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Victoria Schofield
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'The beauty of Kashmir as I observed.'

The Nation, London, 24 September 2009

Article:

Kashmir remains a land of contrasts. The green valley, the mountains, the lakes still make it one of the most beautiful places in the world. But it is  also  a place of tension. Flying over the valley before landing, the visitor is immediately warned that Srinagar airport is a ‘defence airport’ and  photography is strictly forbidden. And yet, in addition to the cantonment of army huts ringing the airport’s perimeter, the tarmac has spawned a flock of new independent airlines, all flying regularly to Kashmir, transporting Kashmiris and Indian holiday makers (and some token foreigners) to and from Delhi.  Gone are the days when only Indian Airlines flew into Srinagar. Within the space of an hour of my ‘Spice jet’ flight arriving, in addition to Air India, three other flights landed, sporting the logos of three more  airlines: luxurious but expensive Kingfisher,   Jet –Air and Go-Air, - all of which fly regularly to Srinagar, either directly from Delhi or via Jammu.  For the foreign tourist, the ease with which one can travel to Kashmir (even directly to and from Dubai) gives the appearance of the kind of normality, which the Indian government has been trying to promote, ever since the valley was rocked by a violent insurgency twenty years ago.  

 But is Kashmir back to normal? The answer is yes and no. Compared with the height of the insurgency, when militants were pitted daily against the military, with civilians killed in the crossfire and frequent ‘cordon and search’ operations, there is a distinct feeling of people going about their daily lives, much like in any crowded bustling city in South Asia.  Instead of wielding Kalashnikovs with pride, young men play cricket in the sunshine.  On one Sunday market day, rows of stalls were displaying   piles of t-shirts,  jeans, shoes, and I noticed young men, mobile phones in hand, idly searching through the piles of clothes, looking for the best bargain, like teenagers anywhere in the world: a powerful contrast with two decades previously, when  any young man out on the streets was regarded as a suspected militant, likely to be picked up, interrogated and later found dead. 

Young children walk to school, hand in hand, with satchels on their backs, laughing as they thread their way over Srinagar’s still imperfect streets. Shops eagerly display a range of wares from vegetables and fresh fruit, bolts of material ready to be made up into the traditional shalwar kameez for women, trousers and jackets for men. Copper pots, crockery, crates of coke and sprite, oriental carpets, embryonic furniture, ready to be completed according to the customer’s requirements, all deck the roadside. Three-wheeler rickshaws weave their way in and out of the crowded streets, honking to attract customers and bargain for fares.  Even the Broadway Hotel, burnt down during the insurgency, has turned into a luxury location.  Four years ago, the  management begged me to stay at the hotel, in preference to my houseboat, promising to match what I was paying.  When I said I preferred to remain on the houseboat, they still allowed me to use the swimming pool  upon payment of a small fee; now the swimming pool is for ‘residents only’ and no entreaty, nor  offer of reasonable payment could change what I was firmly told was ‘the management’s policy’. The Shalimar and Nishat Gardens are delightfully restored with gladioli and dahlias, their fountains playing, so that  the absence of the mighty chinar trees, cut down during the insurgency is less noticeable.

 Dal Lake may still be  dirty but nowadays instead of blaming it on neglect due to lack of tourists, there are serious plans being discussed to divert the sewage emanating from the   houseboats out of the lake. ‘The lake is not dirty due to neglect,’ I was told, ‘but because of the sewage which acts as an ideal fertilizer for weeds and plants.’  Nagin Lake looks positively sparkling thanks to the initiative of Manzoor Wangnoo, owner of the Gurhka chain of houseboats and founder of the Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation in 2000.  His particular concern has long been plastic bags which blight the landscape and pollute the lake, killing wildlife. ‘On 4 April we started a campaign “No to Polythene”– I thought only a few hundred people would come to support us, but they came in their thousands.’

And yes, there are still numerous houseboats   offering the idyllic restful holiday, with tourism this year considered to be ‘up by 65%’ . Another good sign is the number of weddings taking place – admittedly crammed into the month of August before the start of Ramadan. ‘Previously weddings were just family affairs and would stop at 4,’ said an excited guest, dressed in her colourful best, in order to attend a cousin’s wedding . ‘Now you will see, guests are called to come at 2, they arrive at 4 and the celebrations will go on until the early hours of the morning.’  And she was right. By nightfall,   the sound of traditional Kashmiri singing was still reverberating across the lake.

 Today, those who continue to  protest against Kashmir’s status as part of the Indian Union, arguing for their right of self-determination, are mainly doing  so  within the confines of their homes or  in newspapers and on the internet. Only incidents such as  the grant of land to the Shrine Board last year or  Shopian in May, when two young girls were raped and killed, their bodies found near the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)  base, will engender the sort of street protest and strikes which were the hallmark of the insurgency in the 1990s. And only those still implacably hostile to the Indian government’s continuing control of the state, such as 78 year old Syed Ali Shah Gilani, leader of one faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference or political activist, Nayeem Khan, are kept in jail, a powerful reminder that the Indian government is still keeping a close eye on political dissent in Kashmir.  Other APHC leaders move about relatively freely. During my visit, APHC leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq,  was in Delhi expecting the birth of a child. JKLF leader Yasin Malik was in Pakistan celebrating his marriage.

Compared with 20 years ago, official estimates are that there are no more than ‘500’ militants operating in Kashmir; and due to a growing realization that the overbearing Indian military presence on the streets only fuels alienation, this has been reduced in Srinagar at least. However, military bunkers ringed with barbed wire and bolstered by sandbags are still strategically located throughout the city and the state. On special occasions, or in anticipation of trouble, the  military presence can swiftly be increased, such as   on Indian Independence day, when, instead of celebrating India’s ‘freedom’ ,  a strike against Kashmir’s ‘occupation’ by India meant that all shops in the main cities were shut and people stayed at home.

And despite the comparative calm,  life in Kashmir can never be quite normal, while there is an unresolved political dispute, not only with a section of political and potentially militant activist Kashmiris but also with neighbouring Pakistan. No one now seriously believes there will be a  plebiscite to determine whether the  entire state  (including Muslim/Buddhist Ladakh, majority Hindu Jammu, and the predominantly Muslim  valley in  Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and the entirely Muslim Northern Areas and ‘Azad’ Pakistani Jammu and Kashmir) would be allocated either to India or Pakistan. But there has to be a dialogue to resolve the political impasse. Even Altaf Shah, Gilani’s son-in-law and spokesman,  admits that the hardline faction is prepared to look at alternatives to a plebiscite.  ‘We have put another option: a negotiated settlement between the three parties  - India, Pakistan and representatives of Kashmir.’  In the current climate,  with both India and Pakistan reluctant to part with any territory they control, the hardline activists, who are fighting for independence of the entire state – equating their actions to the movement  which began against the autocratic Maharaja, Hari Singh,   in 1931 – may have a long struggle ahead.  But, provided there is an open discussion at which all protagonists can air their grievances,  the relative peace, which now prevails in Kashmir, may yet be retained.


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