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August 2021, the much-awaited reunion with heavenly Kashmir ensued, albeit after a lapse of a decade and my happiness knew no bounds. One got privy to the limitless development on ground – the mushrooming of brick kilns and numerous stone crushers – all along the approach path (slope) of my Air India flight to Srinagar airport, brimming with a cross-section of self-disciplined gentry amicably factoring the pandemic times. Impressively within 20 minutes of touch down as one gathered the baggage from the carousel and took the exit a whiff of fresh air engulfed oneself – more pronounced with humid Delhi being my boarding port. Commonly stated – “till experienced on ground and in person, don‟t believe the eyes alone” and to my dismay lay this maze of passenger vehicles that occupied the parking slots but in a disciplined manner. Unease surfaced within me to look for my pick-up. Putting my mind at ease though were the majestic Himalayas on the horizon that stole the show and left me spell bound. While, in the middle distance was the historic "Shankaracharya Temple‟ atop the hill- all pervasive on the banks of Dal. The sight of the revered shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva instilled serenity and made one overflow with a sense of gratitude. His blessings have always ensured success and safety during the challenging times in the valley.

One got the feel yet again of hot lead whizzing past in a crucial operation. The first suicide attack, referred to as "fedayeen‟ attack by the LeT had manifested at Batwara Gate of BB Cantonment housing the Headquarters of Srinagar based 15 Corps. The new tactics that had never existed in South Asia before 1990, but introduced by the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka was now espoused by the terrorists and manifesting in the valley. Indian Army as always, professional to the core, flexible in approach and battle hardened, adapted and countered to this new concept too with success in days ahead. The fourth reunion of mine with Kashmir in the year 2009 witnessed no such mis-adventurism by the sponsored breed of terrorists – exactly a decade since its inception. The hawkish elements – the deep state- of yours Sathi, that planned the brazen Mumbai attacks in 2008 was an ideal recipe at our end for the rerun of 1971 outcomes. However, statesmanship prevailed and building of a responsible nation - a regional power – our focus and world desire, while you were concomitantly branded as deeply untrustworthy and a rogue nation.

Haqeeqat was that you yourself were on fire and bearing the consequences of rearing a snake in own backyard. September 2008 massive truck bomb – the sound of which reverberated 30 km and beyond – blew up the Marriott Hotel at Islamabad, killing fifty-three people and injuring two hundred sixty-six. October saw yet another deadly suicide attack in FATA that killed eighty five and wounded around two hundred tribesmen of yours. All this as your air base at Shamsi, Baluchistan was itself utilised by the foreign power to execute twenty-two drone missile attacks (signature strikes) on your soil in last four months of 2008 killing clusters of common man too. Year 2009 was the nadir moment, as your state and army's helplessness were at full display, with the General Headquarters itself being infiltrated and swarmed by terrorists and more than forty officers and guards held hostage for twenty hours.

As one departed from the beautiful valley of Kashmir in 2011 with utmost satisfaction; the Mehran naval base attack rocked your nation, taking place in the vicinity of the Masroor air base where nukes are housed. And, in the intervening year of 2010 you faced the brunt of eighty-seven suicide attacks resulting in killing of more than three-thousand people.

Silsila of getting back to my tryst with our Kashmir, its cordial and elegant people and rich culture. The driver of the earmarked vehicle surprisingly, quickly homed onto me as one was immersed in beautiful surroundings. With a pleasant smile he greeted – "As-Salam-Alaikum‟ and guided me to the parking lot where the vehicle was stationed. Yes, no more drive-in to the closest pick-up point at arrival terminal – the humanised version of my Army was at full display. “Jenab – Army parking area main aapka gadi hai – bas pachaas meter aage” – the sweet voice was so comforting. The minute walk led to the connect with Rayees Ah Sheikh resident of a village near Kupwara, son of an Army man who was part of the 1971 victory, his brother in ITBP (posted at Galwan in mid-2020), and sister married to a policeman posted at Sonmarg. On second thoughts, here one meets a Kashmiri more Indian and patriotic than one till date counted oneself.

