In the valley of despair, women look for a high

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

August 23, 2009

The force of a midnight knock jolted Nazia Akhter (35) out of deep sleep on a chilly winter night in 1999. Before she could gather her wits, four masked gunmen had bundled her husband, Nazir Ahmed, into a car and taken him away. Ahmed was badly battered in captivity and seven days later when he was released, the family’s nightmare seemed to be over. But that was not to be. Armed forces picked Ahmed up to know his captors’ whereabouts. For next 10 days, Ahmed was thrashed so badly that he lost his memory. Nazia cried her eyes out through the 17-day ordeal and continued to weep buckets after the family faced penury, as Ahmed could no longer look after his once-thriving business. Over the months, Nazia became insomniac and restless. Somebody gave her a Diazepam tablet to relax. The family’s condition worsened so much so that the depressed mother of two started popping 15 tablets a day to relax. She was hooked on the sedative. This was when she was brought to a de-addiction centre in Srinagar.

Doctors say Nazia is not alone. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri women, who developed psychiatric disorders, fear psychosis, depression, stress-related disorders and suicidal tendencies during the two-decade-long turmoil, have taken to drugs (anti-depressants, painkillers and tranquillizers) which are easily available over the counter in absence of curbs in turmoil-hit Valley. Most are addicted to drugs ranging from medicinal opiates (opium-based drugs), cannabis and even heroin and cocaine.

Dr Mushtaq Margoob, a psychiatrist and author of the book Menace of Drug Abuse in Kashmir says an alarming 1.5 per cent women in Kashmir are addicted to opiates alone, which is the highest in the world. “Thousands of women are also addicted to contraband like heroin,’’ he says. He says four per cent of the women patients he sees daily are addicted to drugs to overcome depression. “The worst part is that it is a double-edged sword: They become addicts and the depression also lingers on.’’

Margoob has also come across patients using cocaine, costing an addict about Rs 2,000-2,500 per day. “Studies reveal that in comparison to 9.5 per cent use of opiate-based preparations during 1980 in Kashmir, it had increased to 73.1 per cent during 2002 and is worse now.’’

Women, as the worst victims of conflict, are more prone to its direct and indirect effects of death, destruction and unemployment. This pushes them into the trap of negative coping and drug abuse. “Women get hooked on drugs particularly opiates because such substances are easily available and used to relieve the symptoms,’’ says Margoob.

Dr Ghulam Nabi Wani, who has been running the de-addiction centre for 10 years, notes that almost every family has lost a member or somebody has been arrested or beaten up at some stage in last 20 years. “There is a pattern to drug abuse among women. Generally, women who have lost dear ones or have seen violent deaths become insomniac and in order to relax and sleep, they over the years became addicted to sedatives,’’ he says.

Poor implementation of licensing laws for sale of psychotropic drugs in the state compound the problem. Non-judicious use of drugs like Alprazolam, says Margoob, aggravates abuse potential of commonly used addictive drugs for anxiety and depression. “An assessment of the prescribing practice in anxiety disorder in Kashmir reveals a very disturbing trend that majority of such patients could possibly have been helped through counselling and psychotherapy rather than drugs,’’ says Margoob.

Another disturbing trend that has emerged is that elderly women, especially in rural areas, induce younger ones into smoking (hooka) to cope up with the bereavement. “With the easy availability of cannabis, these women often get hooked to them,’’ Margoob says.

The non-implementation of the Drug Act is also aggravating the problem. “If theAct is implemented, the addiction would come down by 50 per cent since the major reason for abuse is the easy availability of over the counter drugs like tranquillizers,’’ says Wani.

In fact, J&K has no drug policy since independence. “We will come up with one soon to check the menace of over the counter sale of psychotropic drugs,’’ said health minister Sham Lal Sharma. In a drug policy’s absence, anybody can buy medicine without a prescription.

A police officer said during the peak of militancy, they hardly had time to clamp down on drug trafficking and poppy cultivation. South Kashmir had become notorious for poppy cultivating till 2007 when police started a drive against it. Police have also engaged local clergy to support the campaign.

