Promoting Kashmir

Promoting Kashmir

No matter how green its valleys, war-torn Kashmir would seem no place for tourists. But that isn't stopping India from trying to lure them back. Pankaj Mishra reports

In December 2001, the Indian government described a terrorist attack on the Parliament in New Delhi as "India's 9/11." In response, nearly a million soldiers were mobilized on either side of India's long border with Pakistan, adding to the 80,000 or so permanently stationed at the "line of control" between the Indian and Pakistani areas of Kashmir. India has long accused Pakistan of backing the 15-year-old insurgency in Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which is under Indian rule. It seemed that the two nuclear-armed neighbors would go to a third and potentially catastrophic war over the disputed state when, following another terrorist assault on civilians in May 2002, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the Indian military to prepare for a "final battle."

The United States and several other Western countries evacuated their embassies and instructed their citizens to leave the subcontinent. Newspaper headlines and editorials in the West made it seem as if the world's first nuclear exchange was imminent. Today, war in South Asia seems much less likely than it did just over a year ago. Despite sporadic violence in the disputed state, India and Pakistan have restored full diplomatic relations. (As part of its "war on terror," the U. S. strongly encouraged the two countries to put aside their differences and attempt to resolve the issue of Kashmir.) And though many Western nations have yet to withdraw their travel warnings, Kashmir no longer seems, as President Clinton billed it in early 2000, "the most dangerous place in the world." But the hard work for the tourist industry there is only beginning.

That work may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that the basic infrastructure for tourism—hotels and houseboats, including the five-star InterContinental Grand Palace; plenty of taxis; regular flights from Delhi—has survived more than a decade of violence. Efforts to promote tourism also have a powerful sponsor in the Indian government, which tried to encourage visitors to Kashmir (known officially as Jammu and Kashmir) even during India's recent military standoff with Pakistan.

In June 2002, the government announced that it was negotiating with a U.S.-based company to provide insurance coverage for all tourists to Kashmir. It spoke of further developing the Buddhist-majority region of Ladakh and attracting tourists to the Indus River, which the Hindu nationalists claim is the seed of Indian civilization. It offered special packages to Hindu pilgrims in the Hindu-majority region of Jammu. However, the government has found it harder to sell the Kashmir Valley as a tourist destination.

This is hardly surprising. By mid-1990, almost the entire Muslim population of the Valley had revolted against Indian rule. Large numbers of Muslims from Pakistanand even Afghanistan had joined what they called the "freedom struggle" in Kashmir. New militant groups kept announcing themselves with attacks on Indian security forces. The frequent massacres of civilians cleared the Valley of the handful of intrepid tourists who had shown up despite the travel warnings issued by American and European governments. In 1995, a new group called Al-Faran claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of six foreign tourists from Britain, Germany, Norway, and the U.S., who had gone missing on a trek (one American later escaped). Police eventually recovered the headless body of the Norwegian; the other four are still missing and are presumed dead.

Aziz Wani, the managing director of Kashmir's Tourism Development Corporation, told me he plans first to entice Indian tourists to Kashmir with package deals on flights and hotels, and only then will he focus on attracting foreigners. The chief minister of Kashmir, a veteran politician named Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, a popular human-rights activist, are also stressing this gradualist approach. When we met late last year in the Kashmiri ski-resort town of Gulmarg, they had just said good-bye to a group of travel agents and tour operators from New Delhi. "We are trying to be optimistic," Mehbooba Mufti said, smiling slightly.

It was much easier to be optimistic about Kashmir's tourist industry when I first visited the Valley, in the fall of 1987. If you had grown up on the oppressively warm, dusty, flat, and blindingly bright Indian plains, as I had, the bowl-shaped Valley of Kashmir could seem to offer all the marvels of the world: soft light, cool air, and a gentle landscape of lakes and mountains.

