An open market stand in Srinagar (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
ROOHI NAZKI STARTED CHAI JAAI, a picturesque tea and bakery cafe on Srinagar’s Residency Road in 2016. It has just celebrated its fourth birthday. In this short duration, though, it was closed for almost half the time due to shutdowns of various kinds in the Kashmir Valley. Farooq Amin’s Safa Resorts and Hotels runs five boutique hotels in the Valley, two of which are in the midst of having their interiors redone. His 1,000 employees have been idle since August 2019 when Articles 370 and 35A were abrogated and internet services shut down. Iqra Ahmad’s Tulpalav, an online clothing store crafting the finest pherans from the Valley, was started in 2015 but has been struggling since the online restrictions. A physical store, ready to be inaugurated since 2018, remains locked even as Ahmad struggles to pay rent.
Yet not one of them has lost hope. Nazki has started experimenting with home delivery of bakery items; Amin, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) council of Confederation of Indian Industry, is lobbying for a financial package from the government to help tide over an overstretch heightened by the outbreak of Covid-19; and Ahmad fields calls every day asking to be mentored in the fashion business. For a long time, says Amit Wanchoo, doctor, musician, Managing Director of the lowcost healthcare manufacturer Eaton Laboratories and Fellow, Maurice Greenberg World Program, Yale University, “conflict was the biggest private limited company in Kashmir”. Not any more.
Wanchoo, one of the few Kashmiri Hindus who stayed back in the Valley, which saw the exodus of the 3.50-lakh-strong community, believes change is afoot. Whether it is Ishan Verma, born in a small village, Mangnar, in Poonch district on the India-Pakistan border, who cofounded the JK Startups Association and runs a tech business from Jammu, or Ruveda Salam, who joined the Indian Police Force in 2013 and is now tutoring young girls who wish to do the same, there is some optimism.
It is born of resilience in the face of an onslaught of challenges, particularly severe since 2014 when floods destroyed much of the Valley, followed by the agitation around Burhan Wani’s killing. Any work in Kashmir, be it a business venture or otherwise, says Nazki, requires a huge commitment. A commitment to make peace with the uncertainty that has unfortunately become synonymous with the place. To stay sane or even just afloat in Kashmir one requires the skill of a warrior and the heart of a saint, she adds.
And Kashmiris are showing those qualities in spades. Amin’s family firm, Kanwal Spices, the biggest spice manufacturers in J&K, has kept his business going with units in Jammu, Delhi and Bengaluru. Sahil Verma, a cofounder of JK Startups Association, has chosen to move back to Jammu to start an e-commerce business, PureMart, which believes in eating right and sourcing right and sells 221 food products from within J&K. He started with Rs 10,000, with which he bought 10 g of saffron. His father gifted him a 1-kg box walnuts as a goodwill gesture. “He said here’s your fortune box, make how much you can and serve the people with honesty,” says Verma. He started from his little flat in Kopar Khairane, Navi Mumbai. “My wife use to work with Glenmark Pharmaceuticals and I was with Cognizant Life Sciences. It was my birthday and as a gift I asked my wife to let me quit my job and work on the startup,” he says. This is how his journey started and they moved back to Jammu within six months. They are a team of 20 now and dealing in organic saffron, honey, shilajit, walnuts, garlic, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, handmade cosmetics and organic pickles. In the last one year their company has grown threefold.
“Ever since I’ve started, I’ve been called a startup without taking off,” says Iqra Ahmad founder, Tulpalav
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People in J&K, by and large, don’t want to wallow in the past. Vijay Dhar who has been running the Srinagar franchise of Delhi Public School since 2003 speaks proudly of how all his Class 12 students who took the CBSE exam passed despite a 10-month shutdown. They started online classes immediately and he says of the 268 children who took the exam, 172 got between 80 per cent and 100 per cent. “These children are the future,” he says. And they have every right to facilities that youngsters have in the rest of the country, whether it is education, employment or entertainment. He has got permission from the state to finally reopen the legendary Broadway Cinema in a new avatar as a multiplex and he hopes to do so by January.
In this environment, both Muslims and Hindus are willing to forgive the past and move on. It is not easy. Ashwath Bhatt, a Kashmiri Hindu actor best known for playing an Islamic-fundamentalist Pakistani soldier (in Raazi, 2018) and a fearsome Afghan warlord (in Kesari, 2019) had to leave the Valley in January 1990, only to return in 2006. He has chosen to spend his downtime as an actor working with children of strife. He had a choice between being bitter and better; he chose the latter and now dreams of a time when Kashmir can reclaim its status as the summer capital of Bollywood, featuring in major movies during the ’60s and ’70s. Sanjay Raina, Chief Operating Officer of Abu Dhabi Media, forced to flee the Valley in 1990 with his mother when he was 23, wants to return too, to establish the equivalent of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission in Kashmir and restore the Valley to its potential as a picturesque alternative, as it was once upon a time, to Switzerland. This is something Wanchoo is promoting actively as well, with his company Space Communications, which works as a facilitator in this area.
There is hurt and anger on both sides but also an understanding of the collateral damage of the prolonged war within. In 1991, Salam’s father was abducted and disabled by militants, a horrific incident she says opened her eyes to the reality of terror and “her perceptions about what has been going on in the Valley for the last three decades”.