(First published in The Times of India)

Tardy procedures, mistrust & suffocating bureaucracy beset major India-Pakistan Kashmir CBM

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

November 2, 2008

Salamabad, otherwise a nondescript ethic pahari minority dominated village near the Line of Control (LoC), suddenly came alive on October 21, as villagers gathered to celebrate the historic opening of trade links across divided Kashmir for the first time in six decades.

The mood was festive as a crowd lined up on both sides of the LoC, clapping and celebrating the chipping away of yet another part of the  “iron curtain” between the divided Kashmir. On the other side children dressed in their brightest sang songs of an emotional reunion on the beats of drums and musical instruments.

Euphoria notwithstanding, the route, however, largely remains symbolic as limited trade would be allowed across the de facto border; only four trucks will be allowed each side once a week.

Skeptics say the opening of trade was nothing more than “a joke”. They point out that similar euphoria was created around the launch of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in 2005. But three-and-a-half years on, the service, described as “mother of all CBMs”, has miserably failed to meet expectations. Thanks to the tardy procedure, mistrust and suffocating bureaucracy, only 9,000 passengers have traveled between the two sides of Kashmir on the “peace bus” even as regional passport office Srinagar alone received 14,600 applications from Indian nationals.

Naseema Begum, who watched the flagging off ceremony on TV at her Srinagar home, says she could not help but think it was a cruel joke. Naseema says she has given up hopes of meeting her family in Muzaffarabad after she was denied a permit recently. “They sat on my application for more than three years and finally rejected it on flimsy grounds,” Naseema says. She says it’s easier to travel on a visa to Pakistan and asks, “What was the need of staging a drama that the travel on the bus will be hassle free for the divided families with no requirement of  visa and passport?” “It’s like rubbing salt into our wounds.”

Srinagar businessman Mohammad Shafi echoes the skepticism. “The opening of trade routes is historic, but we have our doubts looking at the fate of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which has been reduced to a mere symbolic practice,” he says.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised divided families’ expectations when he told Lok Sabha on April 20, 2005: “We started the service despite terrorist threats and a suicide attack. The courage and determination of our people give us confidence for its continued operation with even greater frequency in the future. I am convinced the service has tapped a latent reservoir of public support for greater people-to-people contact, especially among people living on either side of the LoC.”

The then foreign secretary Shyam Saran went a step further and described the bus service as a “humanitarian measure without prejudice and a win-win situation for all”.

“Hollow proved the lofty promises,” says Muzaffarabad-resident Nadeem Hashmi, whose application for a permit was also rejected recently. “Assurances of hassle-free travel across the LoC raised hopes of divided families. I have never met half of my family, which stays in Indian administered Kashmir. My father had migrated from Karnah in north Kashmir and settled in Muzaffarabad in 1947,” he says. “Ever contacts with our kin on the other side have been few and far between.”

Even the lucky ones like Noor Mohammad (name changed) of Karna, who managed to get a permit to see his kin in PoK, are bitter. “After a long wait, I finally managed to go to Muzaffarabad. But the suffocating bureaucracy and rampant corruption left me bitter,” he says. Noor alleges that while he was returning from PoK he was charged Rs 4,000 as “customs duty” even as he wasn’t carrying anything that warranted it.

Residents of Karna also point out that crossing points across the LoC set up to facilitate contacts between the divided families are “subjected to whims of local authorities on either side”.

“There is no accountability and the authorities demand bribes for letting people meet each other,” a local resident alleges. He says crossing points are opened on alternate Thursdays. “But no crossings were allowed on consecutive weeks last month. Once Pakistanis said they won’t allow crossing because of Eid holiday and then on our side Army refused crossings saying they were celebrating Dussera,” he says. “What is the point of having such arrangement when you cannot even meet your kin on Eid?”

Getting a permit to travel on the peace bus is complex and time-consuming. Once permission is sought, the issuance of a permit is subject to clearance from the secret services of India and Pakistan. And officials resort to the usual blame game. “POK authorities are responsible for the delay. They take a long time in clearing the applications, at times even more than six months,” a regional passport office official said. “We take at the most two.”

