Located on the posh Residency Road, MS Mall was the first shopping complex to come up in Srinagar. And this was when the city was still in the throes of militancy. Grenades and landmines would explode on a regular basis with only intermittent gunbattles to relieve their monotony. But 10 years down the line and through the halting and turbulent march to the ongoing Assembly polls, Srinagar has gone through an extensive physical makeover. And marking this change are the hulking, multi-storeyed shopping complexes sprawled across its expanding new bazaars.
There are more than 150 of them, a confection of glass and aluminium composite panels, built by a new class of politically connected businessmen, some of whom saw an inexplicably meteoric rise in their fortunes over the past two tumultuous decades. In a sense, these malls are a standing proof of the violent social rending, which in many ways, has reordered Kashmiri society.
Through means foul or fair, many people have incomprehensibly made it big. And among them are numerous bureaucrats, many of whose palatial houses across the upscale colonies of Hyderpora, Humhama, Barzulla and Sanat Nagar make up an eye-catching section of the physical outlook of the new Srinagar. No surprise then that Jammu and Kashmir is ranked second among the most corrupt states of the country.
The odd edifice out is Sangarmall, the state government’s own shopping centre on Maulana Azad Road. Spread over 8.5 acres, it is the largest mall in the city. It was inaugurated in June 2010, barely a week before the Valley erupted into a five-month long massive Azadi groundswell. Among its attractions is the Valley’s first Baskin-Robbins outlet, restaurants, besides a number of branded garment shops which pander to a growing clientele for high-end goods, the new affluent class who seek everything separate for themselves, from housing colonies to cars to shopping experiences.
But this radical class differentiation is yet to reflect in the politics of the city. Or it may be that the endemic nature of the conflict in the state has masked the questions of growing income disparity, even egregious social problems left behind by the 25 years of militancy in the form of thousands of widows and orphans and the alarming increase in depression — around 19 percent of the Valley, according to noted psychiatrist Dr Arshid Hussain, suffers from stress-related disorders.
The new city of glitzy malls is at an antiseptic distance from old Srinagar — the 2,000-year-old downtown city founded by Emperor Ashoka. Its native residents proudly refer to it as the Shahar-i-Khas, the authentic city, to snobbishly differentiate it from the new colonies filled up largely by people from the countryside who fled their villages through the 1990s to escape the atrocities of security forces, counter-insurgents and militants. But the fact is that it is the downtown city that is finding itself being relegated to history.
“The downtown has been left behind while Srinagar has expanded and moved on,” says Saleem Beg, a member of the National Museum Authority. “Its infrastructure is crumbling. The urban elite have migrated to posh new colonies. The old city is now generally the refuge of a lower-middle-class population incrementally deprived of their share in the system.”
In the city’s densely settled interiors, which bred militancy in the early 1990s, separatism drives the worldview. Its once magnificent facade along the Jhelum river is in a state of proactive decrepitude, so are its listless old bazaars, which for the most part, have ruined masonry of the decaying old houses for company.
These houses, says novelist Mirza Waheed, were once the “remarkable edifices of Kashmiri culture and history”. There are fewer customers now. Life continues to be prone to hartals and protests in a lingering throwback to the 1990s. There is barely any change in the Azadi slogans, which have been inherited unchanged by the new generation. The youth remain angry, rebellious and always willing to pick up stones, if no longer the gun, to take on New Delhi.
Militancy is now passé, but the still simmering anger finds its outlet through intermittent bursts of stone-pelting. In fact, since its atavistic resurgence during the Amarnath land row in 2008, stone-pelting continued through two successive summers on an unprecedented scale, bringing Kashmir into renewed international focus as a regional flashpoint. A group of several hundred masked youth operating from various localities used to bring the summer capital to a standstill. And it is their rage that radiated out and sucked the entire Valley into a sweeping whirl of violence.
The old city, as a result, is suspended between the struggle for Azadi and the need to carry on. And both the obligations clash on a daily basis. Shahar-i-Khas zealously guards its inwardness and authenticity and rebuffs tempting winds of change. Compounding its seclusion further is the rapid emergence of the uptown city as the new commercial hub. Over the past two decades, internal migration from villages to the city has established a whole new Srinagar complete with railways, airport, government installations and shopping complexes. This is fast turning downtown Srinagar into a decrepit settlement tottering on its foundations.
But one aspect where the old city has held its sway is politics. For the better part of the past 25 years, the downtown city has set the political agenda, which was followed in letter and spirit by people living in the extended swathes of the city and the rest of the Valley. But no longer. As the record participation in the ongoing polls has demonstrated, Srinagar, along with a few urban centres in north and south Kashmir, remains the last boycott stronghold, stoutly resisting the ever-creeping advance of mainstream politics.
Politically, the city has remained stranded since the fateful 1987 Assembly polls when from a resolute National Conference (NC) bastion, forever fending off overtures from the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-i-Islami, Srinagar dramatically slipped from the party’s grip. The about-turn was partly in reaction to the Rajiv Gandhi-Farooq Abdullah accord of 1985, which was seen as a betrayal of the NC’s strong sub-nationalistic credentials and the party’s historic role as an upholder of the Valley’s distinct sense of political identity.
The alternative was in the form of the swashbuckling politics of the Muslim United Front: a Jamaat-i-Islami-led amalgam of several political outfits, which, two years before the outbreak of militancy in 1989, offered the then still benign blending of politics and religion as the salvation to the Valley’s ills, heightening its appeal further with a subtle invocation of the separatist sentiment and ideology.
However, the rigged 1987 election broke the heart of Srinagar. The city has been in a perpetual political limbo ever since, with little prospect of polling on 14 December, when it is scheduled to vote. Years of living in the company of Kalashnikovs and expanding graveyards have, as it were, associated guilt with any normal political activity, making people prone to also look askance at the separatist leadership.
The city is in no mood to forget and move on. Maybe, it is because public memory in the urban milieu takes longer to fade than in ruralscapes. While Azadi and democratic participation have generally gone hand in hand in the countryside, Srinagar has continued to be the boycott spearhead in election after election. Many a political upheaval notwithstanding, Srinagar has refused to go mainstream.