The connection to the land is natural and unbreakable. We may go away for a multitude of reasons but it is easier to snip off the umbilical cord than cut away the tie which binds us to our villages and towns and cities….to the land of our forefathers. I have known this for a fact and experienced it at close quarters, having lived quite a nomadic life, traveling far and wide. Nothing can beat the pleasure and ‘the heart will burst’ kind of happiness when I come back “home”….to my home state of Jammu and Kashmir.
I saw this emotion amply reflected in the stories I heard this summer during my trip to Poonch. Poonch is also known as Chhota Kashmir and aptly deserves the title, for the regions beauty and splendour are breathtaking. As I traveled by road I repeatedly asked myself as I crossed vales and mountains that how could one ever leave this place and be really happy. The majestic Pir Panchal range in the backdrop, forests, and gurgling streams, crisp fresh air, rugged men and the beautiful women and children…all pulled at my heart strings. I gasped and sighed when I saw the Surankote valley and was left speechless as I entered the town of Poonch.
The history of the region left me intrigued and my fascination with the place increased. Poonch has also been called the battlefield of Kashmir since many rulers who staked a claimon Kashmir had to fight it out in the Poonch valley. There is a book by the same name “Poonch – “The Battlefield of Kashmir” by Mr. Maini a Poonch local which is a must read for all those who want to know more about the history of this region.
I met many people from various backgrounds and the common underlying theme with all of them was a desire to live peacefully and harmoniously. Not one of them was untouched by militancy and the politics of the region. Landmines in the adjoining hills, militant hideouts in the hills of Mendhar, friends and neighbors crossing over to Pakistan, the bloody guerilla warfare, and the infamous ‘Operation Hill Kaka’ to flush out ISI operatives and militants. Obviously the region is considered sensitive and the existing peace fragile.
Considering that it is a land of Saints and Sufis it is a crying shame. This is a land which is abound by similar yet different testaments to the Almighty…Buddhe Amarnath, Nangli Sahib, Shahdara Sharief to name a few. I visited all three and found them equally moving.
Who could leave such a place and yet some did. Some of them at least whose stories I heard have become refugees in their current country of choice, realizing too late that they became victims of propaganda, pressure and trends of their community and a falsely created fear psychosis. The then DC/DM of Poonch Shri Kuldip Khajuria told me that there were people who have come back to Poonch on visitor visas and have had to be literally forced to go back after they exhausted their stay limits that too after extending their visas and stay as many times as legally possible.
Many have openly said that they are worse off in Pakistan occupied Poonch economically and socially. This fact was quite clear in my visit to the LOC. One could clearly see ‘kuchha’ houses across the border compared to the modest but pucca houses on our side of the hills. The Principal of Sheesh Mahal School (the oldest girl’s school in Poonch) told me about an ex-student who visited from POK. The ex-student said that they were fed with stories of persecution of Muslims in India by the Pakistani officials. They were told that the Muslim population was denied the right to education and debarred from offering Namaaz and going to the mosque. Upon hearing from the Principal that in a school of 300 plus girls, there were only 35 Hindu girls, the man broke down and cried in the school assembly organized in his honor.
We were saddened to hear that one of my mother’s muslim neighbor and friend moved to Pakistan in the 70’s. He visited Poonch his place of birth many times once it was possible to do so. Common friends told us he regretted his decision all his life and died a heartbroken man.
Some ties bind us all our lives and there is a love which is equal if not greater than the other facets of love and that is a love for our land. A love which blurs the differences in religion and unites us on the common grounds of language, cultural practices, folk lore, dance, music, literature and so much more. It is for the individual to understand this fundamental truth and the politics to let it be.