“Any work in Kashmir, be it a business venture or otherwise, requires a huge commitment. A commitment to make peace with the uncertainty that has unfortunately become synonymous with the place. To stay sane or even just afloat in Kashmir one requires the skill of a warrior and the heart of a saint,” says Roohi Nazki founder, Chai Jaai
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BUSINESSMEN SUCH AS Sanjay Puri and Vikrant Kuthiala who have spent many years keeping their heads above water in J&K are hopeful of change within their lifetimes with better infrastructure. Puri’s family runs PMark oil since 1933, while Kuthiala has been in the timber and steel business. What emerges today is a possible new vision of J&K as a soft power, with tourism, the return of the movie business, horticulture and online commerce. Puri expects to start a food park in Jammu soon. KB Kachru, Chairman emeritus of the Radisson Group, which has invested in seven hotels in the area, is hopeful of Kashmir reimagining itself as a new India’s leading domestic destination. “There are 26 million Indians who travel overseas every year. This year, because of the fears around Covid-19, they are not going anywhere. If Kashmir is able to attract even 5 per cent of that traffic, it can re-energise the people. And remember, almost 80 per cent of the traffic to J&K is to Mata Vaishno Devi. We still haven’t developed any destination around it to create a tourism triangle.”
After the change in J&K’s status in August 2019, there is resentment against the marketing of this moment in the area’s history as Naya Kashmir, an idea first mooted by Sheikh Abdullah in a memorandum that he gave to then Maharaja Hari Singh in 1944.
“My father was abducted and disabled by militants. That horrific incident opened my eyes to the reality of terror and perceptions about what has been going on in the Valley for the last three decades,” says Ruveda Salam, IPS
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People in J&K want a change in conditions. It still does not have a clearcut policy of industrial incentives though the business community was told in February by Union Minister of State for Industries Som Prakash that it would be notified within 15 days. This is a prerequisite to inviting any fresh industrial proposal. No one is going to invest in a region unless they know exactly where they stand. Ditto for the demand for financial aid to cover costs incurred during the Covid-19 lockdown. Add to that that 4G mobile services are still suspended, hurting online businesses such as Ahmad’s. From a high of selling 100 pherans and assorted outfits a month, she has been able to sell the same number over the whole of last year. “Ever since I’ve started I’ve been called a startup without taking off,” says Ahmad.
ON THE OTHER HAND, Ishan Verma has a different story to tell, which suggests that there should be better connect between fledgling businesses in the region. Ishan (no relation of Sahil Verma) moved to Jammu 17 years ago to pursue further education and after graduating in civil engineering decided to become an entrepreneur. After an initial struggle, they were among the first startups to be incubated at the technology business incubation centre at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, Katra. Collaboration is key, as is innovation. Wanchoo, for instance, is developing a programme to map districts of J&K linked with their sector-specific states on the basis of product use. He says cricket bat manufacturers of Anantnag can be connected to Board of Control for Cricket in India headquarters in Maharashtra, or saffron growers of Pulwama can be linked to the temple of Tirupati. “Imagine,” he says excitedly, “the optics of Muslim farmers growing saffron for one of the country’s holiest Hindu temples.”
Entrepreneurs dream of a time when Kashmir can reclaim its status as the summer capital of Bollywood, featuring in major movies during the ’60s AND ’70s
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He is a great proponent of the return of Kashmiri Hindus (known as Pandits) to the Valley and believes their greatest allies are common Muslims. “Ask me,” he says, “I never left and in fact I was the only Hindu student of MBBS in Government Medical College, Srinagar, and yet was elected as president of the students’ union in 1998-99.” His grandfather HN Wanchoo was assassinated in 1992 by Ashiq Hussain Faktoo but instead of letting that cloud his judgement he started an emergency ambulance service in his honour. “We have to inspire the 10-year-old in Kashmir today to become part of the change. Only then will the next generation be able to tell a different story,” he says. And adds Raina, even the Hindus who go back will have to prove themselves to those who stayed back, who had to suffer the double whammy of militancy and security force stringency.
Even many educated Muslims had to be persuaded to stay back in the Valley. Amin recalls with a laugh how Jairam Ramesh forced him to stay back by taking away his passport. “I had returned after studying in the UK in 2002, and he said the Valley needed youngsters like me,” he recalls. Today Amin is paying it forward by articulating the challenges facing young businesses in the region—according to an estimate there are 25,000 MSMEs in the J&K. And even in the smallest unit, work is inclusive and multicultural, as befitting the heritage of the region. Tulpalav, for instance, employs four tailors and two embroiderers, but among them are a Bengali and a Bihari.
“We have to inspire the 10-year-old in Kashmir today to become part of the change. Only then will the next generation be able to tell a different story,” says Amit Wanchoo managing director, Eaton Laboratories
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Kashmir, once the font of seven waves of migrations of Hindus, beginning with one under Shah Mir, who established Muslim rule in Kashmir in the 14th century, may well learn to reclaim its history as a region where there was no exclusion and no insularity and which sheltered everyone—from zealots to scholars, mystics to conquerors, missionaries to atheists, agnostics to warriors and allowed them, as writer Siddhartha Gigoo has said, to profess and practise their ideas and beliefs.
It won’t be politicians and bureaucrats who will do this, but ordinary people, dreaming big and keeping hope afloat. Says Dhar, 40 per cent of Kashmir is under 35. “They are seeing a new universe and want to be part of it.” Why can’t J&K become a hub for education, he asks, given Sheikh Abdullah had made it compulsory way back in 1951. Theosophist Annie Besant set up the Vasanta Girls School and the iconic Sri Pratap Singh College. Till 1977, every state had a two-seat quota for Jammu and Kashmir students in their technical institutes. Having watched Kashmir closely for over 70 years, he says: “In the last 30 years no one has talked to the youngsters of the state. Do it now. Talk to them, ask them what they want.” It’s no different from the rest of the world.