Millennium Post

Winning hearts and minds

Lolab, one of the most beautiful and picturesque of valleys in the Kashmir Valley, is located 15 kms from Kupwara, which has been one of the major target areas for inducting terrorists trained and motivated by Pakistan army and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) for over two decades. Its mesmerising landscape, snow-covered peaks, streams and waterfalls and the kind of sheer scenic beauty has moved many poets, painters, photographers, writers and not to forget, Bollywood film-makers. The seductive landscape, dense forests, lush green meadows and kaleidoscopic scenery fills the heart with joy and eternal happiness. Although it is called the nature’s paradise yet this area is remote with little infrastructure. It has been left behind in the race for development due to the effects of militancy. While the people have stood firm and faced the brunt of militancy with courage, the beauty of the place was much marred by the atrocities of terrorists. Owing to the relentless efforts of Indian Army, other security forces and the civil administration, the situation improved and while Pakistan army and ISI continues to induct trained and motivated terrorists, their success-rate has reduced so much with these efforts, that people of the Kashmir Valley have been able to enjoy normalcy and peace and with tourists again swarming in to fill all hotels and houseboats to full capacity.
The Army with its well-implemented policy of winning hearts and minds has been able to devote time and effort towards civic assistance programmes, which have brought a sea change in the lives of people. Lolab valley has a vast potential for tourism and various avenues are being explored to bring about economic development in the area by capitalising on adventure tourism.

In a unique initiative, for the youth of Lolab, 8 Sector Rashtriya Rifles under Counter Insurgency Force (Kilo) sponsored thirty young boys from the remote areas of Lolab to undergo basic, intermediate and advanced courses in skiing at the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM) to meaningfully engage them and assist them in exploiting their talent.

The IISM was set up at Gulmarg by the department of Tourism in 1969, with the aim of introducing adventure sports to promote the tourism industry. The institute imparts technical training and conducts snow skiing course at Gulmarg during mid December-early April). It is well equipped with the best-imported equipment and has qualified Ski instructors. The institute had been attracting a large number of trainees as well as tourists not only from within the country but throughout the world. It is at this premier institute that thirty boys have been sponsored to undergo this training. For the youth here, the countdown has begun for learning and honing their skills and showcase them in the national and international forum.

Of the thirty boys selected, nineteen boys underwent the advance skiing course, from 26 December 2011 to 8 January 2012. Out of these nineteen, four were handpicked by IISM with high potential, to further undergo competitive training, so as to enable them to compete in national and international ski championships.

Having undergone training for a limited period, these four boys took part in the national winter games, which were conducted at Manali from 5 to 10 February 2012. They qualified for the national championship from nearly 150 participants from all over India. Their performance has indeed been commendable, considering the fact that these young boys had moved out of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in their lives and had limited training and exposure prior to commencement. The Indian Army’s motto ‘Catch them young, watch them grow’ in the field of sports has borne fruit. Principal, IISM, strongly feels that these young boys have the potential to represent India in the winter Asian games and subsequently in the winter Olympics, in the years to come.

These four boys are now being trained in Gulmarg by Olympian coach, Gul Mustafa Dev, a skiing professional of international repute, and one of India’s leading skiers, who incidentally also hails from Jammu and Kashmir. Indian army is sponsoring all requirements of the selected boys like the special diet, equipment, training, medical, cost of travel, audio visual aids etc. These children will also be training alongside with the army ski team, under the aegis of High Altitude Warfare School, Gulmarg, an military training institute of international repute.

One of those selected to undergo competitive training is 14-year-old Kashif Shafi Bhatt. This young skiing enthusiast had neither the resources nor family backup to pursue his dreams. He volunteered in a drive by the army to train young talent in the field of skiing. The path he chose was tough, with jolts and jerks. He toiled hard and with his sheer determination, he was among the top four, who were handpicked by IISM to undergo further training.

On 4 March 2012, Kashif secured the top position in the Sub Junior Giant Slalom event in the Gandola Skiing championship, organised by Jammu and Kashmir state cable car corporation at Gulmarg. He was presented a trophy and a cash award of Rs 15,000 by Rajen Habib Khwaja, Secretary of Tourism. 18 March 2012, again brought laurels to the young competitors from Lolab, when they swept all the top positions in the Slalom event of the state ski championship organised by Jammu and Kashmir winter games, jointly with the state tourism department in Gulmarg. An unassuming 13-year-old Ishtiyaq Mohammad Bhat, a student of IX class in Army Goodwill School, Chandigam secured first position in the event. Kashif Shafi Bhatt of the same class and from same school stood second. The third position was also bagged by Bilal Kamal Shah, 14, from the village of Kawari. These boys are now selected to be part of Jammu and Kashmir state team for the next national winter games, slated to be held in Auli, Uttarakhand.

The untapped potential of these boys from Lolab who have excelled at the ski championship was identified by 8 Sector Rashtriya Rifles. This unique initiative of the Army has been welcomed by the public and the Jammu and Kashmir government. This outstanding feat of the young boys of Lolab will be a big motivating factor for the youth of Jammu and Kashmir in general and of this remote area in particular. Such efforts bring laurels to the state and the country in national and international sports' events. The endeavour is to have a holistic development of this area of North Kashmir, Wadi-e-Lolab. The efforts are on to fully exploit the tourism and to be specific adventure tourism potential of this location. The snow conditions, terrain and the length of skiing season in Lolab coupled with a dependable tourist infrastructure which is being built here by the state government will bring this place on the tourist map of the country.

By imparting adventure training, the youth are being shown a path to develop their home district Lolab into heaven for tourists and bring about a holistic development of the area. This aspect needs to be understood, explained and publicised to the populace adversely affected by Pakistan, sponsored terrorism in the Kashmir Valley. Indian army is doing precisely this and is an important stakeholder in the development of this area.
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