By Zamir Ahmad
Last week after the separatists called for a 50-hour strike, I imagined the deserted streets, the patrolling soldiers, and the city under siege. I wanted to escape into another reality and after the day’s work was over, I left with some friends for Gool area in Ramban district. We drove under a mellow late afternoon sky on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The majestic mountainous arcs towering the road ushered in a calm. A leisured way of life seemed to beckon us as we watched caravans of semi-nomadic Gujjars commandeering their herds of sheep towards the plains of the valley. And the relative innocence of the petty crimes of the old world was there: a truck conductor reached out from the window of a moving truck, grabbed a ram, and sped away. The shepherds watched in disbelief, helpless.
We arrived at a friend’s house in Ramban at mid-night. He welcomed us home; the fear that descends with night in Kashmir was strikingly absent. In the morning we set off for Gool, the northern end of the mountainous belt of Gool-Gulabgarh. Around 55 kilometers from Ramban, Gool is 17 villages scattered along the high mountain slopes. The road to Gool was a bumpy, circuitous dirt track climbing a scary altitude.
After an hour, we reached the village of Sangaldan, a village in the shadow of Sarkantha mountain, beyond which lies Shopian. The train to Kashmir is proposed to pass through this village, cut through the Sarkantha, and appear in the valley in Shopian. On the mountainside, earth moving has left big scars, a reminder of the environmental cost of the development. The railway construction agency had begun building a massive railway platform here, but the work was stopped because of a dispute with the Northern Railways.
We leave Gool for the famed sulphur springs of Tata Paani, whose waters are believed to have miraculous healing powers. A dirt track skirting a mountain brings us to Tatta Paani. Thousands visit the springs in summer from the nearby districts and the Kashmir valley. But Tatta Paani doesn’t have a single hotel or a public toilette. The result is an all pervasive stink rising from the ground surrounding the spring. We left, disappointed.
The small town of Gool has a sparsely distributed population of around 40,000. But there are no roads, the health centre doesn’t have a doctor, government offices are without staff, and electricity is rare. Fortunately, piped drinking water is available in every village. Before it was carved out to be a part of the Ramban district, Gool was in Udhampur, whose district headquarters are more than 100 km away.
The legislative assembly constituency of Gool is divided into two belts––Gool and Arnas. Arnas is predominantly Gujjar; Gool is Kashmiri speaking. Funds amounting to more than Rs 25 crores are earmarked annually for the area but, locals believe that most of it is embezzled. The biggest houses in the area are owned by Gool’s government officials, and almost all of them have houses in Jammu. The devastation of the forest cover is alarming. Large swathes of forestland look like graveyards of tree stumps. Locals use trees as firewood as well as for construction. Army too is being held responsible for large-scale felling of trees for their consumption as well as for carving luxury furniture items for personal use.
Gool has seen worst of the armed insurgency. For quite some time, militants controlled the area. Internecine feuds, interference in civil disputes, forcible marriages by militants and an all out counter-offensive by armed forces led to weakening of the militants. Civilians were killed in large numbers. Kidnapping of civilians by unknown gunmen and slitting their throats the day after had been commonplace. A village called Salballa with 22 households once bragged of producing 18 militants. The village now mourns the death of more than 100 of its inhabitants.
One striking feature of Gool is the language spoken by it people. Though situated on the other side of Banihal, with no apparent links with Valley, the people of these villages speak Kashmiri with a distinct south Kashmir accent. Elders we spoke to say their forefathers had migrated from the Valley to the region.
At a place called Gool Ghodha Gali, we saw large stone horses with two to three riders atop strewn about and so were almost a dozen intricately designed shower rooms, and stone walls engraved with human and animal figures and geometrical patterns. Villagers say Pandavas built them. It seems the last time someone cared about Gool was the time of mythical Pandavas. Gool is beautiful but poor, reachable but inaccessible, old yet forgotten. The hints of the arrival of a modern life infrastructure were in the mobile networks that worked everywhere and the Lays potato chips that had reached every village shack. Every other symbol of development and governance is still absent. They are waiting.