The first inkling we have that all is not normal is when the air hostess instructs us to down the window shutters as we land. The cabin becomes a closed, dark capsule as it hurtles towards the aerobridge.
Jammu airport is bright and modern. The streets outside bustle with speeding vehicles and crowded markets. Only later does it emerge that the town itself is a closed capsule—no internet, no email, no WhatsApp, no social media. ATMs are whimsical and credit cards not welcome. Frequently, there is no mobile or power.
The bustle has an underlying caution and uncertainty, as if the town is awaiting the full impact of the political drama initiated in Delhi two months earlier.
My host, the Central University of Jammu, is work in progress. One of India’s newest universities, the powers-that-be first constructed residences for faculty and guest houses rather than university buildings. Then the project stalled. Thus, the university has an incomplete approach road where ricocheting stones ruin vehicles, while its departments function from residential quarters. What the institution lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for with the dedication of its faculty and enthusiasm of its students—the latter seeking knowledge of the outside world by flooding the visitor with incisive observations and sharp questions. With no internet or social media, acquiring knowledge and pursuing research pose unique challenges. But teachers there have braved the daunting situation to open up minds and opportunities. However, the abnormal circumstances that obstruct study cause frustration, which spills through occasionally.
The names of the Dogra rulers of the state, who played a central role in shaping the tortured history of this state, are etched in everyone’s minds. Even today, their actions are being debated, particularly those just before, during and after the Partition of India. The abode of the erstwhile rulers of Jammu is the Amar Mahal palace that majestically commands a panoramic view of the Tawi river and Jammu city as its mansions are bathed in sunshine on the Shivalik hills.
The palace celebrates the life and achievements of Karan Singh, who after Independence was the constitutional head of the state, the sadr-e-riyasat, later distinguishing himself as a cabinet minister, parliamentarian and scholar.
No part of Jammu is far from the border with Pakistan. At Suchetgarh, Indian and Pakistani border posts abut each other. Visitors are encouraged on both sides—they happily take photographs across the international border and exchange pleasantries. Of course, cross-border firings aggravate tension and cause serious damage and casualties.
Another border actually shares a dargah: that of Baba Duleep Singh Manhas Chambliyal. Over 300 years ago, criminals killed him. His head was found at Chambliyal in present-day India while his body was left 600 yards away at Saidawal in PoK. Both sites have shrines. The clay and water at the Indian dargah supposedly have medicinal properties and are referred to as shakar (sugar) and sharbat(juice).
In June, the fair of the saint attracts all communities, including a delegation of Pakistani Rangers who reverently place a chaadar (blanket) on the grave of the saint and take back trolley-loads of shakar and sharbat.
The shrine of Baba Chambliyal seems to have had a sectarian takeover recently. In Sufi tradition, the grave used to have a green shroud and incense. In 2017, however, it was “Hinduised”—the shroud is now red, Hindu icons have replaced the incense, and temple bells ring out loudly.
You cannot avoid present-day politics in any conversation. Generally, there is bewilderment and uncertainty about what was initiated by the prime minister two months ago. Jammu has welcomed the abrogation of Article 370, but few know what this implies. An academic mischievously declares that people here have welcomed it largely because the Kashmiris hate it! A student says, “What I want is peace in my state so that we have development.” But he is not clear how the recent initiatives will achieve this. And yes, he is deeply concerned about the lockdown in Kashmir. He firmly rejects the short-sighted view of some of his friends who ask why Jammu should suffer when all the problems are in Kashmir.
Is the state polarised on communal lines between Jammu and Kashmir? Yes, the core areas of Jammu and Kashmir are indeed divided on a sectarian basis, I am told. But the state is named “Jammu and Kashmir”; it is in the “and” areas, that is, the bulk of the state, where the people are truly mixed—multi-denominational, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic—and see themselves as one people. It is the “and” that truly binds the state.
(The author is a former diplomat)