In the time that we had spent in Kishtwar we had discovered that we didn’t have to ride back through the route that we had come in order to make our way towards Srinagar. We’d learn of an alternate route that would take us towards our first mountain pass and towards Anantnag through Sinthan Top. This was going to be an even more offbeat route than the one we had just come on, and we didn’t need much convincing. Rather than take on a huge distance in one day, particularly because we were now in territory more unfamiliar than any before, and that we had no idea of what to expect of Sinthan Pass, we decided to break journey at a town called Daksum that lay at the foothills on the other side of the mountain pass. We were told that this journey would take us less than 7 hours in total. So, at around 8 am the next morning, we loaded up the bikes once again and set off to conquer new heights.
The day got off to a good start. Progress was slow, but more than anything else, it felt good to be back on the saddle after some rest. About 60 kilometres from Kishtwar, we were stopped at an Army check-post. The guards on duty asked us to dismount our bikes and enter the cabin to fill in a log. This was not uncommon, we’d had to do it several times in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. But just as I was turning to leave, one of them called out to me and handed me a phone to speak to “Major Saab”. That, had never happened before. The officer that I spoke to asked me a few questions about where we were coming from and our intended destination. He then went on to tell me that there was a small protest that had broken out on the route up ahead. He said that they hadn’t yet got any reports that it was unsafe to go further, but we should “proceed with caution”. This was just the kind of conversation I didn’t want to be having in Kashmir and yet, here we were, in a bit of a fix. I spent some time chatting with the personnel at the check post. They seemed pretty confident that riding further ahead would not be a bad idea. They told me that the local police was already on the scene and they would help ensure our safe passage through. Besides, you can always turn around and come back, they said. So, we decided to continue our ride.
About 5 kilometres down the road, we were stopped at a police checkpost. It was now their turn to get us to fill up a register. Their warning was less severe. They told us that there were policemen at the village where trouble had been reported and that we would probably be able to ride through without an issue. Besides, you can always turn around and come back, they said. So, we decided to continue our ride.
Less than 2 kilometres later, we came to a halt once again. There were three policemen lined-up across the road and they weren’t letting any vehicles through (who needs barricades when policemen can themselves be the barricade). A few cars were parked on the side of the road, as were several police trucks. I was told by the policemen that the protest had broken out because one of the men from the village had been found dead in the nearby river, and the villagers believed that he had been killed by the army. They alleged that the death was due to an abuse of power by the army and they now wanted some action to be taken to provide justice.
The policemen at the barricade suggested that I go speak to the officer-in-charge in order to see whether we would be able to pass. So I walked further into the village and eventually found the policeman who was in charge of the scene. I was now standing ten feet from the protest itself. A 100 or more people were gathered in a circle. There were tyres and other things that had been set on fire and strewn around. It looked like the crowd had only assembled a short while ago, because things were fairly quiet. A significantly larger crowd had gathered on the walls and around the protest area to witness what was going on.
I had to wait for a few minutes before I could get the officer’s attention. It was during this time that I began to realise just where I was. Relying on the several reassurances that I had received along the way, I had successfully landed up a few metres away from the situation that every single person in the world who visits Kashmir is advised to avoid. Technically, there was no way I could have known that this was what lay in store, given that until now I had been led to believe that we would be able to pass through the area. But as I stood there, I knew that these people weren’t going to let anyone through for any reason. When the officer finally spoke to me a few minutes later, he confirmed what I had suspected. No one was going to be going through the village until these folks were convinced to stand down. The police could do nothing.