The Year that was…

In the mid-eighties, Subhash Ghai shot his multi-starrer blockbuster Karma in the enchanting locales of Kashmir Valley. It was one of the first Bollywood films about cross-border terrorism. Back then, there was no terrorism in Kashmir and the political issue was in dormancy. Tourists poured in and Bollywood films were shot here almost on a daily basis. It was a natural part of growing up in Kashmir then, to spot any member of Bollywood’s first family, the Kapoors, by the poolside at the Broadways, a Poonam Dhillon or Tina Munim sipping coffee in the lawns of the Grand Palace, or Dharmendra and his newly launched son Sunny Deol strolling through the Pahalgam glades. Hordes of tourists, both domestic and foreign, could be spotted – Boulevard, the market areas of Residency Road or any hill resort even, when selling tourism packages was not big business and there were no travel advisories.

After the Al Faran kidnappings of six foreign hostages in 1995, UK, along with USA and some other European countries issued travel advisories warning its citizens against visiting Kashmir. United Kingdom has recently lifted its embargo on Kashmir and other countries are also likely to follow, which might dilute the image of Kashmir as a conflict ridden violent spot internationally. Infiltration levels have been sparingly low and militancy related violence has almost come to naught. Decreasing violence has correspondingly seen a steady increase in the number of tourists. Filmmakers have started beelining to the Valley after two decades. Imtiaz Ali shot Rockstarhere last winter. This summer, Kashmir hosted none other than King Khan, who shot for one of the most prestigious banners of the tinsel world – Yash Raj films. Top rated directors including Karan Johar are now eying Kashmir. And all this glamour has enabled the state government to begin marketing it with a new tag – normalcy. Bollywood starlets and tourists are talked about as the most visible indicators of peace and official figures reveal that the tourist numbers have almost doubled since last year. Over nine million tourists have visited Jammu and Kashmir this year, officials claim.

“The case of 10-year-old Faizan (which has received far wider media attention), brought handcuffed to court and charged with the crime of ‘waging a war against the state,’ is not the only one of its kind.” 

The picture is misleading. The impressive figures include a major chunk of over 6 lakh pilgrims to the seasonal Amarnath cave and over 7 million pilgrims to the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu, all year round . The rest includes tourists to Ladakh and other areas of the state. Yet, there is no dispute that the number of tourists to Kashmir has doubled up. But good tourism necessarily does not translate to peace, nor does it signify economic stability. If it did, Kashmir’s youth would never have picked up the gun in 1989.

There is much more to Kashmir’s economy than simply watching the graph of tourism which forms but a small component, there being a far greater dependence on sectors like horticulture, agriculture, animal husbandry and handicrafts. Even the impressive Amarnath figure is not something that locals would like to celebrate, since majority of pilgrims remain dependant on free langars and camps that bring little change to the landscape, economic or otherwise, other than contributing to the already vast environmental degradation.

On the face of it, the Valley has moved a long way from the stone wars and brutal killings of the summer of 2010 to this year’s crowd of tourists, frolicking in the Mughal gardens, enjoying shikara rides over the weedy Dal Lake or taking pony rides in Pahalgam and Gulmarg. But in a complex place like Kashmir, it would be naïve to conclude that such scenes depict peace and contentment.  The distress of Kashmiris does not just emanate from economic reasons, or even unemployment, to which the government pays only lip service. At a political level, it stems from a long pending dispute, the high scale of human rights abuse and gross injustices that remain unaddressed. Two decades of repression and torture with complete denial of mistakes and a near absence of a workable legal justice system, along with branding of victims and protestors as terrorists, remain at the core of the disillusionment.

Allegations of fake encounters are still not passé but what takes precedence are cases of random arrests of youth and teenagers, either detained under the draconian public safety act or framed in false cases. Boys as young as 9 have been picked up after being caught on camera during stone pelting protests on the street. The case of 10-year-old Faizan (which has received far wider media attention), brought handcuffed to court and charged with the crime of ‘waging a war against the state,’ is not the only one of its kind. Crackdowns, raids and whimsical arrests are the norm and crimes like facebook terror have been invented to legitimise such arrests. Separatist leaders continue to be arrested or placed under house arrest almost on a weekly basis, with hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani having spent the last two years virtually under house arrest. Any call for protest, political or otherwise, is sure to be responded with heavy restrictions, unannounced curfew imposition and brutal police action. Locals continue to brave unpredictable curfews, crackdowns, torture, fake encounters to raise their voice for human rights or basic amenities like paani, sadak, bijli. This summer, during Eid, two boys were arrested for wearing green shirts with a star and a crescent. The arrest was provoked by a complaint from a Hindutva activist, who claimed that green with a star and a crescent symbolised the Pakistan flag. Another teenager was arrested the same day for wearing what was deemed a Pakistani sports T-shirt, made in Ludhiana.

These are serious indicators of an abnormality. As far as the people of Kashmir are concerned, the government has simply been functioning with paranoia. The calm itself fails to mirror the deep, seething anger and the increasing cynicism of Kashmiris with peace, resolution process, democracy and development, even as individuals and groups continue to keep themselves involved with any minor activity that could improve their lives. The government does not need 3-D glasses to sense this. All it needs to do is ensure some level of engagement with the people, some in-depth interactions, and just listen to voices of dissent and anger pouring out on the streets. The much promised devolution of power has not come about in rural areas even 2 years after the Panchayat elections, projected by the government as a referendum and vote for India hegemony.

One may have heard of the proverbial ‘calm before the storm’. The warning signals are not too difficult to sight. Also, recent history is instructive of how tides of calm have been turned into active volcanoes because there was abject failure on part of the government, both central and state, to respond to the needs and aspirations of the people. What a distanced government remains blissfully oblivious of is that calm has come at a price – fatigue of repression, long wait for justice, especially the gruesome violence of 2010 with mounting bodies, mutilated limbs, lifeless young men battling for life in hospitals for months before they succumbed to their injuries. The calm is less a sign of optimism and more a symbol of complete physical and psychological distress, economic slump and absolute cluelessness. It may look like peace on the face of it, but as many Kashmiris often parrot, ‘It’s peace of the graveyard.’

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the Executive Editor Kashmir Times and is a peace activist involved in campaigns for justice for human rights violation victims in Kashmir as well as India-Pakistan friendship. She also writes stories for children and adults.

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