Intelligence agencies say they are choosy in recommending permits as many PoK residents refuse to go back. About a dozen of them have stayed back after approaching High Court. “We find it difficult to repatriate POK visitors as many of them go underground after failing to get permit extension to stay beyond 28 days,” a source said.

Intelligence agencies have also forcibly sent back around a dozen Pakistani citizens in last three years.

Visitors are allowed to stay beyond 15 days in case of some emergency but the permit rules make extension beyond 28 days impossible.

Aasim Awan who managed to get a permit to travel across LoC after a three-year wait says divided families deserve more than just symbolic gestures. “The bus service has been an abject failure,” he says. He says if the government is sincere, the least it could do for the divided families is to open telephone lines.  “Telephone is the basic service. We can only receive phone calls from PoK. Our government has banned telecommunication links across LoC,” he notes.  “So how can trade take place when people can’t talk on the phone?”

 Cautious optimism, however, prevails in Salamabad as local residents believe cross-LoC trade promises good days for the area, scene of the devastating October 2005 earthquake. Salamabad trader Mohammad Ibrahim said, “The region was always backward but earthquake made things worse. But the opening of the trade is a new ray of hope for us. The roads are being repaired and the development is visible.”

Courtesy: The Times of India

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/deep-focus/Trade-will-fail-like-the-bus/articleshow/3663720.cms?from=mdr

Enchanting Afarwat: On the top of the world, literally

The world’s highest gondola ski-lift first crosses the tree, then the cloud line and for once you do not have to look up to see the clouds on your way to Kashmir’s Afarwat

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

July 13, 2008

From Afarwat peak — 4, 390 m above the sea-level — of the Pir Panjal Range in the majestic Himalayas, Kashmir looks much better than how Mughal emperor Jehangir described the Valley: “Agar Janat Baroi Zamee Ast, Hami Asto, Hami Asto, Hami Aast (If there is paradise on earth…it’s here, it’s here).”

Afarwat, in the upper reaches of north Kashmir’s scenic resort town of Gulmarg, is the newest additions to similar enchanting locations across the Valley, where one seems to be at a handshaking distance with nature. The snow-clad peak has been a major attraction for skiers and adventure tourists from around the world after it was connected with Gulmarg via cable car in 2005.

The journey to Afarwat on the world’s highest gondola ski-lift is a breathtaking experience in itself as one first crosses the tree line and then the cloud line and for once you do not have to look up to see the clouds. The ropeway stretching 2.5 km connects the bowl-shaped Kongdoori valley with Afarwat. It is the world’s highest cable car using gondolas and the only one in the world that takes skiers and tourists to a height of 4,390 m. The return journey of 26-km costs Rs 300 on the ropeway, which ferries about 600 people per hour to and from Gulmarg.

Skiing experts say slopes at Afarwat are “beyond a skier’s imagination”. And then there is the price advantage in a sport that is often considered an expensive hobby. Afarwat is the cheapest ski destination — for Rs 1,000 rupees, a skier can have the skiing equipment, a gondola ride and accommodation for a day. The area also houses the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg. Afarwat is also a major attraction for other winter sports such as snow boarding.

The area’s charm does not end here; there is much in store for tourists just down the slope at Gulmarg. Gulmarg or the meadow of flowers is described as one of the most beautiful hill stations in India. It offers many opportunities to adventure seekers, including trekking through its green hills. Located in Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir, Gulmarg stands at a height of 2,730 meters above sea level. It’s about 57 km from Srinagar, the capital city. True to the Kashmir’s secular ethos, the town, otherwise a notified area, has a mosque, temple, church and a gurudwara.

Other attractions in Gulmarg include Khilanmarg, which is a famous skiing spot. It also offers a great view of the Kashmir Valley and the Himalayan range. You can also take a tour of the Alpather Lake, which usually remains frozen till June. The Lake lies across the Apharwat peak. You may also pay a visit to the shrine of Baba Reshi, a Muslim mystic saint, while you are on a tour of Gulmarg. Visitors can also enjoy golf in Gulmarg, which has the world’s highest golf course.

