he can associate better with.
In fact, on our way to Leh, we were contemplating taking the Srinagar – Leh highway and spend some time in Kashmir Valley to visit Gulmarg and Dal Lake. The militancy from across the border had come down in the recent years and it seemed safe to visit Srinagar. But in the days of calm and absence of external threat, the residents had made the valley unapproachable just when we were planning our journey. Violence had broken out in Kashmir a few days before our departure over ownership of 40 hectares of land in Amarnath, cutting off supplies and blocking the roads to the valley. It was no longer possible to go via Srinagar. I had no heart to tell him all this, and silently acknowledged him as we parted.
We had kept our hopes of visiting Srinagar alive, as we could still return from Ladakh via Srinagar. But violence lasted so long that Srinagar was unapproachable even after two months of our stay in Ladakh. As we read through newspapers during the days before our departure, the valley was still boiling over the issue and Srinagar had remained unapproachable. It pains me even today that I could not make it to Srinagar despite having come so close to it. Dal Lake and Gulmarg are two places I have been wanting to visit for many years and had hoped to make it there during the Ladakh trip.
I do not know who is right or who is wrong in the Amarnath land controversy, but nothing really justifies the violence that erupted after the land transfer. A lot of people in Kashmir depend on tourists for their livelihood. The people of Kashmir would be much better off understanding that violence does no good to themselves as well as the visitors, but maintaining peace is beneficial for everyone in the longer run. Perhaps this man who did not like to work in Leh could have found a better job in the tourism industry closer to home, had things been peaceful in Srinagar.