Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Purveyor of Doom

From his perch, Hilal has observed the city degenerate into depression where conspiracy theories are staple of the day

Story of Srinagar Through a News Stall

Nasrun Mir (Rising Kashmir)

Everyone knows him here; he is gentle, talks in a timid voice and sells newspapers in the busy corner of Lal Chowk, Srinagar. Sitting on a small chair inside the Khan News Agency, Hilal Ahmad Bhat gives his clients daily off-the-grid read.

Every morning at around 7 am, when most of the city is still slumbering, Hilal sorts various bundles of local newspapers in the corner of his shop, places his chair outside to enjoy the sun, and waits for his first customers. When finished for the day, he strolls home quietly in the late evening, analysing the day’s news and making his own observations, which he sometimes discusses with his journalist friends.

Before the dawn of the Internet, Hilal was the primary source of world news, wars, conspiracy theories and the broken love affairs of favourable movie stars – he still knows all this, but so do his clientele. It was once a special feeling, but such things rarely last forever, and what was once an exclusive, has now turned into something quite ordinary. His customers, however, still love that familiar feeling, smell and warm touch of newspaper in their hands, which sometimes gets re-used as wrapping paper in the future.

Crudely speaking, Hilal sells doom.

“People of Kashmir are depressed,” Hilal says. “Twenty years of conflict has made them immune to human tragedies which unfold everyday in newspapers. Political stalemate and corruption makes them more dejected. Young people who buy newspapers and books from here often complain that news never seems to get any better. Front pages are filled with the same sleazy politicians from both sides of conflict every day. They say they are tired of reading about things that never change.”

Around late afternoon when the city is buzzing, Hilal also starts to get busy. It is the time when newspapers from New Delhi hit his stand and his loyal customers, who include high profile politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, businessmen and students alike, visit in batches to have their daily dose of national and international news from the 50-year old news agency.

Hilal has seen a great many changes in the Lal Chowk neighbourhood. 22 years ago, at the tender age of 10, he would accompany his father to the agency, which, at the time, was a mere stall on the pavement of Regal Chowk, outside Old Coffee House Building. The shop has now moved inside, after the previous government demolished it in order to increase the width of Lambert Lane square.

“Back in the late 1980s this square used to be a hub of activity for affluent Kashmiri families and international tourists. No traffic, no chaos, I would sit here with my father and sell thousands of newspapers a day,” he says. “The neighbourhood wasn’t this muddled. Today, since I have moved inside the corridor of the building, I sell fewer copies as my stall is no longer visible. When I took over from my father, there were only five or six newspapers in Kashmir. Now there is a mushroom growth; I can’t even keep count of how many newspapers are published from Kashmir every day. They just keep coming and going. ”

Kashmir is full of stories, tons of them, which can be both loud as well as discreet. Papers publish them for about 3 a copy. Will the Kashmir issue ever get resolved? Who will succeed Syed Ali Geelani? Why, even after the millions spent on its conservation, Dal Lake is still in such a mess? Some stories never make the headlines, and even if they do come to print, they struggle behind closed doors, such as when Khan News Agency was demolished and not one politician came to the rescue of a stall which has served the Kashmiri literary circle for so long. Many journalists in Kashmir tried their best to raise awareness of the importance of this news vendor, but their attempts fell upon deaf ears. He may have been given an alternative space, but for Hilal the magic of the old stall is very much over.

“When our stall was demolished they told us it was in order to increase the area of the square, but now cigarettes are allowed to be sold on the same spot. It is amazing how smoking has replaced reading,” he says with a pained expression, and waits for the thought to pass over quickly. “I have no grudge against anybody; all I want is for the government to do more to promote newspaper vendors. I was in Delhi recently and saw newspaper stalls everywhere; I want the same for Kashmir.”

Hilal has that easygoing personality that makes him such a lovable character. With his unique style of glasses, baggy jeans, colourful jackets and un-tucked shirts, Hilal consistently chats with his customers about the new competitive examination books, a new addition to his shop along with various second hand novels.

His customers also like him. “There is a lot more than meets the eye with him. He is a good observer and gives a lot of time and attention to his clients,” says Waseem, a student who is preparing for competitive exams. “He is not like other vendors who don’t allow you to touch a magazine, let alone read a book! Here, I jump from one issue to another and Hilal never says a word.”

Khan News Agency may be a small one, but it is a great one too. Apart from selling news, it is a social place where friends can meet and reunite. “I have seen so many friends getting united at my stall,” says Hilal. “Many people casually drop in to buy a newspaper or a magazine, but end up meeting an old friend after years. It is such a good feeling, and I feel very proud over this uniqueness of my store. ”
It is also a place to encounter some eminent personalities. “Farooq Abdullah used to buy his newspaper from here,” remembers Hilal. “Due to some work I once happened to meet him in his office,” Hilal’s small moustache broadens with pride as he remembers the interaction. “As I moved forward to give my introduction to him, Farooq Abdullah said to me: “I know who you are, not only I, but my father also used to buy newspapers from Khan News Agency”.

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