In the medieval capital of Srinagar, houseboats stood in a row along the main lakeside promenade, their garishly painted signboards—Miss Manhattan, English Beauty—promising exotic adventures. Outside the city, facing the broad expanse of Dal Lake, were the 17th-century terrace gardens created by Moghulemperors, where water ran through elaborately carved pavilions, and where on the peanut-littered grass young Kashmiri men and women sat on surreptitious dates, not kissing, touching, or even talking much, but simply happy to be together.

I didn't really notice the Kashmiris except to wonder at their exotically pale skin, long woolen cloaks, and the slight resentment they seemed to harbor toward Indian visitors. I didn't think much about them afterward. It was as if the shawl- and rug-sellers, the drivers of taxis and shikaras (gondolas), the countless touts, and the red-cheeked children standing outside huts with rose-laden mud roofs existed merely to frame my subsequent nostalgia for Kashmir.

Years passed before I could wonder at my political innocence. Just beyond the snowy hills of Gulmarg was Pakistan. India and Pakistan had fought two wars over Kashmir; Pakistan, which had come into being as a separate homeland for Indian Muslims during the partition of British India in 1947, had always claimed the Valley, which was part of the then independent kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, and largely Muslim. In 1948, Pakistan-backed invaders from the tribal areas near Afghanistan —later the birthplace of the Taliban—had reached as far as Gulmarg before being repelled by Indian security forces.

India managed to persuade and coerce Muslims, who account for up to 97 percent of the Valley's population, into accepting its rule. But it fulfilled only a few of the promises of autonomy it gave to Kashmiri Muslims at the time of partition in 1947, and instead controlled Kashmir even more tightly through a series of corrupt officials and rigged elections. It equipped Kashmir with little more than the infrastructure for tourism and the country's traditional economy of horticulture and handicrafts. By the eighties, a better-educated and more articulate generation of Muslims was chafing at the lack of democracy and economic development in the Valley.

In 1987, I had little inkling that I was visiting Kashmir in the last peaceful days it would know for 15 years. Political protests over a farcical election had erupted in the Valley earlier that year. Soon afterward, groups of angry young men started crossing the border into Pakistan to receive arms training in camps run by the Pakistani military. In 1989, Pakistan-backed militants began murdering and kidnapping Hindus and pro-India Kashmiris. Hundreds of thousands of men and women demonstrated in the streets of Srinagar, shouting "Azadi! Azadi!" ("Freedom! Freedom!").

The Indian government responded with a brutal crackdown, sending thousands of soldiers into the Valley; they are estimated to number between 300,000 and 750,000. Security forces arrested hundreds of young men suspected of being militants, torturing and sometimes killing them. Unprovoked firings on demonstrators cost hundreds of lives.

I returned to Kashmir in the spring of 2000, to report on the anti-India insurgency. By then, more than 30,000 people—militants, soldiers, and civilians—had died. I stayed at the InterContinental Grand Palace, a former residence of the Maharajah of Kashmir, overlooking Dal Lake, where I turned out to be the only guest. The man at the reception desk was unexpectedly cheerful when, on my first morning, I asked him about the situation. "Everything is fine today, sir," he said. "There is no problem at all; there is as much violence here as in any Indian city."

Less than a mile away, a bomb had exploded in a bazaar, killing 17 civilians. Machine guns poked out of almost every vehicle on the road. The houseboats on Dal Lake were empty, their jaunty signboards now sadly ironic. Army men had turned the hotels on the boulevards into bunkers. Srinagar was full of spectacularly ruined houses and new graveyards. Kashmiris appeared sullen and tense, and it was only in closed, unheated rooms that they poured out their rage and grief.

I left the hotel on the day I learned about the building next to it. Known as Papa 1, it had been one of the more dreaded interrogation centers, where, among other things, burning and dripping tires were hung over the backs of suspected militants. The screams of the prisoners, another journalist told me, often reached the hotel.

