The Other Side of Blight


Record tourist footfalls this summer belie the grim reality of conflict, reports Vaibhav Vats


Fount of plenty Tourists from Gujarat and Maharashtra have voted with their feet to make this the busiest year since 1989
Fount of plenty Tourists from Gujarat and Maharashtra have voted with their feet to make this the busiest year since 1989

FOR THE past week, Srinagar has been a city of ghosts. The response to the turmoil in the state can be seen in the capital’s streets — day after day the streets lie deserted, in protest against the killings by the CRPF across the state. In Kashmir, this is a sequence that does not surprise — periods of uneasy calm culminate in a convulsion of violence and anger.

As the storm raged elsewhere, there was one street in Srinagar where the normal routine was not disrupted. The Boulevard facing the Dal Lake was like an oasis – its handicraft showrooms remained open, restaurants served meals and hotel lobbies bustled with the usual arrivals and departures. At the waterfront, scruffy, rugged men hyped up the merits of riding a shikara, hawkers negotiated bargains and the scene resembled a hill town anywhere in India.

Kashmir has recorded its highest tourist footfall this year since militancy broke out in 1989. Though figures have not been officially released since 2006, sources say that 5 lakh tourists had visited the region in the first six months.

Tourism has long been an industry insular to the larger story of Kashmir. On Monday, as protestors sought to march to Sopore, tourists in the Boulevard enjoyed a day of leisure, uninterrupted by crackdowns, firing and protests. Rajiv Patel, a 44-year-old diamond merchant from Surat, was on his first visit to Kashmir — residents of Gujarat and Maharashtra form the bulk of tourists in the Valley. Patel was ebullient. “I have enjoyed myself thoroughly and I wonder why I never came before,” he said.

Patel had stuck to the city’s tourist map — the Mughal Gardens, Pari Mahal, Botanical Gardens – and like most tourists, he saw a sanitised, manicured version of the place. Its recurring theme of conflict and pain was not on his horizon. He was blissfully unaware of the stone-pelting in the restive neighbourhood of Nowhatta in downtown Srinagar, barely two kilometres away, marshaled around by tourist guides who are careful about what their patrons see and what they do not. Officials in the J&K tourism department confirmed that tourists are largely kept away from downtown Srinagar, so that they do not find themselves “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

‘We keep telling tourists not all of us are militants,’ says Ahmed, a Dal Lake boatman

Like Patel, most tourists find the ubiquitous security forces a source of comfort and safety. Jawaharlal Gupta, a trader from New Delhi, says his fears evaporated when he saw men in uniform at every corner. “We trust the military — they are here at every step. I feel absolutely safe,” he said.

Most of those interviewed had never heard of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has caused much of the resentment against the Indian state. Instead, the tourists view the army as a paternal institution that provides protection — buses full of Gujarati tourists to Gulmarg and Pahalgam wave to the security forces as they pass by. This affinity puts them at odds with the ordinary Kashmiri, who views the military as a brutalising and oppressive force with a history of human rights violations. But men like Gupta view it with a complacent pragmatism. “Wherever there is trouble, these things happen,” he says.

A substantial number of tourists are Amarnath pilgrims, WRITER’S EMAIL: WRITER’S EMAIL: The political nature of the Kashmir issue is bigger than any Chief Minister of the state The Other Side of Blight Record tourist footfalls this summer belie the grim reality of conflict, reports Vaibhav Vats encouraged and funded by right-wing organisations, for whom the trip represents an assertion of India’s territorial supremacy. “Sometimes, they shout provocative slogans to create trouble,” said Ashfaq Iqbal, an auto driver in Srinagar. “A lot of times my vehicle was attacked by angry locals.” Many complain that despite the hospitality and service accorded by Kashmiris, the tourists still view them with a degree of suspicion and distrust. “A lot of times they accuse us of creating trouble,” says Sharif Ahmed, a boatman on the Dal Lake. “We keep saying not all of us are militants.”

A CONVERGENCE OF needs — the importance of the tourism industry to Kashmir’s economy and the demand for leisure from summer vacationers eager to flee the tropical heat — has led to increase in tourist inflow since 2007. Siraj Ahmed, president of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association, feels that with terrorist incidents in Delhi and Mumbai, tourists no longer view Kashmir in isolation. “Violence, unfortunately, is a part of modern life, and people no longer think Kashmir is any different,” said Ahmed, who claimed hotel occupancy had reached 80 percent this summer. There are now 15 daily flights to Srinagar.

After 20 years of conflict, Kashmir’s tourism industry is experiencing a rare spring. Yet, it would be a mistake to draw inferences of normalcy — tourism and Kashmir remain bedfellows of necessity, existing in divergent narratives. As tourists from all parts of India arrive to spend a languid weekend, they become an ironic metaphor for mainstream India’s distance from the ruin of Kashmir

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