By Shams Irfan
Whenever we used to go out for tea or snacks, my friend would say, “I don’t want to help foreign economy.” It was his favourite line. He would use it quite often and with generosity. His solution to all our miseries was to get rid of the ‘outsiders’. And by outsiders, he meant every single person who is not a domicile of Kashmir. “We must build our economy ourselves,” he would say, enthusiastically.
Because of my friend’s selectivity, we often would end up without having tea at all. Then one day, after roaming around Srinagar city for hours, we came across an all Kashmiri tea stall. That day onwards, this tea-stall, which was near our workplace, became our den.
While sipping tea, we would often discuss about self reliance, cultural aggression and consequences of being dependence on ‘outsiders’. My friend, a strong advocate of self sustenance, would often say, the biggest slavery is to become dependent on outsiders for your daily needs. We don’t want to end up like Arab Sheikhs who are totally dependent on Asian workforce for their survival and sustenance. Wealth is but an illusion. It never stays at one place. But human resource does.
Kashmir with around 0.6 million registered unemployed youth has half a million outside work force doing almost all kinds of odd jobs.
The influx of outsiders looking for livelihood in Kashmir started somewhere in mid 90s when militancy was at its peak.
The presence of these invisible souls, who stayed largely focused on earning money without creating much fuss initially raised a few eyebrows as people would doubt their presence in conflict ridden Kashmir despite having better options available elsewhere.
They could have gone to any place in India. Unlike in Kashmir, they don’t have to bother about safety, job guarantee, or to bear extreme climatic conditions etc.
Kashmir being culturally, climatically and geographically different from India seems an odd choice for these workers altogether. What made them choose Kashmir over other places baffled locals for a few years until they took their presence for granted.
But with time nobody actually bothered about their origin, intent or purpose in Kashmir. They became brown Sahibs of Kashmir.
By the turn of century, the presence of one or two such sahibs in any local wedding became tolerable and common. Earlier the sight of an outsider in any local mosque would raise eyebrows and draw unwanted attention. But since these brown Sahibs took over the reins of almost all small businesses in Kashmir, their presence at crowded market places, in Eidgahs during yearly Eid congregations, in our houses as paying guests or tenants, in public transport, in restaurants became way of life.
And as time passed by, one after another small profession got struck off from the list of professions which Kashmiris have done proudly since ages. Nobody wanted to work in fields anymore. A barber’s son dreamed of becoming a millionaire overnight. Cobblers vanished altogether. Painters, carpenters, masons, followed one after another. Even locals beggars could not survive the competition. While outsiders inched their way into our society and made Kashmiris dependent on their services, locals watched in silence. In most of the cases locals even helped these outsiders establish their businesses, by leasing their shops, by helping them get around corrupt officials, by helping them buy fake state subject certificates, and above all by making them feel welcome.
For first few years these outsiders stayed focused on making gentlemen out of ordinary Kashmiris. Almost simultaneously, every nook and corner of Kashmir had one fancy hair dressing shop. And all of them belonged to the same place. Kahan ke ho bhaiya? Najiabad, Bijnore.
Soon traditional barbers, who had served as doctors, paramedics, chemists, makeup artists for local grooms became endangered species in their own land. Reason? They could not survive the stiff competition. Perhaps, they lacked the imagination to transform a person into a screen icon, in a flash!
In no time, almost every single wall of defence was breached by these outsiders. And there was no resistance. Locals were least bothered about losing their jobs. They in turn sold their ancestral properties (read land) and bought passenger vehicles. Driving is the only thing that Kashmiris love to do as a profession. With corrupt system at their service, soon there were more passenger vehicles than passengers. It was a kind of ‘revolution’. Every remote area in Kashmir got connected to main city Srinagar. Travelling from one place to another was not an issue, roads were.
The new breed of drivers are all reincarnations of now extinct Kashmiri carpenters, painters, mechanics, labourers, masons, tailors, bakers, road side stall owners, cooks, cobblers or even farmers. These drivers became as common as outsiders in Kashmir.
My friends, would often ask, how these outsiders managed to survive through hell that Kashmiris witnessed since 90s. Maybe, life is really all about survival of the fittest.
I remember what my friend said during one such long discussion, “Life is like a video game. Those who get adapted to changes move to next level. And those who fail: Game Ends!”