Srinagar: Amid tense faces on the flight to Srinagar, there is a group of elderly Sikh men and women busy clicking selfies, snacking and cracking jokes. It’s an unusual sight even for the flight crew, who have been dealing with concerned passengers rushing to their dear ones since the lockdown in the Valley on 4 August.
“Jo bole so nihal, sat Sri Akal!” The 60 men and women chant in unison as the flight takes off, followed by a round of applause.
For the group of senior citizens, it is their first trip to “heaven on earth”. But records of the tourism department in Srinagar reveal a greater significance — this is the first large group of tourists to visit the Valley since the abrogation of Article 370.
Since 5 August, barring a group of 21 foreign tourists that visited on 8 August, there hasn’t been a single tourist who has entered the Valley, according to the records.
“This is the first big group of tourists after 5 August and it is a good sign. This is an indication that everything will soon be normal,” says an official from the tourism department.
Who are these travellers?
The men and women are all ‘sevaks’ (helpers) at Delhi’s Sis Ganj and Bangla Sahib gurdwaras, accompanied by a travel agent and his wife, who have arranged special permission from the central government to travel around the Valley.
The group plans to stay in Srinagar for two nights, visit Dal Lake and take a ride on a shikara (they want to see where the song ‘Taareef karun kya uski’ from Kashmir Ki Kali was shot), pray at Gurdwara Chatti Sahib near Nilgiri Lake, visit Kargil for a day, and then reach Gurdwara Pathar Sahib near Leh in Ladakh.
Ratan Chand Tanwar, 81, is excited to see rose gardens in Kashmir. He said he had to fight with his children to come on this trip — a tale repeated by many in the group.
“My children were scared but I told them nothing will happen to me since it is a religious trip. God is with us,” Tanwar says.
The group had planned the trip three months ago and made all the bookings in July. Once the restrictions were imposed, the group first thought of cancelling the plan, but later decided against it.
“Everything was paid for and arranged. Cancelling it would have meant losing all the money. Moreover, everyone was very excited, especially the women in our group, so we decided to go ahead with it,” says Harbans Singh Khalsa.
“We were constantly keeping a watch on the situation in Kashmir every day, but were very confused as different news channels had different versions. But then, we left it to god. A lot of people initially backed out as their children were very concerned, but they had to be convinced. We told them it is a religious trip and we will be safe.”
‘We are here to spread peace’
While waiting for their baggage at Srinagar airport, some of the women are busy clicking selfies.
“We will ride on a shikara, stay in a houseboat, have Kashmiri Kahwa,” says 64-year-old Paramjeet Kaur with a giggle. “Both my kids are married and this is my time to have fun.”
Urmila Kapoor, 62, agrees. “We are here to visit the heaven on earth and we are not scared. We know no one will harm us. We have nothing to do with this on-going politics. We are here to spread some peace and happiness,” she says with a smile.
Another woman from the group, in her 70s, adds: “The Kashmiris are very loving people. We know that the tourists here will be safe, so I was not scared.”
‘Difficult to arrange’
Navneet Kaur, whose husband is the travel agent who has arranged this trip, says she received “20 calls a day” from the members of the group who were concerned about the situation in Kashmir.
“These people are very gutsy. Though they had their doubts about this trip, still they came. They knew that the communication is down, no shops will be open, but they were still excited about it,” Kaur says.
“Most of these people have come to Kashmir for the first time. Some of the women actually sat in a flight for the first time.”
Kaur says the trip was very difficult to arrange. “The communication lines are down and there are so many security concerns. My husband and I came here last week just to check if all the arrangements were in place, and went ahead only after we were satisfied.”
Plans hit a snag
Navneet Kaur’s best-laid plans hit a snag when she starts discussing the itinerary with the owner of the houseboats where the group is to stay for two days.
“Ma’am, you will not be able to take the group around much as the security is very tight. There is a red alert in Gulmarg, so that is out of the question, and the group cannot move around on foot as much,” the owner tells Kaur, adding, “For the food, nothing lavish can be arranged. They will have to make do with the limited ration supply.”
As Kaur asks if there would be sufficient food for two days, the man shrugs, but promises to make some arrangements.
“Also, I can send them for a shikara tour in the afternoon or evening, if they like, but not very far into the Dal Lake,” he says.
“Just arrange something,” she tells him, adding, “If they want to go anywhere else, I will ask them to make their own arrangements. I just want them to be out of here safely.”
The owner replies: “It is better they stay inside and do not venture out. I can also arrange some shawl sellers who will come in here and sell their wares.”
The sense of optimism around Kaur seems to have been replaced by concern now. “This did not go as planned. But I just wish that we get out of here safe.”