Thursday, June 8, 2000

Tourists are pouring into Kashmir

 The rush at the airline counter at Delhi airport makes it almost impossible to believe that we are all undertaking a journey to "the most dangerous place on earth." "Are you not scared to travel to Kashmir?"
 I ask a group from Singapore, whose joi de vivre is scary, rather than infectious. A middle-aged woman seems intrigued: "Is there any trouble there?" Before I can conclude that these are victims of a devious travel agent, a younger woman, probably the daughter, interrupts: "We are dare devils! We will go anywhere!" 
There is no further opportunity to seek a detailed explanation from these adventurers, who are probably seeking an escape from Lee Kuan Yew's painfully boring paradise.
These dare devils are not alone. Flights to Srinagar are full, with about a thousand passengers, mostly tourists, arriving everyday. And they are visible almost everywhere in Srinagar, especially on the boulevard on the shores of the Dal Lake, despite the ubiquitous presence of gun-toting security personnel.
Many domestic tourists are arriving by road, ignorant of or impervious to the risks of landmines and improvised explosive devices, that recently killed an important minister of the state government near the national highway.
Some of them were visiting Vaishno Devi - a few hours away from the Kashmir Valley - which over the last decade has become one of the most popular Hindu shrines, and were lured by drivers in Tata Sumos, who have special arrangements with houseboats on the Dal and Nageen lakes.
"Get a taste of paradise, before it goes away. Only for Rs 500" is one catchy marketing slogan. And seven innocent tourists are herded into one Sumo.
But not all takers of the Tata Sumo package entirely buy the marketing strategy. "We came here because there is a BJP government at the Centre and L K Advani is Home Minister. We feel safe and completely secure," declared a group from Andhra Pradesh, as they walked down from the ancient Shankaracharya temple, with vermilion marks on their foreheads.
The tourist industry is cautiously optimistic. The umbrella separatist organization, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, has declared that tourists are welcome to visit the valley, and the state government's Tourism Department is offering a 30 per cent rebate to all visitors.
Yet, the caution remains. "The tourist season had picked up last year too, but then Kargil happened and the flights were stopped and the tourist traffic plummeted," pointed out one local businessman. Tourist operators feel this season will be the most decisive.
"If no major incident happens then the real tourists will come back next year."
The real tourists are, of course, the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans, with yens, marks and dollars to throw - or so is the nostalgic memory of the good old days.
The violence has not stopped. Not a day passes without at least half-a-dozen killings of militants, innocents or security personnel in the Valley. But the scale of random violence has gone down. The militants are choosing specific targets, usually politicians or security personnel, and the chances of innocents getting caught in the crossfire are far less than they were even a couple of years ago.
And although ordinary Kashmiris do complain of harassment at the hands of security forces, there is no doubt that the number of human rights violations, and especially custodial killings, has also not gone up - at least according to official statistics.
And yet there is a growing impression within Kashmir that a deliberate attempt is being made by vested interests to drive a wedge between different communities that had lived harmoniously for centuries together. They point out that the first casualty were the Kashmiri Pandits; select killings, rumors and a systematic campaign led to their exodus in the early 1990s.
Early this year, the massacre of Sikhs at Chattisinghpura had almost led to mass migration of this minority community from the Valley, but fortunately the Muslims reassured them successfully.And only recently, there was a bomb blast during a meeting Shia Muslims, in which at least a dozen people were killed and a prominent Shia leader was injured.
In Kashmir's deeply suspicious atmosphere, fingers are pointed everywhere, often with little evidence. And yet the truth remains that Kashmir's cultural ethos, that blended Sufi Islam, Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivite Hinduism into a composite identity, is in deep danger, and distrust between communities is at an all-time high.
Srinagar is buzzing after Home Minister L K Advani's offer of a dialogue with the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference. Most intellectuals, who spoke at a high-powered seminar in Srinagar, felt that the dialogue should be unconditional (Advani had made his offer conditional on the Hurriyat accepting the talks within the framework of the Indian Constitution), but accepted that "tripartite talks" between India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris (as the Hurriyat has demanded) were fanciful.
Expectations are high and almost every Kashmiri is hoping that a way could be quickly found to ensure permanent peace after all these years of deep turmoil.
Intellectuals, academics and other members of civil society, who had earlier locked themselves in a shell, are today coming out and speaking for themselves. This is a healthy sign, and it does mean that the silent majority can no longer be ignored.
But what about Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah? Even as the high-powered seminar was going on, virtually next door, Abdullah was playing his 18 rounds of golf, unconcerned, but watched by almost a convoy of security forces.
He knows very well that until the separatists really come round to making a deal with the Centre, still a remote possibility, he can continue being the Emperor of Kashmir, with his fleet of aircraft, his satellite phones and his security entourage. 


1 comment:

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