You couldn't think much about tourism then. But it is the first thing many people think about when the political situation seems to improve. When I returned to Kashmir late last year, two months after the elections that brought Sayeed and his daughter to power, the hotel and houseboat owners I spoke to in Srinagar seemed unusually hopeful for the new tourist season. Kashmiri Muslims spoke frankly of their weariness with the violent, decade-long insurgency, which had failed to bring them independence. On the morning I traveled to Gulmarg, the "security environment" certainly appeared to have improved. There were soldiers out in the bare fields, and, once, in the courtyard of a house, I saw them pointing their guns at a man squatting on the ground. But there were hardly any of the sandbagged checkpoints manned by trigger-happy soldiers that used to render journeys out of Srinagar extremely risky.

At Gulmarg, gloriously white in the sun, skiers, about 30 of them, were scattered on the slopes. In the Highlands Park Hotel, Gulmarg's finest, waiters in freshly ironed red uniforms bustled around with heavy trays. The chief minister and his daughter sat in the largest room, attended by bureaucrats in Nehru jackets, savoring, along with cheese omelettes and coffee, their new power.

The recently appointed tourism minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, explained energetically that he planned to build quickly upon the already existing infrastructure. In Gulmarg, the French-made gondola cable car was being extended—from an elevation of 10,200 feet to 14,000—to make it the highest in the world. The world-class golf course in Srinagar was ready to hold competitions. The golf course in Gulmarg (at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, supposedly the highest ever) was to be renovated. Bombay film producers, who had been forced to go to Switzerland to shoot scenes of men and women dancing around trees and lakes, would be lured back to Kashmir, a much cheaper option. As for winter sports, he told me, the skiers were already out on the slopes, as I could see for myself.

And then a series of clattering helicopters took away the chief minister and his entourage. The hotel emptied fast. In the silent restaurant, with its faded wallpaper and pictures, and a bizarre Christmas tree, I looked at the last brochure the hotel had printed, in 1987. An old white-haired waiter stood beside me and shyly pointed to a photo in the brochure. "That's me," he said. The picture showed a smartly uniformed young man pouring wine for a family sitting by a trout stream. I spoke to him for a while, trying not to stare; his face had aged quickly over the past 16 years, when, even though the hotel was empty and gunfire erupted occasionally in the nearby hills, he still had to show up each morning in his red jacket and polished shoes.

On the way back to Srinagar, I stopped by the road to watch the skiers. One of them separated himself from his group and trudged up to where I was standing. As he came closer, I noticed the AK-47 strapped onto his back. He introduced himself as Captain Gupta, asked me who I was, and warned me that I would be violating the Official Secrets Act if I wrote about the skiers and alerted the "enemy" to their presence. I hope Captain Gupta is not reading this as I reveal that the skiers I had taken for vacationers were cadets at the Indian Army-run High Altitude Warfare School, which occupies, as I discovered, a large and conspicuous building in Gulmarg and is well defended, in case the enemy is reading this, by machine-gun emplacements high in the hills around the resort town.

But that was in late December. Relations between India and Pakistan appear to have improved slightly since then. When I telephoned Mir from London in early June, he seemed very upbeat. "God has been gracious," he said. There had been a low moment immediately after a massacre of Hindus in March. But the statistics spoke for themselves. According to Wani, between January and May 2002, 4,889 Indian and 248 foreign tourists had visited Kashmir, whereas during the same period in 2003 there was a clear jump in the number of arrivals: 18,747 Indians and 481 foreigners.

The houseboats and hotels were full, Mir said. The film companies hadn't arrived, but ambassadors from nine countries participated in a golf tournament in Srinagar last month. However, Mir was concerned because the European and American governments had not altered their travel advisories for Kashmir. "You should come and see," he said, "there is no cause for worry"; and on that wet and dreary London morning I suddenly felt a pang of nostalgia for Kashmir.

"Militancy and violence are now a worldwide phenomenon," Mir was saying. "Why should Kashmir be singled out?" Why, indeed? I almost replied, suddenly full of a keen, hopeless wish that the "extremely positive trends" he spoke of would continue—perhaps even beyond the next massacre.

PANKAJ MISHRA is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure and is currently at work on a book about the Buddha.

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