A Deceptive Calm In Kashmir

A Deceptive Calm In Kashmir

8 June 2012
Hindu Business Line
K Giriprakash

New Delhi: Tourists can be seen in everywhere in the Kashmir Valley, especially in the State's showpiece city of Srinagar. So, can one spot CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) jawans all along the serpentine roads in the hills leading up to the city. Is peace back in the Valley? Unfortunately it doesn't seem so. CRPF jawans with machine guns surround the Dal Lake like beads of a necklace, giving an eerie feeling as you walk around in Srinagar. We are informed that they are there for our protection and hence we are safe. But are we? On May 29 this year, seven CRPF jawans were shot at by militants in the old city of Srinagar. Two militants on motorcycles attacked the jawans just as they were setting out for work from their headquarters. Their work was to make the tourists as well as the residents secure by guarding important places in the city. But to whom does one go for protection, when they continue to be the target of attacks? And, we are made to believe that militancy has come down in the Valley. The local government might even claim that these acts of violence are sporadic, but the fact is such incidents only raise the apprehension of tourists. Kashmir might be a beautiful place to visit, but when was the last time you went to a holiday destination with machine guns nearly thrust into your face? The recent episode involving CRPF jawans clearly shows that violence hasn't left the Valley yet. Such incidents still occur, though not as regularly as before, and you could just be next victim. Locals as well as tour operators still warn tourists not to travel at night. GHOST TOWNS It is a myth to believe that militants do not strike at tourists because that would harm the rozi-roti of the locals. They may not have targeted tourists directly, but militancy crippled the tourism industry in the Valley for several years; only now is it returning to a situation where the tourists, suckers that they are for marketing campaigns, are willing to take a chance to visit such places. Srinagar has about a million people residing in the city, but apart from those manning the makeshift houseboats and hawkers, you don't see many outside. There aren't any busy roads or markets. Small places that skirt the road leading up to Srinagar look like ghost towns. The road is flanked by several half-finished, empty houses. Some of the residents say that these houses were abandoned in a hurry when militancy was at its peak. As one enters Anantnag, which was once the hotbed of militancy, you can still spot several shops lining up the main road shut for God knows how long, which basically means that commerce has not really taken off. In Srinagar, the last time the famed Dal Lake was cleared of filth must have been ages ago and ironically, the houseboats which are the mainstay of tourism in Srinagar are also its biggest pollutants. It is pretty obvious that economy of the place continues to limp and it might take several years before one can see more business activity. EMPTY HOTELS If you visit any of the travel websites, you may be led to believe that Srinagar is full of tourists, as rooms are booked weeks in advance. Surprisingly, one can easily get a room, and at bargain prices, if one approaches a hotel directly on getting there. It is the same in places like Gulmarg and Pahalgam, the other two big holiday destinations in the Valley. Pahalgam does not attract as many tourists as Srinagar does even though it is more picturesque, and was once a favoured locale for several Hindi movies. It also happens to be the base camp for the Amarnath yatra and hence gets its usual quota of pilgrims during a particular time of the year. But local shopkeepers as well as vendors of shawls and scarves find it hard to sell their wares, and are happy to make do with whatever money they get. Those snow-clad mountains in Gulmarg are places to die for, but ask the local guide whether Pak Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is what lies beyond those peaks, and he will correct you by saying that it is ‘Azad Kashmir'. You don't want to pick up arguments in such circumstances, but come back somewhat convinced that the Valley may not be the right place to showcase your nationalist tendencies. It is clear that the trouble has not left the Valley. It lurks around, and you can sense as you go around, but the fact that tourists are slowly returning to perhaps one of the finest holiday destinations in the world should be a good enough omen. It will take a long time to heal the wounds caused by militancy, and there may be times when it might just seem as if the situation has taken a turn for the worse. But it is a fact that we have to live with. ‘Normalcy' in Kashmir will always be fraught with danger.