The journey to Gulmarg from Srinagar is a treat for the lovers of nature. The road to Gulmarg has freshwater streams running on either side and from Tangmarg, the road cuts through jungles with pine and deodar making it a breathtaking experience. A stone’s throw from Tangmarg is Drang, which is being developed into a resort. Drang has a freshwater stream cutting across two hillocks. The tourists throng Drang to savour the sunset. Importantly, Gulmarg — the base camp to Afarwat — has remained untouched by the two-decade-long insurgency.

Courtesy: The Economic Times

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/consumer-life/enchanting-afarwat/articleshow/3227262.cms

 

 

Nawaz Sharif cedes more ground to the army

Sharif has had a series of run-ins with the establishment over his three tenures that have led to removal from power twice

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Dec 13, 2015

When Lt Gen Nasir Khan Janjua was appointed as national security adviser (NSA) in October, it signalled tightening of Pakistani military establishment’s control over the country’s security and foreign affairs.

The appointment had been in the works for months and was effected in particular to ensure the establishment had its man in the thick of engagements with India that restarted with Janjua’s meeting with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, in Bangkok on December 6. The need for someone like Janjua was felt after Sharif was seen to have given in again following his meeting with Indian PM Narendra Modi in Ufa, Russia, in July.

The establishment was aghast to see its key concerns like Kashmir missing from the joint statement issued after the meeting and forced it to prevail upon Sharif to have Janjua replace his loyalist, Sartaj Aziz.

Aziz has been the odd one out as the only non-military NSA Pakistan has had so far.

Janjua fits the bill also because he retired as the chief of Pakistan army’s Quetta-based Southern Command, where he led anti-insurgency operations in Baluchistan.

His expertise is believed to be crucial as Islamabad seeks to counter allegations of fostering terror in India with accusations of India’s backing of Baluch insurgents.

Janjua was involved in Azm Nau (new resolve) war games as well. Azm Nau is a response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine that seeks to launch conventional strikes against Pakistan before the world comes to know about it without provoking a nuclear attack.

Janjua is seen to be the ideal person to keep Sharif on a tight leash vis-a-vis his India policy and deal effectively with his assertive Indian counterpart.

The establishment has long been suspicious of Sharif over his unilateral goodwill in defiance of its desire for parity with Delhi.

Janjua’s appointment is the latest compromise Sharif has made with the establishment since he faced third unceremonious removal from power when opposition leader Imran Khan led a campaign against him over “poll fraud” last year. Sharif has had a series of run-ins with the establishment over his three tenures that have led to removal from power twice.

He appeared to be once bitten twice shy when the army appeared to be the force behind the campaign to remove him in 2014. The army had booted Sharif first out of power in 1993 before he had his way briefly during his second stint.

Sharif forced army chief Jehangir Karamat to quit before the bid to sack his successor, Pervez Musharraf, boomeranged, leading to his exile.

He has acknowledged his India policy was partly responsible for his downfall in 1999 and his attempts to pick up the threads from where he had left then made things difficult for him in his current term. He backed good ties with India with calls for unilateral visa-free travel for Indians and Siachen demilitarization when he returned to Pakistan in 2007.

Sharif fought the 2013 election promising peace with India and declared his victory was a mandate for building bridges. He described peaceful relations with India as “the cardinal principle” of his foreign policy in his 2014 Independence Day speech.

Sharif earlier visited India to attend Modi’s inauguration defying hawks, whom he enraged further by defying the norm and not meeting Kashmiri separatists.

 He instead chose a meet a steel tycoon, who later reportedly arranged his secret meeting with Modi in Kathmandu.

The alleged meeting gave grist to the rumour mill in Pakistan that Sharif ‘s steel business interests force him to bend over backwards to please India.

Courtesy: The Times of India

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/New-NSA-to-keep-Sharif-in-check-on-India/articleshow/50157007.cms