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“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness”

The house of Mohd Ashraf Wani, a 72-year-old retired teacher with four children, three sons and a daughter is located on the banks of the Mawer river. When Kashmiriyat was a way of life and happiness was in abundance, when tourists used to swarm the Valley and people used to enjoy their festivals together, he used to begin his day by drinking his morning tea while sitting next to the window facing the river. He explained that the days he witnessed and grew up in were different, that Kashmir was a land of peace, wealth, and happiness, and that religious tolerance was a way of life. They would attend each other's celebrations and weddings where they would sing and dance, he claimed. He cherished every moment and spent it with friends and family. He never imagined a life that would be more fulfilling than the one he was currently leading.

Kashmir was then a true paradise, rich in the natural beauty of the region and brimming with the love and warmth of Kashmiris. He clearly recalls his travels to Srinagar's boulevards when he was a little boy of 12 years old with his uncle, who was himself a young, attractive and a stylish man. Following a movie at Palladium Talkies, they would eagerly anticipate a supper at Ahdoo's. Even now, Ashraf longs for the vibrancy and vitality of those boulevards, when diners were packed with tourists, shikaras sailed around Dal Lake, theatres were jam-packed, horses were being ridden and there were a lot of sellers along the streets. He still longs for the Kashmir of his youth.

Additionally, he recalls how Tikoo Sahab, his elementary school teacher, used to cane him for being late and whine about him to his father anytime they would cross paths. Rakesh, the only son of Tikko Sahab, was his friend, and the two of them had a magnificent, unbreakable relationship of love and affection that rendered them inseparable. They shared meals, activities and jokes with each other's families. He still has memories of Rakesh's wedding, including how he organised everything by himself and danced passionately throughout the mehandi raat. He still remembers all of these details as if they were just yesterday.

In those days, people of all faiths celebrated Eid and Diwali side by side and with equal zeal. That is the Kashmiriyat he learned, is familiar with, and recalls where people used to live as an extended family. But those times soon became a thing of the past. The youth of Kashmir was swept away in a rapid wave in the late 1980s. People were dying as a result of the absolute anarchy and disorder that reigned everywhere. For years, Pandits and other minorities coexisted peacefully, but suddenly they began to fear for their lives and left to safer areas beyond the valley. Ashraf will never forget the dreadful winter night when Rakesh and his family were forced to flee the valley quickly along with other Pandit households.

Ashraf still recalls the tragic evening when Tikko Sahab came and gave his father the house keys with tears in his eyes. One of the biggest losses of his life was losing his best buddy so abruptly. They were seeing the ruthless denigration of the Kashmir and the Kashmiriyat, which he knew, where he grew up and what he loved so profoundly. Violence and dread pervaded every area. Businesses and industries were suffering, and Kashmir's economy's foundation, tourism, was crumbling. The youth were unemployed, schools and colleges were either destroyed or shut down, and people lived in fear of guns and uncertainty. Security forces mistrusted us because we refused to work with them, while on the other hand some anti national elements and their allies were endangering Kashmiris. There didn't appear to be any relief or hope at the end of this pit of gloom. The avenues, movie theatres, and restaurants he recalled so lovingly were now all vacant. Terrorists drove the Palladium Theatre to close, restaurants stopped welcoming customers out of concern for terrorist attacks, bombings or being caught in a firefight and lastly, tourists ceased travelling to Kashmir.

Mid-1990s through 2010 was a turbulent time with no hope for the future. Many Kashmiris left the region and started companies elsewhere. The Kashmiri youth were brainwashed, misled and misguided toward self-destruction. The youth's stone-throwing and intifada-style protests became the new standard. For months, the educational institutions were closed, and when tourists stopped coming, businesses began to fail. Due to the complete closure of tourism, the poor hawkers, part-time vendors, shikarawalas, tangewalas, proprietors of handicraft shops, and many others who relied on tourists for their lives were suddenly forced to hunt for other daily wage jobs. These folks endured abuse from their own people, protesters, and their creators in silence.

The thugs of the so-called local people's representatives ruthlessly silenced many dissenting voices against these instigators of turmoil and unrest. The people gradually understood the strategy of those from across the border and those who supported them here in Kashmir after suffering for twenty years. Many people, including Ashraf, began to speak out against this senseless disturbance and the necessity of peace and prosperity. Like others, Ashraf prayed every day for the situation in Kashmir to improve for things to go back to how they were. The Kashmiri pandits should return, Azzan should be sung in mosques and Aarti in mandirs, Eid and Diwali should be celebrated jointly, Kashmir's boulevards should be alive once more, and tourists with their bustle should return. Ashraf believes in divine providence and things began to shift gradually.

The government bravely abrogated Article 370 in 2019. Since childhood the negativity was grilled so much that even Ashraf initially believed that the government had no right to implement such a change, but as development accelerated and work began in previously undeveloped areas, pending projects began to be completed promptly, and Panchayats, the foundation of state administration, gained strength and began operating efficiently, he came to understand the significance of repealing article 370 for the improvement of Kashmir. Slowly, the common people of Kashmir began to understand that they hold the power to inspire hope and "bring the change". Markets were opening, businesses thriving and people feeling confident enough to speak openly and honestly.

There now appears to be hope for a better tomorrow and for a Kashmir that is more optimistic. Ashraf has a strong belief that Kashmir is reconstructing itself, which gives him a great sense of confidence that, before too long, he would be able to visit the Kashmir he was familiar with, where he was raised, and where he lived. Here, Kashmiriyat has once again become a way of life. Tourists have again begun travelling to Kashmir to see the region's stunning natural beauty and learn about Kashmiriyat, which is a magnificent culture based on tolerance, love and fraternity. The paradise that had been temporarily lost has returned. Ashraf is confident that his Kashmir of young days is back and this time Kashmiris will not allow any other country or anti nationalists to spoil their home -

A Paradise on Earth! Would soon come true.

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