A poster in the main dining area of Gulmarg’s Raja Hut reads: “If you will not take care of your customers, somebody else will.”
The owner – Faulad ‘Iron’ Khan – seemingly lives by those words.
Gulmarg, in Kashmir, has many such lodges, but Raja Hut stands out. Here, a tourist can check into the two-storey hut and stay for free.
In a corner of the dining area, sits a Bukhari, an iron hearth that Kashmiris traditionally use to keep their houses warm in chilly winters. At the top of the Bukhari, sits a pot of kahwa that keeps boiling from morning till the late hours into the night. Khan watches over as tourists – mostly ski lovers – come and go.
‘Iron’ KhanI serve them free food and kahwa because I want them to feel good about Gulmarg and Kashmir at large. I want them to come here every year. And I want them to spread the good word about us so that more people can come to Kashmir.
Fight Against Militancy
Khan was a militant during the notorious nineties in Kashmir. But later, he fought other militants to keep militancy away from his area.
But his story of becoming a militant is a little different.
An ardent fan of Bruce Lee, Khan was good at wielding nunchaku. It made him popular among the youth of his hometown Tangmarg – not very far from Gulmarg in Baramulla district.
As a man coming of age in Kashmir, Khan was forced to pick up a gun in the early nineties.
‘Iron’ KhanIt was the summer of 1993. A militant came to learn nunchaku from me. He could see that I was good at it. The following day, he came again with a few other boys, and asked me to join militancy. I was beaten and was left in a bad shape when I refused.
From Bruce Lee to Militancy
Khan’s father, who was a cook in an Indian army camp in Baramulla, was furious. But what followed was numerous threats to his family. Khan, thereafter, crossed over to Pakistan and joined the militants. He was affiliated to Al Jehad.
‘Iron’ KhanWhen we were crossing over to India after our training in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, we were fired upon by Hizbul Mujahideen people. We had lost most of our people. I realised that gun was no good for us. Our own people were killing each other.
Khan tried to stay away from militancy, but after his brother was killed in 1995 at the hands of militants, he was forced to fight.
Ten years later, all he wanted was a peaceful life.
Cook-Owner of Tourist Hut
Khan had learned cooking from his father. He decided to put his skill to use when he leased his tourist hut, Raja Hut, in Gulmarg. Although Khan doesn’t charge tourists for lodging or food, his customers pay him wilfully.
Besides, his sons – 19-year-old Ashraf and 20-year-old Raja – teach skiing and snowboarding to tourists for a living.
A Stressful Summer Followed by a Snowy Winter
The summer of 2016 was marred by unrest, and therefore, poor business and tourism for Kashmir. But, fortunately, 2017 brought good snow – and a lot of tourists.
Like many Kashmiris, Khan wants the end of militancy in the state.
‘Iron’ KhanThese boys should be given (employment) opportunities. Pellet guns, violence and stone pelting wouldn’t lead us anywhere.
He further adds: "Kashmir needs economic development, and not unrest. Gulmarg brings people to Kashmir, and every single tourist ensures employment to a thousand people here. From an airline wala, a houseboat owner, a tourist guide and a shikarawalah to handicrafts market, hotels and ski shops, numerous families survive on tourism.”
Life of Fear
A warm-hearted old man, Khan doesn't keep a gun with himself, but he hardly leaves his hut. He is scared of being targeted by militant organisations active in Kashmir.
He now wishes his boys, Ashraf and Raja, to leave Kashmir for Canada or any other country where they can aspire for a ‘safe’ future.
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