As one sunk into the comfortable bucket seats of the swanky and sparkling vehicle, my mobile buzzing with messages of missed calls came to life with a ring. SP Khalid called and asserted with pure brotherly affection that a refreshing break has been planned at the Police Headquarters Officer Mess at Hum huma. Our association goes back to the tenure along banks of Wullar Lake in 2019. The conjoined effort of the security forces had led to annihilation of terrorist bases at Bandipora district, and elimination of long surviving terrorist leader – Abu Zar – supposedly an army officer from across coordinating the infiltration/transit of terrorists and attacks in the belt. He requested me to have a cup of tea prior to commencement of journey to my new destination on the LoC. I was received at the mess premises by SPO Mallik - recruited in 2001, injured twice in counter terrorist operations – all beaming with smile as if we knew each other since ages. Certainly, that's the association men in uniform develop at first connect and nurture in years of service. His hospitality and the Kashmiri Chai on the lush green lawns were relished post the tiring flight and is yet another episode of togetherness and bonhomie amongst Army and JKP in the valley.

The next call that livened me further was from SP Shamsheer Singh (Dardpora Encounter Mate then ASP), for lunch break at his house at Budgam. With no excuses entertained and inspite of him heavily committed in security preparations, one dashed to meet another compatriot. How one craved for the Kashmiri Wazwaan since the day posting order was received is unexplainable. And, here I was relishing my favourite dish "TabakMaaz‟. SSP, Mr Junaid, a handsome and brave officer – our association goes back to the enterprising days spent together handling the agitations and stone pelting phase of terrorism - left a warm message, “We must touch base when you are back "home‟- Srinagar”.

The melodious songs of Bollywood on Kashmir with “Pukarta Chala Hoon Main” from movie “Mere Sanam” (on auto-repeat) were my companions all along the four-hour journey from Srinagar to Kupwara. The 'Milap'en-route with my 'Man Friday' – Mir Raza, 'Fatherly Figure‟ – Sheikh Sahaband Goodwill School teacher were the heartening connect that reinvigorated me further. And, as one was recollecting the quarter century in uniform – no doubts the reunion with Kashmir reinstated the Farsi couplet by Amir Khusrau –

'Agar firdaus bar roo-ezameenast,

Hameenast-o, hameenast-o, hameenast'

Why Not – 1700 kms away from my family, along the bucolic surroundings of Kupwara, with 24X7 electricity, running water in washrooms, in the company of happy gleaming folks and the luxury of 4G network – the aloofness has been negated, the love and care remains unbound and The Tricolour – 'Tiranga', adorns the rooftops more than anywhere in the heartland.

Salah was given by my sathi – you've off-late undertaken a wise step of cease-fire. Sort out the chaos and turmoil in your backyard, achieve stability, abrogate fragility, and change the course from a febrile state to one with more than 20% safe drinking water to households, literacy rate above 59%, uninterrupted power supply – obsessed with growth, peace and wellbeing not living off the loan programmes. The myopic Army's all-consuming psychological obsession with India, embracing self-defeating assumptions and false narratives has allowed history to pass you. The peace and economic dividend at the end of the cold war that benefitted many countries rolled by you unnoticed.

12 September 11, 2001 was a wake-up call to end your dependence on jihadi groups as a surrogate for conducting foreign policy. Let 'Snooze mode' not make you yet again overlook the geo-political and strategic shift in South Asia, the growth envisaged post pandemic and add to the quagmire and soda straw vision. Plan and cater for a population of 380 million as projected by UN for your nation by 2050. Or, simply refer to your own classified report “Pakistan Security Imperatives in the Mid-Term”, of year 2000 commissioned by the Army, which concluded that security threat was primarily internal and related to Islamic Extremism, and that unless strategic thinking changed the country will be dragged to an undesirable state/direction.

Till then, let me hit my base since ages – Srinagar, and celebrate our Republic Day with the unfurling of Tricolour at Lal Chowk, a ride in Shikara with my friend on Dal Lake, yummy Kebabs in the evening at Khayam Chowk and embrace the colours of Zero Bridge gobbling along cookies from Jaan Bakers - as the "Naya Kashmir‟ hosts me with unending love and affection in its journey to prosperity.

“If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.”

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